Matt Fannon wants to bring Cyclone soccer to greatness

Collin Maguire/[email protected]
Iowa State soccer head coach Matt Fannon is focused on turning Iowa State soccer into a proven winner.

Nick Flores

Since he was hired in 2019, Matt Fannon’s goal has been simple for Iowa State soccer: write a new history.

Iowa State soccer has a record of 18-58-10 since making the Big 12 Championship quarterfinals in the 2016 season. The Cyclones have not won more than two Big 12 games in a season since 2016. 

But the three-time Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year was appointed to take the helm of Iowa State soccer to bring his revolutionary magic to Ames.

Fannon, a native of York, England, was appointed head coach of the Cyclones having previously transformed the Bowling Green women’s soccer program.

With a successful spring season in the books (3-0-1), Fannon has made it his mission to change the narrative of the Iowa State program with his successful career philosophies.

Fannon has been around the sport his entire life and has seen success in each of his endeavors. Now, he’s working to turn Iowa State soccer into a winner.

Early life in England

Growing up in the United Kingdom, Fannon has been surrounded by soccer — or football as the rest of the world knows it — his entire life. As a young boy, it was normal in his family and amongst his friend’s families to play football and to be engulfed in the culture.

Life revolved around the sport, and his passion for the game began to show from an early age as he recalls his father putting his time aside to support him. Fannon lived a relatively middle-class life, growing up as both of his parents worked and made time for what he wanted to do: play football.

“[My father’s] spare time revolved around my soccer,” Fannon said. “He would take me to the games, come home at 6 a.m., get two hours of sleep and get up and drive me to my team.”

“At the time, you don’t think about it much, and looking back now, I’m incredibly appreciative of that,” Fannon said.

All his life, Fannon had aspirations of playing football. Despite him not being naturally athletic, his knowledge of the game and the work he put into training helped him improve.

He improved so much that he made the decision to come to the United States to play Division II soccer at Davis & Elkins College, a private university in West Virginia.

While it may be any American’s football dream to play collegiately, it was certainly not Fannon’s first choice. By the age of 16, Fannon hadn’t received a professional contract, and no club would give him the opportunity to develop in their academy. 

It was not necessarily a matter of the York native not being good enough, but rather a matter of bad habits forming early in his teenage years.

“It was a situation where I saw myself falling into the same lifestyle that all my friends and all my peers had,” Fannon said. “It’s like, OK you grow up, get a job because you have to get a job and you stay in the monotonous cycle of doing it for requirement rather than the love of what you do.”

Fannon realized he was falling into the cycle his father fell victim to, and though he respects and appreciates the work his father put into both his job and family, he did not want that for himself.

Fannon felt as if he needed to do something different. So he moved to the United States.

New life in the U.S.

During his playing days at Davis & Elkins, Fannon began to develop his love for the U.S. He decided he wanted to live out his life in the country.

While at Davis & Elkins, he was met with the opportunity to work with Challenger Sports hosting soccer camps. At first, Fannon was not particularly motivated with this job, but there was a switch that flipped and drove him to see out the rest of his collegiate career with it. 

Following graduation from Davis & Elkin’s College in 2008 with a degree in physical education, Fannon took on a club job with the Broomfield Blast Club based in Colorado while still working with Challenger Sports the following year. 

During this time, Fannon realized he wanted to become a full-time college coach, and he credits a friend of a friend, whom he cannot remember the name of, for pushing him to pursue his dream. 

While out in Salt Lake City for business with Challenger Sports, he recalled a conversation he had with this friend that changed his mindset on his current situation. 

“Hey, how’s the Challenger job going?” Fannon’s friend asked. Fannon gave an answer which did not seem convincing enough for his friend, which then prompted him to ask another question. 

“Well wait a minute, what do you want to do?”

“Well honestly, I want to be a college coach,” Fannon replied.

“Okay, so why aren’t you a college coach?”

“Well, it’s just not that easy,” Fannon said.

“Why not?”

“Well getting your foot in the door is really hard,” Fannon said.

“Okay, so what do you need to do?”

“You kind of need to start and be a volunteer somewhere,” Fannon said.

“Okay, well why don’t you do that?”

The conversation continued, and Fannon realized he was making excuses as to why he was not following his dream. Following the talk, Fannon landed a volunteer assistant coach role at Regis University in 2010.

And so it began.

First steps in coaching journey 

With this new opportunity at Regis came hardships, as any new job has.

