Summer Series: Sit-Down with Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell

Photo Courtesy of Jacqueline Cordova/Cyclone Fanatic

Editor’s Note: In the following transcription of the podcast, some quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity. Efforts were made to preserve the original meaning and intent of the speakers while enhancing readability and ensuring the main points are effectively conveyed.

Cyclone Fanatic publisher Chris Williams had a sit down interview with Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell for the new Summer Series. Together they do a deep dive into Iowa State Football.

Here is a transcript of the interview.

Chris Williams: How are you? How’s your summer going?

Matt Campbell: Yeah, you know, we’re at the early stages of it. A really exciting time. I think there’s just such a good energy around our coaching staff and this team. It’s just it’s an exciting time. Honestly, just like I said, I think the word is: energy. There’s a lot of really positive energy around it, everything that’s going on, and I think everybody hear is like, there’s an excitement. You’re sprinting to the office every day right now and that’s fun.

Williams: I’m really curious, because I know you’re such a football guy and you love coaching and the development aspect, what about all of this has kept you not just at Iowa State, but just even in this business? Throughout all of it?

Campbell: Well, I think we’re probably isolated. We’re probably an anomaly here a little bit; it’s just so different here. We couldn’t win that way anyway. And we’ve never been able to compete in the landscape of having more than others, whether it be facilities, money, or talent.

The reality has always been here: alignment and unification would be our guiding light to elite success. When we’ve been at our best over our eight years here, it’s been magical and really awesome to watch. At the end of the day, in football, you’ve still got to play the game. The ball is going to get snapped, there’s going to be 11 guys on both sides of the ball, and you’re going to have to play the game. Ultimately, the best team—still, the majority of the time, the team that can create the best team—can win the football game.

That’s probably been the greatest joy of being at Iowa State: you can build a team, you can build culture, you can build unity.

And, you know, I think it’s certainly been a challenging time over the course of the last couple of years as our environment around us has changed. I really never worry about it, or have worried about it so far, because I’ve never felt like it hasn’t allowed us to do our job and still be able to compete, be the team that we want to be, and build a team that we believe can compete for a championship.

As long as those things still allow us to be competitive and still be able to care for, love, and serve young people, then I really don’t worry about all the things that we can’t control outside of us.

There is a storm, there’s a lot going on, but I think you can get so lost in that. You lose the reality of what my job is. My job is to recruit 18 to 22-year-old young people to build a culture where those young people feel confident and safe to grow. And at the end of it be great developers of football players who go on the field and win football games.

Sometimes what happens is you can get so lost in all the things that can make you mad that it’s changing, you can be mad about this, you can get frustrated about that, but you can’t control any of those things. I just want to know: What are the rules? What are the rules of engagement? How do we make sure whatever those rules are, we’re working really hard to make sure we’re aligned for Iowa State’s best way to be successful?

The rules of the game of football haven’t changed; that’s still all the same. It’s just everything else around it. Anytime things are changing around you, it’s forcing you to grow too, and forcing us to grow as a university, as an athletic department, and certainly as a football program.

I think we have been able to, at least internally as a football program, really try to grow forward through all the things that have come our way over the last couple of years. We haven’t let it debilitate us but have only kind of fed back into building our own culture and our own program, not veering off the course of what we’ve stood for.

Williams: So I was gonna ask you, what’s the key? You know, in the future, let’s say the next 10 years to still win at Iowa State and just listening to what you just said there, it sounds pretty similar, right? I mean, don’t get off course, right?

Campbell: Yeah, don’t get off course. And obviously you got to stay competitive in whatever the environment continues to be around us to recruit, retain, and then develop the student athletes that you have. And, like I said, so far you couldn’t be prouder of our ability. I think it says a lot about the young men we’ve recruited on the front end, those guys have stayed in, they’ve stayed here. We’ve been fortunate because I’m sure a lot of guys who have stayed probably could have made a lot more money going other places, but have stayed with us, because I think they believe in the culture and what we maybe can’t equate in financial dollars right now. But we know, we can equate in long term vision and their success of doubling or tripling that financial value in the long run.

