College football fans, especially those within the Big Eight/Big 12 Conference footprint, have long wondered if this year, this coach, this era of Iowa State football will be the one that turns things around for good.
It’s hard, of course, because recruiting elite players to Ames, Iowa, is a significant challenge. A lack of tradition and a lack of pleasant weather, among other things, have made it almost impossible.
This is a program that has had just 19 winning seasons since The Great Depression, and only once — a three-year stretch from 1976-78 — did that success last more than two seasons. Most of them were just one-offs, a decent collection of players that played a manageable schedule got a few breaks to finish 6-4 or 7-5.
Whether it was Johnny Majors or Earle Bruce or Donnie Duncan or Jim Walden or Dan McCarney or Paul Rhoads or Gene Chizik — that’s a pretty salty list — it stood to reason that someone could turn things around in Ames.
And this isn’t to suggest that Iowa State football under Matt Campbell has arrived just because they took down the No. 3-ranked Oklahoma Sooners last Saturday in Norman.
But Campbell did say something on Monday’s Big 12 coaches teleconference that made me wonder if maybe he actually is the man to rescue the Cyclones.
Iowa State beat Oklahoma last Saturday for the first time since 1990. Before that, the Cyclones’ last victory over OU came in 1961.
Campbell spoke in the postgame about changing a losing culture from within.
“There’s been a lot of adversity at Iowa State for a long time,” Campbell said, “and there’s been a cloud around us. I think our kids said, ‘I’m sick of it,’ and we were going to keep grinding, keep swinging and getting better one day at a time. So, at the end of it, here we are.”
That certainly wasn’t the head coach’s sentiment the last time Iowa State snuck up on OU.
Back in 1990, my friend and colleague Jimmie Tramel covered the game for the Tulsa World, specifically, the opposing team’s postgame reaction, locker room and press conference comments that capture how they felt about slaying a giant.
Jimmie posted a link to that 27-year-old story on his Twitter page over the weekend, and there was a quote from Walden that caught my eye.
“I could die happy right now,” Walden said. “I thought we could come in here and play with them. I hoped we could keep hope alive, but I’ll be honest with you: I never for a moment believed we could beat them.”
I read that quote to Campbell on Monday’s teleconference. His reaction was impressive.
“No, I can’t relate to that at all,” Campbell told me. “I’ll be honest with you, if you look at our football team, from last year on, we’ve played with everybody that’s been on our schedule. And the fact that what’s frustrating, and it’s always frustrating as you’re trying to build a program is, what’s negating you from winning games? Our margin for error here, no matter who we play or when we play, is always gonna be small because we have to be a team that’s always got to be detail-oriented. Even as you look at some of the games this year that were frustrating, to not come out winning, because the effort and the way our kids played was winning effort. But the detail and really, those margins, we didn’t have the chance to have success.
“So we thought it was no different going to Norman. We had a great deal of respect for Oklahoma. You’re talking one of the best teams in college football, no doubt about it. But I think we’ve proven time and time again as we’ve played those opponents since I’ve been here, that we’ve been in those games, had chances to win, and yet our inefficiencies didn’t allow us to win. But I think on Saturday, you saw a complete football game, offensively, defensively and special teams.
“So, unlike coach Walden, I know we can win here, and I know we can sustain winning. But that’s a process, and that’s getting better one day at a time. That’s what we have to do. So, great to get a win, but a lot of work left to be done for this program.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.