Belinson: Expectations are justified for Iowa State, not fear of failure

Matt Campbell talks with reporters during Iowa State football media day Aug. 9.

Matt Belinson

Expectations are nothing new for Matt Campbell and Iowa State football.

The sixth-year head coach will tell you as much, with the program propelling into the College Football Playoff rankings conversations over the last two years and earning the respect of national pundits and Big 12-award voters. Iowa State has risen from the depths of the cellar of college football into a darling national title contender in the eyes of some. Iowa State has grown into its national spotlight.

But 2021 is different.

The Cyclones are a preseason top-10 team for the first time. They return 19 starters from the best season in program history. I’m not going to sit here and say expectations in Iowa and across the country aren’t fair. But using expectations to make the Cyclones something they aren’t is 1) not fair and 2) unhealthy to push onto a roster constructed of 18 to 22-year-olds.

Expecting the Cyclones to succeed this season is one thing, but to not expect bumps along the way, all while constantly beating into them how good they should be, is shortsighted and wrong.

To be clear, I have the Cyclones making it back to Arlington, Texas, for a Big 12 title rematch with the Sooners this season and could definitely see them making a push toward the College Football Playoff if the cards work in their favor. But I think it’s important fans and media alike remember what we’re talking about here.

This is a football program that, while, yes, has reshaped its brand and standards over the last five years, has never been this high in the stratosphere of what their ceiling could be. The idea of putting the weight of the world on a program that’s never opened a season above No. 20 in the AP poll, let alone as the No.7 team in the country, can lead to the pressure of performing — which in turn leads to fear of failing. 

Campbell spoke about the weight of unprecedented expectations on the program to open fall camp Aug. 6.

“Those are things we have poured our time, our energy and continue to bring in different resources to educate ourselves as the teachers so we can be an asset to guide our players, but also bring in those assets to players to help them uncover, ‘what does it mean to handle pressure and all these things that are coming at 18 to 22-year-olds,’ and that wasn’t just a last-year thing but I think that helped us navigate the storm of really what we’ve been in since last March,” Campbell said.

The Cyclones shouldn’t be worried about looking over their shoulders to make sure they never misstep. They should go out and just play football and whatever happens, happens.

Campbell and his staff have worked to become “outcome aware but process driven,” and I, for one, love that approach. Campbell and his staff talked about listening to noise and letting it seep into the minds of players. When everyone tells you how good you are all the time, that brings baggage, and it’s important people realize placing your ambitions and dreams on the backs of, frankly, kids usually don’t turn out well.

Simone Biles is an apt example. The gymnast many have labeled “The GOAT” took a step back from the Olympics this summer after the stress of performing at her best became too much to handle for a 24-year old.

“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we’re human too,” Biles said after opting out of multiple events in the Olympics this summer. “We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

I think the same can be said for the Cyclones, leading Campbell and others in the program to agree with Biles’ sentiment.

“No.7 in the country.” “College Football Playoff Contender.” — