This article was written by my close friend, and editor, Shane Dayton. A response will hopefully be posted sometime this weekend. Stay tuned!
*NOTE: This article was written as a response to the quick hire and the immediate reports afterward. The surprising speed of news about recruits, staff being filled out, etc. would affect parts of this article. In other words, I'm already breaking my promise and drinking the Kool-Aid because I'm a Cyclones fan: other than Kool-Aid what have we really had during football season since Seneca? Still – the points in the article and red flags mentioned are still worth discussing.
Introducing Iowa State's New Head Coach: Matt Campbell
I promised myself I wouldn't drink the Kool-Aid, even as the new list of potential replacements for former Cyclones Paul Rhoads were brought out. No one expected the search to last all of a couple days and end so quickly with the hiring of (now) former Toledo Rockets head coach Matt Campbell. The immediate reaction seemed to be this was not only a home run hire, but a grand slam home run.
Not so fast.
My initial response was the hire felt a little underwhelming. While that might not be fair, Campbell wasn't labeled a killer recruiter (though he is recognized as a good one on the Div-III and MAC level), not a blazingly different X's and O's guy, and he's never had to make more out of less. Then there's the youth factor, which could be a positive but it could equally be a negative. While Campbell obviously wowed at the interview, there are still red flags that hesitate from me calling this a home run hire at this point.
Unique Challenges Iowa State Faces & What's Needed to Respond
The first way to tackle the hire is to look at the checklist of what AD Jamie Pollard would need to look for to find the ideal coach who can actually take on the challenge of building a consistent winner at Iowa State. The geography, lack of tradition, and round robin schedule that makes "easy schedule years" impossible (even without looking at the already limited non-con schedule always needing to include a tough Iowa team) are all factors that make it extremely challenging to win consistently at Iowa State.
The argument can even be made that average coaching, recruiting, and scheme will almost never be enough to go bowling. There are no easy years, and there are even fans who would argue at LEAST two of the three of those things have to be good or very good for the Cyclones to consistently get to .500. There's no question that average clearly isn't enough – so what does a coach need to have to succeed at this job?
Iowa State Values
Well, the hire is definitely a grand slam as far as this goes. Campbell is known as a player's coach, and it seems like no one who has ever worked with him or worked for him has a single bad thing to say. He talks about the importance of hard work, honesty, and building up young men, which fits in with the culture that Iowa State won't compromise on. With former coaches like Dan McCarney and Paul Rhoads, it shouldn't surprise anyone that high character is an absolute requirement for any head coach and Matt Campbell meets that requirement.
Completely arbitrary grade: A+
Solid JUCO connections
Some would argue this, but in most I-State fans' eyes it is a necessity. The state of Iowa doesn't have a huge trove of D-I talent, and it is harder still with Iowa, I-State, and FCS powerhouse UNI all recruiting the same talent for scholarships and walk-on talent. Add in the fact I-State has to recruit Big 10 country for Big 12 talent in bordering states, and are a geographical anomaly in a mostly Texas/Oklahoma conference.
Some of the best talent on this year's team came from the JUCO ranks like DE Dale Pierson, NT Demond Parker, and MLB Jordan Harris. Some of the best players during the best I-State years were also JUCOs like QB Steele Janz, WR Darius "Money" Reynolds, NT Ahtyba "Tuba" Rubin, DE Cory Morrissey, S David Sims, QB Seneca Wallace, and TE Colin Franklin, among many others.
How does Matt Campbell fare here? Not well. While it's always possible to build those pipelines and make JUCO recruiting a priority and bring in staff who have some connections, this is going to be a new area for Coach Campbell, and hopefully he realizes quickly how important having a stable yearly stream of JUCOs really is for this program to succeed. The grade here could be much lower, Campbell's reputation as a recruiter and as having staff that can recruit brings it up.
Completely arbitrary grade: D+
Strong running game based offense
People may argue about whether the offense really does need to be run based or not, but the stats on the better running team either winning the game or being within a score are stunning in the Big 12. No matter how rock star a recruiting staff Campbell puts together, in the Big 12 Iowa State is NEVER going to consistently out recruit Oklahoma, Texas, TCU, Baylor, and they will struggle to fight the natural advantages Oklahoma State and Texas Tech even have.
This means slowing down the game against a league that is loaded with top 10 and top 20 offenses. Control the clock, shorten up the game, and while every defense is built to defend spread offenses and be light and quick, a running attack can power through and wear them down to slow down the tempo. With RB Mike Warren, RB Joshua Thomas, and dual threat QB Joel Lanning, I-State needs to run the ball – they can't do the same thing other Big 12 teams do with more talent and hope to compete.
Toledo ran 55% of the time and seems to like a run-based spread. This would suit I-State's needs and existing roster perfectly, although it will be interesting to see if Campbell stays with it at 70-80% clip when it's working that well, breaking a long agonizing trend to I-State fans of watching a clicking running game stop itself with three straight incomplete passes in the name of some vague notion of balance.
