Here we go again.
The words came quickly to Cyclone running back Mike Warren’s head when he learned Paul Rhoads wouldn’t be back to coach him in 2016. The redshirt freshman and son of two Army officers had grown up in a perpetual state of transition, moving from North Carolina to Hawaii to Germany and everywhere in between, rarely staying in one place more than two years of his life. Iowa State, Warren thought, was a place that could stick. But now, after less than two seasons in Ames, he questioned if he’d truly found a home after all.
But then home found him.
“Do you remember me?” Matt Campbell asked Warren as the two shook hands on a warm September evening at Toledo’s Glass Bowl. Of course Warren remembered Campbell; he had wanted to join Campbell’s Toledo squad a few short years ago, but then chose to follow his position coach Lou Ayeni – the man who had recruited him – when Ayeni was offered a gig at Iowa State. With family living in Oklahoma and Texas and a chance to play in the Big 12 Conference, Warren knew he wanted to follow Ayeni to Ames. Ayeni believed in him and the two had already forged a tremendous bond. That was his guy; he had to stick with him. Iowa State was a great opportunity; he had to seize it.
But he really liked Matt Campbell; Campbell, he says, has great integrity, is selfless and family-oriented. Of course he couldn’t have forgotten the energetic, up-and-coming coach who had seen his potential and enthusiastically offered a scholarship to the Army Brat from Lawton, Okla.
“It’s funny, because when I first started talking to Mike he didn’t want to talk to me,” Ayeni remembers. “He’s a quiet guy, but we had an instant connection because we both have similar mindsets of being very driven. We share a passion and a drive in a day and age when kids want everything given to them and nobody wants to work for anything anymore.”
Warren worked especially hard that night of Sept. 19, when he earned his first career start and rushed for 126 yards in the Glass Bowl, but his team lost in double overtime. Heartbreak. Frustration. Disappointment. The Cyclones had now lost two games in a row that they had been expected to win, and the season was instantly shrouded in negativity.
On the other side of the stadium, the fans stormed the field and enveloped in a sea of blue and gold the Rockets’ 35-year-old head coach. After earning his second-straight victory over a power conference team, Matt Campbell was about to become a household name in college football.
2015 was an up and down year for the Cyclone football team, ending with a major down that resulted in the emotional dismissal of Rhoads after seven seasons. But 2015 was a personal “up” for Warren, who came into the season with quiet expectations of playing time and ended it as the nation’s top freshman running back. He raced for 1,339 yards – the most ever by an ISU rookie – and was named Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, the Associated Press Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, and a first-team freshman All-American.
Off the field, Warren spent 2015 settling into a routine. He had made friends, had decided to major in kinesiology, had adopted a pretty mundane schedule of “study, football, sleep, repeat.” But he liked it. There was just something about Ames that, to him, felt like home.
What Warren never knew – what he couldn’t have known – was that while Iowa State was starting to feel more and more like home to him, it felt like home to someone else he knew: Matt Campbell. Campbell fell in love with Iowa State the year before, when the Rockets came to Ames to play in ISU’s Homecoming game. That day in October 2014, Iowa State got silently scrawled onto the list of dream jobs in Campbell’s head.
So when Campbell seized the opportunity to take his dream job on Nov. 28 and announced he would retain Ayeni as an assistant, Warren breathed a deep sigh of relief.
“It’s almost,” Warren says, “like it was meant to be.”
Michael Warren was born to Curtis and Barbara Warren on the very first day of 1996, the year Cyclone Troy Davis would end up rushing for 2,185 yards and finish second on the Heisman Trophy ballot. Twenty years later, Warren’s eyes light up as he talks about Davis, fresh off the news that the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
“I’ve watched almost all of his highlight tapes,” Warren says. “He’s a really special player. He had the will and the want – he wanted to be great, and he never gave up.”
Knowing ISU has that history of success running the football and that Campbell is eager to embrace it, Warren admits he’s given a thought or two to the idea of reaching the big 2K.
“You can’t set the bar too low,” he says, smiling. “You’ve got to make your goal almost intangible so that you’ll work harder to reach for it. Coach Ayeni always says to always be better than you were the day before, and I’m determined to do that.”
“Mike’s got great vision,” Ayeni says. “He’s fast enough to run around you and tough enough to run through you. The thing about Mike is that he wants to be a great player, and that makes it fun for me; it makes it fun to coach him.
“Running the ball, Mike’s a natural. I’ve told him that he’s gotta put that armor on him – he’s gotta live in that weight room this summer. If he can improve as a blocker and improve in the pass game, he’ll go from good to great.”
Warren knows his outstanding freshman season helped put Ames on the map, but also put a target on his back. He will use this offseason to bulk up; he wants to spend less time soaking in the cold tub after games, and he knows he needs to be harder to bring down this season.
On the field, that is. Off the field, there’s no bringing Warren down now.
He’s happy to be home.
— Kate Bruns