The Washington Post

For Cyclones, ‘this love’ has everything to do with it

- BY CHUCK CULPEPPER

ames, iowa — There’s that fourletter word again. It has blossomed through college football America from scarcity in the 20th century to proliferat­ion in the 21st. It keeps getting uttered out loud by players and coaches even in a sport languishin­g in the boredom of boardrooms and the tedium of mergers and acquisitio­ns. It has bounded across football eras from something of a confession to something of a proclamati­on.

“It’s this love,” all-big 12 safety Greg Eisworth said of his Iowa State team. “That’s how I describe it, as love.”

It’s love, man, and the love is all around the nation from program to program, openly expressed where it used to be repressed if not begrudged. And in one of those cheery who-would-havethough­ts, the capital of love in

early September 2021 would have to be Iowa State, that program once prone to decades of obscurity and frowning scoreboard­s.

Now it has a No. 9 national ranking, a Fiesta Bowl win in the rearview and three preseason Associated Press all-americans (running back Breece Hall, tight end Charlie Kolar, linebacker Mike Rose). Now it’s the freshest thing going, and it has a big ol’ bout Saturday with No. 10 Iowa, a matter that might just stoke some spite. Now it has a September so stocked with hope that it overrides the latest wave of business dullness: the Oklahoma-and-texas abandonmen­t to the SEC from the Big 12, in which Iowa State competes.

Now it still has that sparkling head coach in his sixth season at age 41, Matt Campbell, who manages to fill a room without bringing along all that much of an ego.

“To me, you know, [coaching with] fear can get you [only] so far,” Campbell said in his office in late August. “You know, at some point, fear loses. And to me, unity, love, care and safety give you the ability to reach your full potential.

“That doesn’t mean it’s always rosy, and that doesn’t mean it’s always easy, and that doesn’t mean there’s not grit. But I really believe that, you know, the fear piece of things, I think, to be honest with you, it really creates underachie­vement.”

By all means, continue: “And this ability to find love and to find, you know, this stillness within yourself, to reach your full potential, that’s where it is. I think it’s really hard to get there, and I think it’s a real challenge. It’s been a real challenge for me at times, but I still feel like where true success comes, not at the ability to overcome others, but to overcome yourself.”

This stillness within yourself . . .

Feeling low? Try Ames, population 66,000-ish.

It’s about 35 miles north of Des Moines.

“We’re Glad You’re Here,” a water tower claims.

In explaining why the concept of football lured Campbell more than other sports he also played as an Ohioan kid, he credits something beyond growing up near football’s birthplace of Canton, beyond that his dad coached it, beyond football’s knack for spawning camaraderi­e. No, football has more people.

“You’re talking 130 different people from every different walk of life,” he says. “More people [than other sports]. More experience­s. More background­s. More upbringing­s. And more stories. And to me, that’s fascinatin­g. The sport itself does create an absolute discipline, and it creates this discipline of, ‘How do you align all those people to a mission that’s bigger than themselves?’ And I think that fascinates me far greater than anything.”

A reading of his path suggests a resistance to status-seeking. A defensive lineman himself in the late 1990s, he went to the Football Bowl Subdivisio­n (Pittsburgh), found its bigness soulless, opted for Division III (Mount Union, the Ohio powerhouse).

He was an assistant coach at Bowling Green, Mount Union, Bowling Green again and Toledo, then helmed Toledo from 2012 to 2015. On Oct. 11, 2014, Toledo played at Iowa State, and after arrival on game day, Campbell did what Campbell likes to do pregame.

He took a walk.

Having already liked how Jack Trice Stadium presented itself upon the horizon, he found he liked still more the tenor of its tailgate surroundin­gs: an authentici­ty, in the verve of fans of a 1-4 team (about to lumber to 2-4 against Toledo). “And you know, we’d played at Florida, we’d played in Missouri, we played in really cool places,” but here he saw something, “a sea of people everywhere” in his mind’s eye. He wound up phoning his wife, Erica, and telling her he might like to coach someday at such a place.

He has coached at such a place from 3-9 in 2016 to 8-5, 8-5, 7-6 and 9-3 (and a first regular season conference title in 108 years), well enough to figure in that most bored of American discussion­s: speculatio­n about when a good coach might leave. He has coached at such a place the way he hoped to coach at a place, a way explained by Eisworth, who used to know Iowa State only as that team with weird colors (burnt cardinal, gold) he saw one day at TCU, and who went to Mississipp­i and junior college in Texas before four years (with pandemic extension) in Ames.

“And it was, you know, that realness,” Eisworth said. “It was him telling me: ‘Hey, look, I’m not going to sell you a record. I’m not going to sell you the greatest facility in America. But what I can sell you is that there’s great people here, and we care about each other, and there’s a vision, and I want you to come be a part of that.’ And that’s it, for me.”

It’s coach as collaborat­or, and for an example, Eisworth quotes Campbell: “‘If you don’t understand why you’re not playing, come talk to me. And you know, I’ ll give you the evidence, or I’ ll back up why.’ And that, that builds the trust. And that also helps people get better at their game.”

Love can alter scoreboard­s, after all.

“I think for us, it’s unique,” Campbell said, “because, you know, there are other teams, our conference, and out there, they can play their C game, and they’ve got some human erasers . . . and their human erasers take over at some point in the game, and they win the football game. At Iowa State, we can’t do that. We literally have to play to a recipe of success, and we have to find that recipe week in and week out, and sometimes it may change within the game, but we’ve got to find it and use it to win each game.”

The Cyclones have mastered enough recipes to gift some unpreceden­ted excitement to faithful sufferers such as Jay Chapman and Karen Heldt- Chapman, who met in the Iowa State band in the late 1980s as a trumpeter and drum major (Jay) and a clarinetis­t (Karen).

Given their season tickets to five Cyclones sports, their various fan-club membership­s, their multifamil­y tailgating family — they even had a practice tailgate this year — no one could top Jay as a guide through the Cyclones psyche. He knows intricatel­y the Cyclones fans’ hard-earned sense of impending doom or the various subgroups of Iowa Hawkeyes fans, including “Tavern Hawks” who follow Iowa only via TVS in taverns.

“So it’s funny,” he said of the Oklahoma-texas saga, “that it happens as we have undoubtedl­y the most anticipate­d season that we’ve ever had. Yeah, it happens at the same time. I would say that I’ve heard that there is concern for the long haul, for us, for the Big 12, but it’s still a little bit more outweighed by the anticipati­on of the season. Because nothing’s going to happen — it seems very unlikely that things will fall apart this season.”

So: “We understand that for us, as fans, all we can do is come to every single game, support the team in any way we can, pack the Jack, fill the stadium, make it a hard place for other teams to play, win every game at home, have the football team be successful, and we’ve done all we can really do.”

After all, that’s business, not love, and right about now they’re an epicenter of love.

 ?? DAVID Purdy/getty IMAGES ?? Iowa State’s Jack Trice Stadium hosts the biggest game in the Cyclones’ rivalry with Iowa on Saturday.
DAVID Purdy/getty IMAGES Iowa State’s Jack Trice Stadium hosts the biggest game in the Cyclones’ rivalry with Iowa on Saturday.

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