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The Turnaround Plan

At the start of the 2015 football season, Matt Campbell was turning a lot of heads. In his fourth year as Head Coach at the University of Toledo, he orchestrated victories over two Power Five conference opponents—the University of Arkansas and Iowa State University—in early September en route to a 9-2 regular season record. By the end of November, one of the teams he had toppled hired him as its new head coach.

Three years later, Campbell continues to impress as Head Coach at Iowa State University. After an inaugural 3-9 campaign, the Cyclones went 8-5 last year and Campbell was named Big 12 Coach of the Year. They have been ranked in the top 25 this year throughout November.

For ISU administrators, the seeds for Campbell’s hiring might have been that 2015 game, when Toledo beat the Cyclones 30-23 in double overtime. But for Campbell, they were planted the year prior, when the two squads met at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa.

“The energy, the crowd, and the people that day left a humongous impression on me,” Campbell says. “Iowa State was not having a great season, but that game was sold out, and the atmosphere outside the stadium was phenomenal. I said, ‘Man, there’s something really unique and special about this fan base.’ Certainly now, two years into it, we’ve been able to make some great strides because that very fan base has been loyal to us. It’s really impressive.”

The best stories in sports are when a team makes a big turnaround. Perennial winning programs are ho-hum compared to the excitement of a team that relishes the thrill of victory as a new experience. By unifying everyone involved in the ISU program, Campbell has done just that.

What does it take to move from the losing to winning category? And how do coaches decide that taking over a downtrodden program is the right move?

Campbell began his position at Iowa State by interviewing everyone associated with the program. Those one-on-one conversations included all current players. The mission, he says, was to identify problems and then “diligently attack them.”

“I think the biggest thing is finding out what the challenges are, not letting those challenges become excuses, and then finding ways to strengthen some of the weaknesses that surround the program,” says Campbell. “We’ve been able to do that here, when a lot of people said it couldn’t be done. Obviously, there’s still work to be done, but that was the starting point.

“As coaches, we think we have all the answers, and we don’t want to listen to what the problems are,” he continues. “The reality is you have to be a great listener.”

The Cyclones went 3-9 in Campbell’s first season. Picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 Conference in 2017, Iowa State instead tied for fourth and entered the AP Top-25 poll for the first time since 2005. From the start, he convinced people to “trust the process.”

“I aligned the program to one vision and goal, and included everyone from weightroom staff, to academic staff and tutors, to athletic trainers, to equipment room personnel. We literally unified everybody that touches this program,” says Campbell. “For me, it’s always been about people. I learned at a young age in this profession that you need to align yourself with, or at least put yourself around, good people.”

To that end, Campbell brought about 90 percent of Toledo’s coaches with him to Ames. As a result, much of his staff has almost a dozen years of history working together, and those relationships have helped with everything from recruiting players to building trust. The coaches feed off each other, and players and recruits recognize that.

“I don’t say ‘buy-in’ to our players, I say ‘trust in,’ because the word ‘trust’ is the essence of success of any football program,” Campbell says. “There wasn’t a magic moment when that trust was established. Really, it’s been a lot of little moments that have allowed us to set a new standard in every phase of our program. It’s been a consistent message across the board that we’ve been able to rally around, and it’s been a fascinating experience.”

Those little moments include players removing their caps in buildings, sitting in the first two rows of their classes, and keeping their lockers to team standards. And as a result of off-the-field adjustments, the Ames community has rallied around Campbell and his team.

“One of the neat things about Iowa State is that the fan base does not have any pro teams to root for, so the way our kids act and treat their professors and fans is really important,” he says. “You can give lip service and tell everybody what they want to hear, but it really comes down to how the young people in your program reflect what your program is all about—how they carry themselves off the field, as well as how they play on the field.”

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