Williams: I haven’t been close to players like you have, but I’ve been around enough of them. At the end of the day, these guys want to play though, right? There’s still only so many roster spots to go around in your estimation. Like if there’s 1000 players, how many of them are just going to take the biggest check going forward compared to actually wanting that opportunity to show themselves on the field? Like, I think we may overplay the money a little bit.

Campbell: Yeah well, because I think at the end of the day, these are 18 to 22 year olds, and football is different than any other sport, right?

Like, in basketball, by the time you’re 16, 17, and 18, you’ve played AAU basketball. You can play five-on-five basketball starting really at six years old. Yeah. So, you kind of are fully developed by the time, or close to full development, by the time you’re 18 in that wheelhouse.

Where in football…football is such a developmental game. You know, in high school, the majority of times, you’re only guaranteed 10 games a season. In college football, you’re guaranteed 12 games. As much as you can go practice, you’re still growing and developing. Game development is still the greatest form of development of our sport that you can have. The reality is, our guys are still growing through their 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 year old time in their life. It’s such a developmental game and a developmental sport, that you’re exactly right, playing on the field still matters and is still critical to the future success.

If they’re not in the National Football League, they’re not paying again. That’s 32 teams for 50-some roster spots that they’re actually paying players to be on their team. They’re not paying for development. They’re paying for the finished product. They’re paying top dollar for the finished product.

And so, what still matters between 18 and 22 years old is: where can I grow, get on the field, develop, and become my best? Where do I have a chance to play but also have a chance to get better, grow, and develop as a football player? And, you know, it can’t just be football. We’re getting these young men, and they’re in such a critical time in their lives where they’re growing as men too.

So I do think Chris, what you’re saying is playing time, getting on the field, having the ability to grow and develop is so critical in our sport. Our sport is so different. That’s really the key piece of it, it’s a man’s game. I mean, it’s a game where you are growing to be a 20, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26-year old man to play professionally in this sport.

Williams: The other thing with football, at least your program, is it feels a little bit like throwback college athletics for me because I grew up in an era where, we watched Fred Hoiberg as a freshman and then we watched him as a senior. Women’s basketball still has a little bit of that, although the portal is starting to kill that sport as far as the watching them come in at 18 and watching them leave at 22 years old. I think it endears fans to it too. A guy like Jaylin Noel is a perfect example. I had to be reminded the other night that he was on that 2021 team. I didn’t even remember that he played on that. But, he’s been around here for a long time. I like that aspect of what you’re doing.

Campbell: Well, that’s why I coach and you go back to your initial question, ‘what do you love about why you’re still here, why you’re still going?’ I mean, to me, the greatest joy that I still get is I’ve been at one place long enough to where you see guys starting to bring their families back here.

You see players coming back here that were foundational building blocks of the success we’ve had, and some of the opportunities that our guys now are getting the opportunity to have. Where do you get that anymore? I got that growing up at a high school program and a college program. We’re losing the fabric of team and culture and identity. I feel like we haven’t lost our way, we still have some powerful things here that have allowed us to endear a family and parents that say, ‘Hey, I want my young man to go somewhere, where there is some of these cultural residuals, there’s some of these opportunities where I know, my young man can go there and grow as a football player.’ And man, there’s former players that are back around that program and there’s guys that are now having success that are pouring back into the program. It’s not just the head coach, but it’s everybody involved. I think we’re really fortunate that what we have, has helped us, be able to keep key players here for four or five years, it’s always going to be critical to our success.

If we ever get to a place where we’re not that, I don’t know if you can have success here at Iowa State. I don’t know if you can sustain long term success in terms of one year. And you know, I just don’t think that’s the way that it will ever be able to be successful here. Because, again, financially, we’re not going to get into that marketplace and ever be the top better. What we’re going to have to do is: continue to pour into recruiting the right people on the front end, doing a great job of identifying talent, being elite at retention, and creating a culture of those (traits). We’ve done that with our facilities and we’ve been able to do that with how we feed our kids and how we train our guys. I think the city of Ames, our fan base, it’s different, you have to almost be called here. But if you love it, there’s such a great experience available to you. Then the last piece of it is the development. Can you develop these players that are coming in here? Can you develop them to be some of the best players at their position? I would hope nine years later, the fact is, ‘hey, listen, you want to play quarterback, here’s a pathway we’ve been, we can show you what that looks like to play elite at the quarterback position. We can show you a pathway of what it takes to be an elite tailback. We can show you what a pathway looks like to be an elite wide receiver, an elite tight end, an elite defensive lineman, a linebacker, a safety and a corner. Because, they’ve lived here. They’ve had those experiences and they’ve been developed within the program. You’re not just hoping that it can happen. There’s an actual pathway of how it can happen.

