| Des Moines Register
AMES, Ia. — Go ahead, Iowa State fans. Raise the roof. Celebrate as much as social distancing allows.
Let your phone messages and calls blow up.
Hail to the Cyclones.
Saturday’s 42-6 victory against West Virginia to seal the best regular-season record in the Big 12 Conference was the significant occurrence for Iowa State football since …
… Well, it’s the best ever, unless you want to retroactively count the November 2015 day Matt Campbell said yes to athletics director Jamie Pollard.
Let this sink in: Over a full conference regular season, Iowa State was the Big 12’s best.
Never has an Iowa State football team finished atop the final non-division standings. Never. The 1912 Missouri Valley Conference title about which people talk was shared with Nebraska.
What happened Saturday, and during the most courageous season any Iowa State football player will experience, was something not many fans thought could happen.
The cherry on top unfolded on a football-perfect Saturday in Ames, where about 13,000 ticketed fans saw Iowa State score 21 first-half points; saw culture-changing seniors honored before the game; and saw a spot in the Big 12 championship game get mathematically clinched early in the first quarter.
So, take that, the majority of you who didn’t give this day a prayer.
Something like this just doesn’t happen at Iowa State.
That was the chatter Campbell defied when leaving his comfortable life in Toledo, Ohio. Not with Texas and Oklahoma on top of the conference each season, moneybags bursting at the seams. Not in a league that offers no occasional respite from traditional powers.
It’s never happening at Iowa State, right?
In the Big 12, everyone plays everyone. There’s no escaping the Longhorns or the Sooners, both of whom Iowa State defeated this season. Unlike the other Power Five conferences, there’s no scheduling rotation, so to finish this part of this most unusual football season ever with eight wins in nine league games — that’s more than even the most loyal fan could expect.
More than anyone, that is, with one important exception: The opinion of the only person who mattered. Campbell had this vision when he transitioned from a mid-major to a program that hadn’t had a ton of positive football tradition.
“Everybody has a chance,” Campbell said during a May 2016 interview with The Register. “We’ve got some great niches here. We’ve got some great things to sell. We’ve got this great fan base, we’ve got these great facilities. To me, it’s maybe not about what’s happened in the past, but it’s about what’s going to happen here in the future.”
“… What’s going to happen here in the future.” That was the line that caught me. In Campbell’s fifth year at Iowa State, it’s happening now.
MORE IOWA STATE FOOTBALL COVERAGE
The only scenario left at halftime Saturday was to see if the defense could preserve its second shutout in three games. There was no drama, no controversy. Iowa State did almost what it wanted on both sides of the ball. The remaining game-related storyline was about notching consecutive home-game shutouts since 2001, and that didn’t happen when West Virginia, for some reason, decided to kick a fourth-quarter field goal, down by 35 points.
Pollard had his eye on Campbell even before the 2015 season ended. He went by what he’d seen, and he got input from a former coach, Jerry Kill.
“A lot of people are making a big deal out of transitioning (from the mid-major level), but you know what?” Kill told me during a 2017 interview. “If you can coach, you can coach.”
Campbell can coach, no question about that. The guy can recruit, too. He outrecruited Oklahoma to successfully land All-American tight end Charlie Kolar and deep-threat receiver Xavier Hutchinson. Alabama and Texas A&M came onto quarterback Brock Purdy’s radar after the Arizonan appeared all but headed to Campbell’s on-the-rise program.
Intimidated by the biggies? Psh.
“How do we win a championship in this conference? The Oklahoma States and the Kansas States of the world — programs that maybe aren’t the Texas and Oklahoma perennial powers of the Big 12 — those people have done this,” Campbell once said.
Until 2020, Iowa State hadn’t. And the Cyclones are now one win away from another new reality. At the very least, they’ve at last got the hottest ticket in town and/or state.
Campbell recruited better than anyone ever recruited at Iowa State. If someone didn’t fit what he was looking for, he moved on to another player. Most of his early assistants came with him from Toledo. Just like that, you could see the program starting to improve.
“The reality of our team competing and winning a Big 12 championship is real,” Campbell said during that spring 2016 interview while sitting in his office.
It was a vision back then. Today, it’s as real as their date in the Big 12 Conference’s championship game.