Completely arbitrary grade: A-
Good X's & O's coaches or coordinators
This grade is going to depend on who Campbell brings in. Campbell himself hasn't built a huge reputation as a great X's and O's guy like a Chip Kelly, Willie Fritz, or Mike Leech, but that doesn't mean he doesn't know his stuff. There's a reason he was the youngest head coach in Division I football and he served as OC at Mount Union and Toledo. Campbell is looking to bring his OC and OL coach from Toledo with him to Iowa State, and those two are highly respected coaches who will help edge this grade up if they both make it to campus. The defensive side of the ball remains a complete mystery at this point.
Completely arbitrary grade: B-
Head coaching experience
Campbell has been a successful assistant coach on two levels and a successful head coach on one, and his rapid ascension hasn't shown a lot of bumps in growth. There's a reason other schools were considering him for their head coaching positions. Four years at Toledo isn't much, but it is solid head coaching experience and he has been remarkably successful in that stint in the MAC. Fans were tired of seeing mistakes from a head coach who was learning on the job, and already in the early days of putting together a staff the difference is incredibly noticeable.
Completely arbitrary grade: A-
History of making a lot more out of less
And here's where the fear that this becomes "another Iowa State hire" comes into play. There have been extremely talented Iowa State teams over the years that would have been a shoe-in for a bowl in the ACC or on a weak-side schedule of the Big 10 but just couldn't overcome the obstacles. They are going to scrounge for recruits in their home state, in bordering states (whose teams all play in a different conference), and don't have a great tradition to rely on. With round-robin scheduling that has only 3 non-con games, one which always has to be Iowa and one which is often a "can't take lightly" UNI, there just aren't any down years unless the state of Iowa and the entire Big 12 stinks…which just doesn't happen.
A coach making it work at Iowa State has to be able to make more from less. You will never be the best recruiting team in your conference, you will never be the most talented team, and you have to be one of the best coaches in the country to be one of the best in the conference.
The campus is great, the city of Ames is amazing, and I-State has incredible facilities and game day atmosphere, but there's no tradition to bring those things to the attention of anyone outside of the city. The ideal Iowa State coach has to be an absolute master at doing more against steeper odds with less to work with.
Matt Campbell has done excellent work wherever he's gone, but Mount Union is the epitome of "haves." Toledo wasn't great when he first coached there as an assistant, but they have traditionally been a major "have" in the MAC and were winning once again by the time he took over. In fact, his first game as head coach was as interim head coach during a bowl game.
Now maybe Campbell is just good enough that it won't matter – that his skills in finding talent, recruiting, developing talent, and surrounding himself with excellent coaches will be enough to simply win, because that is the bottom line. And in his career, Campbell has been a winner.
That being said, the only grades you can give for "doing more with less" are either an incomplete or an F. And no matter how much you want to say it doesn't matter, it's a genuine red flag and concern for any I-State head coach.
Completely arbitrary grade: Incomplete (F if this was a priority for the AD)
By all accounts, Matt Campbell is an excellent recruiter who has pulled a lot of talent from Ohio and even western Pennsylvania. In fact, one article had Campbell as one of the 10 best non-power 5 conference recruiters in the entire country. While these are places that can definitely help I-State by opening up, recruiting for a D-III like Mount Union and regionally for a regional power with local tradition is a cake walk compared to I-State's position. Will these recruiting skills translate or will the geography, lesser talent compared to Ohio, and need for a higher level of player talent end up overshadowing the recruiting skills he has had?
That will be the huge question in the following days, though his emphasis on having coaches who also love to recruit is encouraging.
Completely arbitrary grade: B+*
*Heavily-conditional arbitrary grade based on how it translates from D-III and MAC to Big 12 and assuming Campbell fills his staff with the best recruiters he has worked with in the past.
Other Names That Were Available
Fair or not, a hire is also going to be compared to who wasn't hired. Every Iowa State fan can tell you how Jim Harbaugh and Brian Kelly were on the short list when Paul Rhoads was hired. Fair or not, their success at other places overshadows the good things that happened early in Rhoads's tenure. The success of Campbell in the future will also be measured against other names that came up during this search.
Granted while all coaching analysis is hypothetical at this point, this part is going to be the most opinion based. Off the bat, this is a much better hire on paper than names like Todd Monken, Dino Babers, Lance Leipold or (God forbid) Butch Davis. Honestly, I like this hire much better than PJ Fleck, as well, who seems almost cult-like in his ability to recruit insanely good talent (well beyond normal MAC level) to a MAC team that traditionally has had no tradition at all. I could see why many Cyclone fans liked the idea of Fleck, but once again I-State on their best years will not out-recruit half the Big 12. You need more X's and O's.