Williams: Do you think that the retention part, I know how much emphasis you all put on it, is that the equalizer? Because, you pull up the internet, it’s the portal rankings, here’s who did the best in the portal, you know? Whatever school got 12. To me, that would be difficult. If from a coaching standpoint, from chemistry, you just don’t really know, right? It reminds me of the JUCO market back in the 2000s where people when I was working at Scout, everybody wanted to know what JUCO you’re bringing in right in February, and like those guys hit sometimes, but not nearly as often is the guy who’s coming from his sophomore to his junior year, like do you see that as your equalizer in the new world?

Campbell: Oh, I think it has to be. And again, that’s not to say, we won’t occasionally find a really talented transfer here or find a guy that we recruited along the way. Jalen Travis is a great story for us coming into this fall. He’s a kid that we recruited out of high school, he decides to go to Princeton, man, he has four years at Princeton, he gets he’s number one in his class at Princeton, and then all of a sudden, he’s an NFL prospect and he wants to come back home and he hit it off with us on the front end of it and so there’s a transfer that makes sense, right? That makes sense. But for us, the majority of our players in our roster, it has to come that way because we can’t become a team that’s banking on how did your free agency go this past year? Did you get the right free agents? If that’s what we’re depending on, I think it’d be hard for us to have long term success. I think we have to be homegrown, we have to do a great job on the front end. Like you said, the secret sauce for us has got to be to able to retain those student athletes within our program.

Williams: Alright, so let’s look at the new Big 12. I love the continuity aspect of your program. Just from a staffing standpoint, his league what, how is it different now? From say, five to six years ago? Where does Iowa State stack up in this new league going forward in the next five to 10 years?

Campbell: I think the biggest difference is when you take Oklahoma and Texas out and believe me, you have a lot of respect for both of those programs, they’re going to live a different way of building a football program than we are. From a talent acquisition standpoint, they were always going to have the elite in terms of talent acquisition. But I think, again, even we were able to prove that along the way, talent acquisition in a 60-minute football game are two different animals. And now, I think the way talent acquisition maybe goes across the board and in the new Big 12 is everybody’s probably on a very similar basis.

Williams: I would agree.

Campbell: I think, you know, when that happens, now again, how you build your team, how you build your culture, how you what the sustainability looks like, how your coaching game is – all those things now are probably the deciding factors rather than talent acquisition. And so, you know, I think when you look at it, I think it’s proven to be even whether Texas and Oklahoma were in or not top the bottom, you know, the last two to three years, this has been a, ‘you better show up and you better bring your A-game and if you don’t play football, you’re gonna get yourself beat, no matter who you’re playing, no matter what it looked like.’ And I think it only enhances that way. So I think from a viewership a competitiveness, you know, you’re in a really fascinating time. When I got in to the league, you know, I remember sitting at that first meeting, and, you know, you got Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, and Art Briles at Baylor.”

Williams: That feels like an eternity ago, man, Art Briles.

Campbell: “It does. You know you’ve got all those guys sitting there, and the top end of it was elite. And the top end of it of, you know, Gary Patterson and what TCU was doing, and, and certainly for us and Iowa State, you were thinking like, ‘Holy smokes, how are we even going to have an opportunity to compete with these teams and these players?’ And I think what we’ve been able to do is find our pathway, who are we? How are we going to say sustained success at Iowa State? How are we going to push ourselves to get to November and play for championships here at Iowa State Football – we’ve figured that out. And we’ve proven that. And I think that’s the thing that’s really exciting. And yet, the reality of it is top to bottom, I think you got a lot of teams that have a great identity, they know who they are, they know what they’re about. There’s really good football across the board in this in this conference right now. And so I think, yes, we know who we are. And I think yes, we feel very confident about what we’re about. But I think you’d look at you look across the board, and there are very few teams in this conference that don’t know who they are or what they’re trying to do. So I think it makes for a really exciting conference.”

