MEMPHIS, Tenn. — They swam. They fished. They gave instead of taking.
The bucolic backdrop — Wildwood Hills Ranch in Madison County — framed a two-day retreat in service of at-risk youth that moved Iowa State’s football team forward last summer.
Few cared to forecast what would come in terms of on-the-field results in the fall because power pulsed through every moment.
Humility reigned. Ego dissolved. And the Cyclones emerged fully unified after a thorny offseason that shook up the starting lineup while strengthening the players’ deep commitment to each other.
“That was kind of my first time ever doing something like that,” said linebacker Gerry Vaughn, one of a handful of senior leaders who helped a young ISU team revive and record its sixth winning season since 2016 in advance of Friday’s 2:30 p.m. AutoZone Liberty Bowl matchup with Memphis. “I thought it was very unique. I think it allowed us to be very vulnerable with each other and open up to each other. To kind of learn each other in a different way than, like, a student or an athlete. That was one way to understand each other and grow, and in those tough moments, know where that person is coming from.”
ISU (7-5) is coming off a 4-8 season in which it lost six games by seven or fewer points. The Cyclones’ collective bond frayed at times during that disappointing span and that prompted head coach Matt Campbell to ensure his program’s long-touted “culture” was fully shored up in the offseason. Hence the retreat, which turned into an advance.
“The beginning mission of that was to serve other people,” said Campbell, whose teashops to beat Memphis (9-3) on its home turf for the second time during his tenure. “The ability for our guys to be with each other (and) serve others was really awesome. I think where we did it was really powerful and I thought that was a real benefit to everybody there.”
Campbell said the event’s speaker, Steve Jones, the author of “The Twin Thieves: How Great Leaders Build Great Teams,” served as “the icing on the cake.”
“Sometimes you don’t know what you’re gonna get with a speaker and a book, but I just feel the message was (at) the right time,” Campbell said. “And the message that we were able to carry with us every step of the way of how do you handle success and failure, and then the fear of failure, (with) so many young guys, it felt like after that Ohio (loss early in the season), we used so much of the lessons learned to kind of retrace our steps back and say, ‘Where are we gonna go with this thing?’ We talked about those things and I think we constantly kept bringing ourselves back to lessons learned on that retreat and we’ve carried that forward with us.”
On paper — and in Las Vegas — the Cyclones are 10.5-point favorites to beat the Tigers on Friday. In practice, ISU knows it will need solid efforts from everyone — starting with redshirt freshman quarterback Rocco Becht — to forge the fourth season filled with eight wins or more since Campbell took over the program in 2016. Campbell often says “nothing comes easy” for the Cyclones’ program and Friday’s game presents his team with another crucible to affirm that fact.
“I think at some point we’ll be able sit back and reflect on this season and I think what’s been done has been nothing short of incredible,” Campbell said. “The guys that have stood up and played meaningful snaps and the stories that I think will come out of this season — and there (are) gonna be some guys who will be in that same boat (Friday). The ability to be ready for when their number was called, I just think that, to me, has been what’s remarkable about this season.”
One last test remains in 2023. And it’s one of college football’s most venerable bowl games. That visit to Wildwood Hills Ranch now seems long ago, but the experience lingers, linking past progress to the present and future of ISU’s program.
“I think everyone around this team loves giving more than they love taking,” junior safety Beau Freyler said. “Also, from a team bonding perspective, it was a great experience. It was right before fall camp, so we all got to hang out, get close to each other and do some group connection things. It was a great time.”