Bob Stitz out of Montana, Willie Fritz out of Georgia Southern, Matt Wells of Utah State, and Joe Moglia of Coastal Carolina were all names that came up. Joe Moglia was never realistic and although how he's developed offense and gotten into coaching is a hell of a story, it would have been a desperation hire. These would have been names to grab if the emphasis was on unique and powerful X's and O's guys who could bring something unique and powerful to the Big 12. Fritz and Wells were two of my favorite candidates, but with I-State being so unique a situation, it's impossible to say if either would have been a better hire.
There's no obvious name where you look at the list and ask "Why did they pass on him?"
Campbell doesn't look like an X's and O's guy compared to many of those names. He's not a “do more with less”, which Stitz has pulled off in amazing ways at the lower levels, and he's not the best recruiter on the list (Fleck gets that nod) but Campbell seemed almost like a safe blend of candidates. How that translates to on-field success will be exciting to watch.
The Nightmare Scenario
The nightmare scenario based on the honest red flags:
Campbell is a popular coach with players with a reputation for inspiring, much like predecessor Paul Rhoads. But, unfortunately, also like his predecessor once outside of his life-long coaching home of Ohio Campbell and his staff can't translate that popularity and old recruiting charm to rise above MAC level prospects, resulting in getting overpowered on the field. The good offense from the past stops doesn't work without superior talent, and recruiting for a MAC school with strong tradition turns out to be a FAR cry from recruiting for the only Midwest school in a Texas/Oklahoma conference. The lack of recruiters with strong JUCO ties makes overcoming increasingly obvious talent gaps impossible.
The obsession with a balanced offense means Warren runs for 1,000 yards when he should get 2,000 and State fans can't overcome the schedule to get back to bowling.
Stitz, Fleck, and Fritz in some combination dominate FBS competition when they get their chance bringing another "I can't believe we didn't hire Jim Harbaugh" moment and questions about why we didn't grab one of the X's and O's guys who were available.
The Peter Principle is in full effect as Campbell is another good coach and great guy who couldn't overcome the challenge at that level.
What Would Help Truly Make it a "Home Run Hire?"
Short term simply put, start with a bowl season in year one. Minus a few horrific coaching moments, inconceivable officiating blunders, and not centering the damn game winning FG kick, this team against an insane schedule could have gone bowling this year. Almost all of that talent returns.
Campbell brings most of his coordinators with him he's worked with for years and it turns out all of their genius isn't just because of superior talent at lower levels – but it actually translates to the Big 12 level much like Ayeni (who had coached with Campbell at Toledo before becoming RB coach for the Clones), who proved a great position coach and one of the best recruiters on staff. Getting an extremely skilled and talented staff is critical to seeing how this hire works out.
Iowa State brings in the best recruiting classes in the school's history, can develop the talent (especially at quarterback), and with a run-heavy offense becomes a positive draw for kids in Big 10 and Big 12 country alike. They climb up the ranks, finish off some of the highly ranked teams to bring back some signature wins, and build a base of tradition that helps them even take the next step beyond that.
They finally start beating conference rival Kansas State in all those close games, and pulling recruits from other regional schools, and dominating their yearly rivalry with Iowa like McCarney did circa de 1998-2002 is just a wonderful, wonderful bonus for perhaps the longest-suffering fan base of all.
Campbell stays true to his word and stays long term, showing the loyalty of Paul Rhoads while being able to accomplish what the previous coach unfortunately never could.
Even with all these gloomy red flags being discussed, this wasn't a bad hire at all. From all appearances, it seems like Matt Campbell has the potential to be an excellent coach who knows how to build recruiting relationships, coach up the talent they get, and the man flat out knows how to win. As the press conference introducing him formally as Iowa State's new head coach said, he has ALWAYS been involved in the postseason as a head coach. There is something to be said about just knowing how to win and coming from a line of coaching winners.
This is a solid potential hire, and feels like a solid base hit but is it really a home run hire?
Chizik was called a home run, and everyone remembers that disaster. So far, even in just the first couple days, Coach Campbell has said everything right, has been quick to action, and after years of seeing seemingly cobbled together coaching staffs where no two coaches were on the same page it's refreshing to see a strong infrastructure of coaches being brought in who have worked together for years and are all on the same page.
Every Cyclone hopes this is the magic hire we hoped Paul Rhoads would be – but there is way too much uncharted territory and way too many unproven challenges to declare this a home run hire right away. The red flags are still there, especially in regards to the serious questions of being able to overcome enormous challenges with an unusual amount of hurdles and challenges in the way.
Will Campbell live up to the hype and prove to be the grand slam hire for football like Fred Hoiberg was for basketball, or will this be another in a long line of disappointments?
Unfortunately, a coaching hire isn't like a single at bat in baseball and the final decision on whether this hire is a single, a home run, or a strikeout will only become clear with time.
Welcome! My name is Chris Spooner. I am an overly-passionate Dolphins fan who has many opinions about his team, and the sports landscape as a whole. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy voicing them.