Williams: You guys have spent a lot of time in Utah lately on the recruiting trail? You’ve spent a ton of time in Arizona over the years. How does that impact these West Coast schools? Like? Do you spend more time there? I’m really curious, just across the board, how much recruiting is going to be changed with that? Not only that, but then the whole salary cap thing, and, and everything in general.

Campbell: “And I think to sit here today and have an educated answer on exactly how recruiting is going to change, it would be hard. I still think the reality though Chris, comes to how well can you do in your six-hour radius? Because I still think your ability to recruit around your campus is so critical to your success. I think it’s I think sometimes the you know, a young person having a, you know, growing up understanding your program, understanding who you are willing to work through hard times in the in stay the course in a program. I think that’s still all matters.

And not to say that you can’t, you know, expand your recruiting basis. And believe me, we have I think we’re willing, we’re always going to go national in some areas of our football team to try to find the right fit or the right player for our team. But I also think the reality of if you look at our core foundation, it hasn’t changed through NIL or any of these other things. If you look at our recruiting, I’d still say you know 65 to 75% of our team has built in a six-hour radius around Iowa State and I’ve always believed that and I don’t think that shifts. I don’t think that changes. But I do think it certainly, certainly opens up more eyes and other markets to your football program. And, you know, obviously playing out at BYU last year and, you know, being in Salt Lake City and now being out there a year you’re like, geez, man, there’s some good football out here. Yeah. And yeah, is this a great area for us, at least they know who Iowa State is and certainly knows about our football program. And, you know, Brock (Purdy’s) success in Arizona opened the pathway for us to be able to go down there. And, you know, now you got a kid like Dylan Lee here, who all of the sudden is the Gatorade Player of the Year and like, man, they are really special.”

Williams: I’m kind of obsessed with him.

Campbell: “He’s exciting. And I know, he had a good spring game and all this, but you go back and you look at Dylan’s background and his history, and it’s very similar to Brock, you know, kind of build a team and kind of was an anchor of a team that wasn’t a traditional powerhouse there and build them into a really successful program. But for us, you’re not gonna go sit there and get six kids out Arizona, but can you go get the right one or two guys and the right one or two guys in Utah. And, you know, this past year, you got the number one player out of Utah, the wide receiver (Dominic Overby) that’s coming in. And, you know, here’s a kid that just ran, you know, 10.5 in track and won the one the 100. And, you know, all of a sudden, now you get this big 6-foot-4 receiver that’s coming out of Utah, and probably wouldn’t have happened a year ago in this process. And so, you know, I again, I do, I think, anytime different pathways open to have viewership and eyes on your program, and can identify, and I think those are good things.”

Williams: What do you think the Big 12 needs to do other than winning? Because that’s obviously number one, but to be, you know, like a real behemoth in football, right? Like, because they always throw around, it’s a basketball league and all this stuff like going forward. The Big 12 got to focus a ton on football. I know it is, but what is the Big 12 need to do? In your opinion? If you had a, you know, if you had a call to the commissioner, what would you say?

Campbell: “Well, I think you hit the nail on the head. I mean, we’re just in a different time. Like, the obviously with what how the landscapes changing around us, football successes matter is in a matters big, I mean, it’s, it’s a frontline story to all the things that are changing athletically around us.

“And, you know, obviously, the monetization of college athletics, and certainly in the landscape of college football since the 1980s or the 1990s, when all of this changed, you know, it’s certainly the driving force around everything that’s going on around us. And so I just say, you’re right, like winning matters, and having success matters and sustaining sustainable success matters.

“And, you know, I certainly think in the Big 12, that’s what we’re gonna have to do and we’re gonna have to be able to, to not only win in our conference, but get into the College Football Playoff and, you know, show we can play and that’s the thing I think is so exciting. To even think of our own world, you know, of us and playing the Texas’s and the Oklahoma’s in the Oregon’s, and being in some of these big games over the last couple of years, I think we’ve proven like, you know, at least in our own right, that we can go play with these people and beat these people.

