CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa State is a football school.
Have you ever read that sentence before? I admit, it felt strange typing it.
I’ve been to a lot of the spring get-togethers Iowa State has held for its fans in Cedar Rapids. Never have I seen the football coach be the sun and everyone else in the program including the men’s basketball coach be planets in his orbit.
Dating to program-builder Johnny Orr in the 1980s and brought to high, happy levels this decade by Fred Hoiberg, men’s basketball has typically been Cyclone athletics’ meal ticket when it came to warming fans’ hearts.
But ISU’s annual Tailgate Tour stop here was Tuesday evening, and you couldn’t miss this in the packed ballroom of the Cedar Rapids Marriott:
Head football coach Matt Campbell was in the front of the room with a Sharpie. The line of fans who waited patiently to get Campbell’s autograph on posters and clothing items stretched all the way to the back of the room and out the door.
We’re talking several dozen people in a slow-moving line, determined to put in their time for a few moments of meeting and greeting the coach of the team that beat top-five teams Oklahoma and TCU last year and knocked off home team Memphis in the Liberty Bowl.
“You’re doing an awesome job,” one woman told him. It wasn’t the only time he heard that this night.
That’s what you get when your program has its first winning record and bowl triumph since 2009, and its first year with as many as eight victories since 2000.
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“I’m very happy with the direction,” 1997 Iowa State grad Mark Ganzeveld of Cedar Rapids said. “You can feel the momentum building.”
“They’re coming,” said Mike Rhinehart of Center Point, who has been going to ISU games for 40-some years. “I believe it.”
This, after an 8-5 season in Campbell’s second year at this job. What if — and it could have happened — the Cyclones had beaten Iowa ... and West Virginia ... and Oklahoma State ... and Kansas State? All four games were decided by one score, and the Iowa game went overtime. The most-galling of the defeats was at K-State, where Iowa Staters will forever claim Grand Theft Officiating.
But you don’t hear what-ifs from Campbell. He didn’t pick up the verbal roses he got here Tuesday, put them between his teeth, and dance on the platform he spoke from after the other coaches had all said their bits to the red-clad red-hots.
“We’ve had some small success,” Campbell said. “In Year 1, we learned to believe. Year 2, we learned how to win. Now we have to learn how to handle the small success.
“Our goal is to build a true football program, not just have a winning season. We can’t let ego get in the way. We have to learn from our failures and continue to grow.”
The 2017 Big 12 Coach of the Year remembers the losses more than the wins. Which is what you want from your coach if you’re a fan. Though, they would have cheered had he bragged about leading ISU to its first winning Big 12 record since 2000, how the Cyclones were 15th in the College Football Playoff rankings in late October, how they beat two top-five teams after the program had been 1-58 against teams ranked that high.
“Last year we won some games,” Campbell said, “and we lost some that were gut-wrenching. That taught us what it takes to win and to sustain success over a 12-game football season. They were great learning lessons for us, after every loss.
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ISU junior-to-be starting offensive tackle Bryce Meeker of Cedar Rapids Prairie was here with seven teammates from Cedar Rapids/Iowa City. He was asked the difference between the Cyclones of last spring and the team today.
“I think confidence and hard work,” Meeker said. “If we can repeat that this summer, we can be in the same spot as last year and have a good opportunity to be in the hunt in the Big 12.”
It was May, and no one in the ballroom spoke about their favorite college football team with a wince. Times have changed.
Meanwhile, ISU Athletic Director Jamie Pollard worked the room while wearing a white pullover. That it had a Liberty Bowl logo on it was no accident.
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