Making the right play


New Cyclone football coach Matt Campbell says Iowa State is his perfect match

A man doesn’t spend his 36th birthday being named a Big 12 head football coach because he marches to the same drum as everyone else. That kind of thing doesn’t happen because you’re someone who follows or who settles.

It happens when you’re Matt Campbell – raised by passionate educators, infatuated with the “ultimate team sport,” and confident in your values, instincts, and abilities. It happens when you’ve spent your career surrounded by great people in places that aspire to do great things.

Campbell’s alma mater, the University of Mount Union, is just such a place. Nestled in the northeastern Ohio town of Alliance, 32 miles from Campbell’s hometown of Massillon, the private liberal arts college is best known for one thing: winning Division III national football championships. In three years on the Mount Union football squad Campbell never lost a game, helping legendary coach Larry Kehres earn three of the Purple Raiders’ celebrated crowns. It was the experience of a lifetime for Campbell, who relished every moment.

The academic All-American learned a lot at Mount Union — most notably, perhaps, he learned about great people. Kehres inspired him to become a college football coach. Campbell forged strong relationships with his teammates, including Tom Manning – now his offensive coordinator – and Jason Candle, his former assistant who took over as head coach at Toledo this year. And he came to understand that the strength of any team lies in its people – not just those on the squad, but also those around it.

Campbell built a winning football program in four seasons at Toledo by building relationships, promoting coaches from within, and earning distinction as a top recruiter.

In the cold days after his Rockets narrowly lost a division championship last November, Campbell was at his desk with his head down, continuing to focus on building the Toledo program and largely ignoring the coaching carousel that swirled around him. It was his wife, Erica, who finally tapped him on his shoulder and pointed out that hey, major programs saw what he had done and were inquiring about his services. He at least owed them a response.

Campbell didn’t think he was interested, he says, until one job caught his eye: at a place that didn’t have 12 national championship trophies in its case but which he’d seen first-hand as a visiting coach and been awed by. He accepted an interview and quickly fell deeper in love with the idea of coaching at Iowa State University. On Nov. 29, 2015, the job was officially his – and he hasn’t looked back.

“You win with people,” Campbell says, looking out over a sunlit Jack Trice Stadium from his office in ISU’s Bergstrom Football Complex after six months on the job, “and you’re gonna win with people here. The loyalty of this fan base has never dwindled; it’s what
motivates you to come here and not let those people down. What makes this program really unique and different is that it’s not just us, it’s everybody’s team. It’s our job to represent that day in and day out, week in and week out, as we continue to build.”

Embracing Iowa State’s past is, for Campbell, paramount. In a program that – like him – has never been about “I,” he knows cultivating relationships is the key to building the future. One of the first things Campbell did at Iowa State was place what he thought might be a quick, 10-minute phone call to Dan McCarney (L), a 2016 ISU Hall-of-Fame inductee who guided the Cyclones to new heights between 1995-2006.

“It was an hour and a half conversation,” Campbell remembers. “I hung up the phone being so glad I made the call. His energy and his pride reenergized me to say ‘I made the right decision coming here.’ He’s got the same vision and pride, to this day.”

Those are the kinds of people Campbell wants to be around. He loved his time at Toledo, but admits it was disappointing to see only 5,000 fans cheering his team in the rain as it contended for a division title last year. That’s the kind of thing, he says, that would never happen at Iowa State. And it’s something he’s not sure the Cyclone faithful realize is so special about them.

“Going on the Cyclone Tailgate Tour this summer and meeting people and realizing that there are people who drive three hours to a basketball game on a Tuesday night, drive three hours back, and go to work the next day? That just doesn’t happen in probably 99 percent of the places across the country,” Campbell says. “That’s unique, that’s different. That’s a community you want to give back to.”

As he begins his first season at the helm of the Cyclone program, Campbell’s confidence has already infected top recruits from across the country. ISU’s 2017 recruiting class is rated higher than any before it.

“Getting parents and players on our campus and seeing the academic support services we have here – and the majors like engineering and business, those are big game-changers for us,” says Campbell, who says high academic standards are a pillar of the culture he wants to create in any football program he leads. “I think the culture on our campus is great, and it’s our job to create that matching culture within the walls of the football program to the point where student-athletes come in here and say, ‘Wow, they’ve got something special going on here. I want to be a part of that.’”

Campbell’s coaching philosophy is grounded in his belief in the importance of education. As a player, he says he saw people waste their college opportunity. He doesn’t want that to happen to the young men he coaches. And he won’t compromise on his values or his expectations; he’s not afraid to move on if a player doesn’t reciprocate his level of commitment – that isn’t a teaching moment, Campbell says, nor is it a recipe for winning football.

“It’s still about football, and winning football is really important,” Campbell says, “but it’s also about building young men and letting them leave your program as people who will someday be great leaders of society. It’s a lot bigger than just the game of football.”

And, Campbell says, young men who don’t compromise off the field won’t compromise on it, either.

“I’m not [necessarily] looking for a 4.0 student,” he says. “I’m looking for young men who value getting an education and are going to work as hard as they can to be as good as they can be. Those are the guys who, when it gets hard in a game or when it’s really cold late in the season, you can trust to stand up and make the right play.”


This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.

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