“And we’re gonna have to play great football to beat those people. But yeah, I think winning matters. And at the end of the day, you know, can you make sure that you’re not creating a student-athlete experience as well, that doesn’t match what everybody else, at least within the rules, is doing to match this the college student-athlete experience that, you know, a Big Ten school or SEC school is.

“Above and beyond some of those things, that what we can’t control? That’s not our responsibility, but the things that we can control within the guidelines of the rules. I think we’re going to have to do a really good job of committing to that because if not, then then I do think you’ll find a great divide in terms of, you know, winning at a high level in playoff atmospheres or championship atmospheres.

“But again, if you can within the guidelines of what the rules are, as long as we’re able to compete and certainly able to create a student-athlete experience that matches that then I think you know, man, you got great coaches I think you got some great programs in this Big 12 conference that have a chance to compete with anybody.

Williams: To the fans listening I’ll I believe coach and I are gonna do this and maybe July and I’ll do a lot more on the roster with him. I guess the last thing I have for you today we’re both pro wrestling fans. And but I was thinking about this as I was prepping to do this and these these wrestlers or maybe use a musician right like they all have like different phases of their career. Like Hulk Hogan was the you know, the ultimate good guy and then turned heel on us and then under the rock he was corporate guy and then he was the people’s champ whatever it feels like to me that last year was almost like a different chapter, the Campbell era in my mind you correct me if you think I’m wrong, but It was like, Okay, this this down this year didn’t make a bowl game. And then he kind of come out of nowhere with the with the whole gambling thing that was just a distraction to outsiders and we used all summer and you guys surprise a lot of people when seven games have this great season and now you go into this year where I think on paper, I could make an argument that it’s as good of a what I penciled in your starting lineup as you’ve had maybe not high end? Because we’ll see, I hope Abu Sama’s the next Breece Hall right, but without hindsight though, I don’t know that. But it just seems like we’re going into this, like new era with you and that you’ve been able to ride the wave. A lot of coaches can’t do that. What has been the key to get into this new spot where you guys have such high expectations?

Campbell: “Yeah, you know, I would say this, we, you know, I’ve chuckled with our staff and our kids at times, and I’m in I would probably say this about myself, as you know, we’ve always been worthy to suffer. And, and I and what I mean by that is, we’ve had enough humility, me, us, we, that when we’ve gone through adversity and hard, that we’ve had the ability to self reflect and figure out how do we grow from this and be better from it and not make the same mistakes twice? And, you know, obviously, I feel like we’ve we’ve gone through that. And, you know, this is, you know, we’ve had the ability to not lose who we want to be and what what the foundations have been about building our football program, and yet continue to grow with it. And, you know, I, we’ve said this a little bit even coming into this journey, you know, I think, when we got here, you know, it was it was, Can you can you, can you really earn the right to believe that you can win here? It was just like trying to create belief that we can win. And, and we found a way to do that. And then it was the next phase was, you know, and I think as we did that, you know, along the way, people kind of laughed at you and kind of, you know, it was kind of a little bit of a joke, and then, you know, and then the next phase of can you sustain success?”

Williams: Which is the hardest part, right?

Campbell: “Right, and we proved that and, and then, you know, we kind of went to that phase of like, Man, can you now understand that? Yeah, they kind of respect you, but now they’re going to try to kill you. And now they’re going to fight you every step of the way. And we kind of got into that, but we weren’t ready for it. And I you know, I would probably blame myself on that a little bit. And, you know, I think, again, at Iowa State, I mean, you’ve talked about this is with our football program, there, you have to go through it all the first time. But then you better learn from it, and you better grow from it.

And, you know, I think what last year created was, you know, and ‘they’ is a multitude of different things. This is not a pinpointing on anybody. That’s just whether it’s the teams that are that you’re playing, no matter what it is. And, you know, we kind of got into this phase after 22 of, man, some really hard self evaluation and reevaluation. And, you know, we didn’t really change a whole lot, we just realigned ourselves to the value of who we are and what we have stood for here.

And, you know, I remember somebody wrote an article and one of our players had showed it to me about, you know, the going into last season is the culture of Iowa State football is crumbling, or whatever it was, whatever – chuckled at it. And the reality was, I’ve always believed that when it’s gotten really hard here, and adversity has hit, you’re kind of defined by your culture and who you are.