On top of coaching club teams, Fannon had to endure early mornings with Regis leading into late nights with Challenger Sports as well. 

While the pressure of juggling so many responsibilities may deter most from pursuing their dream, Fannon knew this was only the first step in reaching his goals. 

“The things I missed out on [in life] were not things that I needed, and I think I realized that,” Fannon said. “If you want to do better, if you want to improve your life or improve your professional situation, then it’s hard work that’s going to get you there.”

This hard work would eventually pay off as Fannon booked his first full-time job as an Assistant Coach at the University of Wyoming in 2012.

Although he stayed in Wyoming for a year, Fannon learned that with college coaching also comes the opportunity to run a program. His short time at Wyoming was a learning experience, though he was not the most successful with the program. 

In 2013, Fannon was able to land his first head coach job in Ohio at Wittenberg University. Fannon did not actively apply for this role; instead his now wife, Julie, applied to the job for him.

Julie was not particularly happy with their living situation in Wyoming. With their first child being born, the Fannons wanted a change of scenery.

Julie was named to the Hiram University Hall of Fame, so she reached out to the volleyball coach who set up a meeting for Fannon and the sporting director. During that meeting, Fannon bought into the vision and perspective of the sporting director and eventually was named head coach.

Fannon spent three years with Wittenberg and finished his time there with an overall record of 27-8-21. During that time, he led the team to the 2013 North Coast Atlantic Conference (NCAC) title and also made an appearance in the NCAC tournament finals.

“Being at Wittenberg shaped in a really positive way who I am now,” Fannon said. “I had to develop and grow and understand the group I was working with and what they needed.”

Fannon’s emphasis on understanding the group that he is working with and trying to get the most out of the team while also maintaining a balance within it is what makes him the coach he is today. 

After the three years at Wittenberg, he made the jump from Division III to Division I soccer, and he recalled receiving advice that stuck with him during that transition.

Don’t suddenly become a different coach.” 

From volunteer assistant to Division I coach

Fannon made a name for himself in the Division I scene at Bowling Green University. He was named head coach in Dec. 2016 and spent three seasons with the school.

During this time, Fannon led his team to an overall record of 41-7-18 while also being named the Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year all three years he was there.

Once he arrived, the team saw instant success, and that was due to the hard work from him, his staff and the squad.

Fannon is very keen on having a winning mentality — a belief his group of players at Bowling Green truly bought into. He believes that if a team doesn’t believe they can become winners, they won’t. But if they put that belief in themselves and each other, there is no telling what they can achieve.

His time at Bowling Green helped him realize that the hard work he was enduring was great for him. Enjoying the job was also important, as he wouldn’t be in the position if he hadn’t truly loved it. 

While he saw a lot of success in very little time at Bowling Green, there was a point where he felt the team could not progress further under his reign. Although he understood the success that the team was able to reach, he did not feel like he could put Bowling Green in a position to be a national powerhouse.

Following the success that Fannon found at Bowling Green, his agent got in contact with Senior Associate Athletics Director for Sports Administration at Iowa State University Dr. Calli Sanders.

The rest is history.

Fannon becomes a Cyclone

Cyclone soccer officially entered a new era in Dec. 2019 with the hiring of Fannon. While this fall will be his third season with the program, it almost didn’t work out in the beginning.

Family is very important to Fannon, and that is evident in his coaching style and philosophies. When Iowa State had him on the radar to fill the vacant position, Fannon questioned whether he could make the move.

His family was happy where they were, and he didn’t want to risk messing that up.

“Coming from Bowling Green to here was difficult because we were really happy as a family, and everything was going well,” Fannon said. “Everything we were looking for when I came here for my interview, the only questions I asked was about family, about how it’s going to be for our family and how well we can settle in.” 

Luckily for Iowa State, Fannon now calls Ames home. 

Despite the excitement of a new head coach and promising future ahead, Fannon’s first year at Iowa State posed some problems. 

During the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and put a halt on life. For Fannon and the soccer program, this meant recruitment was put on hold while the program went dormant.

“For the next 18 months we were guessing with everything,” Fannon said. “When you’re new somewhere, there’s a huge level of excitement, and that’s when all the little things usually happen.”

Although his career as a Cyclone had a bit of a rocky start, especially with recruitment, Iowa State soccer was able to bring in one athlete who would become crucial to Fannon’s plans for the squad: goalkeeper Jordan Silkowitz. 

Player and staff influence

After acquiring Silkowitz for the 2020-21 season, Fannon had already begun his rebuilding project with the program.

With Silkowitz becoming the new number one choice between the sticks, as well as Fannon instilling his philosophies within the team, the Cyclones were undergoing change from the minute he was appointed.

Silkowitz came to Iowa State as a transfer from Ohio State University and was looking to find an environment that felt like a family but was also competitive and could drive her to be the best version of herself.

In addition, she bought into the vision that Fannon had for the program and wanted to be a player who could help in that journey.

“When I came here I wanted [to] help change the program,” Silkowitz said. “I wanted to help put Iowa State on the soccer map.”

Silkowitz’s impact has been immense for the Cyclones, having already recorded over 100 saves since arriving her sophomore year.

Fannon has always been aware of her talent on the pitch and her leadership skills, which is why it is no surprise that he thinks so highly of her. Following her 100th save against the Texas Longhorns in a 2-0 loss this past season, Fannon had nothing but praise for his first choice goalkeeper. 

“She’s really got the mentality to be a winner and push our women to be better, so we’re really glad she’s part of our squad,” Fannon said Oct. 8, 2021. 

This winning mentality is something that Fannon has been instilling in his squad since the moment he got together with his new team. “Everyday is game-day,” is the phrase that he has drilled into his players to keep them playing at the highest level even during training, and it has helped the squad along the way.

Not only does that go for performance on the pitch, but he also stresses to have that mentality in everything the squad does, including academics and work. 

“I think Matt’s brought that competitive edge, and that’s something I really bought into,” Slikowitz said. “In the way that we play soccer and the way we want to do things here, we’re going to give our best whatever we’re doing.”

Assistant coach and goalkeeper coach Maddie Dobyns has been with the Cyclones since the spring 2021, and her work and influence can not go unrecognized. She has been working with Silkowitz since she’s arrived. Not only has Dobyns helped Silkowitz on the pitch but in the locker room as well.

“I couldn’t be more thankful that Maddie’s here; she’s such an incredible human being and an even better coach,” Silkowitz said. “She’s helped me in so many different areas that have helped my game and made me better, and I absolutely love the training environment she creates.”

That training environment, as well as the environment created among the team off the pitch, is very important for the entire staff, and that is something Dobyns loves about the team. She credits Fannon for helping create that. 

“We have a very family-friendly environment here,” Dobyns said. “So from the jump, [Fannon] has made me feel super comfortable with this family. I think there’s so many pieces of being able to grow as a young coach, and he’s really helped mentor but also make sure that I guide my own path as well.”

The future of Cyclone Soccer

Iowa State head football coach Matt Campbell and head women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly are two figures held in high regard at Iowa State for their on-field success and ability to lead culture.

When asked about influences in Fannon’s philosophies and tactics, the typical names of soccer greats such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp come up. But when thinking about the bigger picture of what he wants to create for the program and for the university, Fannon is quick to mention the two Iowa State cornerstones.

“I can’t tell you what I’ve learned from watching Matt Campbell and Bill Fennelly,” Fannon said. “The way that they conduct themselves and they way that they consider the picture, the way they speak about their teams and Iowa State, I want to be one of their recruits.”

Fannon mentioned the love for the university the two have, and he feels those are the things that truly make a difference between a good team and a great team. Any team can be tactically brilliant, but nothing replaces the passion and the love for a team that a coach can bring to a program. 

Fannon has big aspirations for the program and believes in himself, the players and the staff.

“I think within the next season or two we’re going on the right track to put something together,” Dobyns said. “I think we’re getting all the pieces in the right places.”

“We’ve brought in some great players and I think the culture of this team has really grown, and it’s something you want to be part of,” Silkowitz said. “It’s special. I’m excited for what this team can do, and I’m super excited to show people what Iowa State soccer is about.”

Although the program is not exactly where Fannon would have liked it to be by this point in time, he is glad that things have not come easily. He sees something beautiful in building a project and working toward success rather than seeing it immediately and fulfilling fan expectations so quickly.

Within two to three seasons, he wants his team, at the very least, to be involved in the NCAA Selection Show.

While some may sit back and dwell on what can be, Fannon puts himself and his team to work to fulfill the goals they set for themselves. 

“I would like us to have the best Iowa State Soccer team ever,” Fannon said.