And, you know, I think internally, we knew, number one, we were the most aligned, we had been in a long time, we kind of knew who we were after seven years of the team. And yes, man, there was chaos going on around us. But I think internally, we were like, man, ‘we gotta- we have one of the most talented groups we’ve ever had. We’re just really young and we lack experience.’

And, you know, it was almost like, it was almost like watching us go through those early stages, which we knew we were going to have happen, and then watch this team start to take off. It’s almost like, you know, you’re going into the third piece of it, because as I told our kids, when we are willing to want to kill and fight back, then we will win. And powerful things are going to happen. And we’re kind of I think, starting to understand some of those things.

And I think as a staff and players and, you know, I think one of the really neat things about last year was, you know, the most adversity probably that we’ve ever had, and any group of players that I’ve ever dealt with, in the amount of young people that were forced to respond to that adversity and how they did it, it was really rewarding and probably one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had as a coach.”

Williams: One of my favorite seasons I’ve ever for sure been around.

Campbell: “For sure, and I think what it did for us is it, like I said, not only if we sprinted back here in the summer, I mean – even from January on, you know, in probably the most poetic way of, you know, disappointing, you know, didn’t play our best in the bowl game, you lose the bowl game, but almost like, almost the right recipe for this team to come back in January and say, here’s where we are. Here’s what it is. And here’s where we need to go. And is everybody willing to go there? Because these are the things we can actually put into reality, what’s happening and where we’re trying to go.

And it’s been so fun to watch these, these guys rally together as one and in really have a great offseason. You’re right, it’s an exciting time. Because I think not only do we, it’s not make believe you got guys that you’ve saw have success, but they have had success in they’re a group that they know who they are, and they know what they stand for. And the character and I mean, I know, you know, sometimes everybody lives like but you know, even look at the academics. And that’s a that’s a small thing. But you’re, you’re talking 100 and, you know, 109 guys with over a 3.0 GPA, a team GPA of 335. And in a cumulative GPA. I mean, it’s a smart committed football team and that that’s committed to excellence in everything they do.”

Williams: Isn’t that contagious, though?

Campbell: “Yeah, isn’t it life, Chris, right? Like, and I know, I’ve said this forever, like, how you do anything is how you do everything. Yeah. And it’s like, we know that. I mean, I think I feel like I almost catch myself saying that to myself. And man, how I eat I take care of myself, do I get up early? Do I am I willing to stay the course of my own process? Like we’re all continuing to try to do that, as parents, I think we’re trying to teach our young adult children that right. And it’s no different than what you’re teaching 18-to-22 year old, young young men that are trying to do something profoundly incredible.

And so yeah, I think all those things still matter. And unfortunately, sometimes we get we’re in a world where it’s so transactional, that we want to, man, we want to make it about this, or we want to make it about that. But like, not in college football, because you’re still going to school, you’re still taking classes, you’re still being defined by who you become through your journey between 18 and 22 years old. And, man, what happens in your four to five years as a college student athlete are still going to define the next 40 to 50 years of your life, that type of life you live, who you marry, what kind of success you have, how what kind of father and husband you become, it still is defining that. And yet we get lost in this world of the mirage of $22 million here, and all this NIL stuff here and all this. And it’s easy to get lost. It’s easy to get lost down the road.

But I think what we’ve tried to do is really kind of zero thinks back into what’s going on presently and the opportunity to become your best. And, you know, we’re really fortunate to have great kids right now.”

Williams: Well, I appreciate the time, because like I said, I think even in my position we can get lost and all the crap. And it’s eye opening and it’s good for the audience to to hear talk like this. Talk about actual football in the summer. And it it just it feels like COVID on it’s just been nonstop, with just crap. Well, and I’m really excited for this summer because I think we’re gonna be able to talk a lot of football.

Campbell: “Well, we look forward to it. And again, my gratefulness is to you, Chris, you’ve always covered us. And I’ve said this for forever. I mean, our alignment from you know, our fan base – it’s what’s special about Iowa State is if you are going to do something really special, everybody’s got to be pulling in the same direction. And, you know, from day one, you’ve always done that for us and I’m grateful and to our fans and our supporters – we’re really grateful. We look forward to making everybody really proud of this football team this fall.”

Full video interview: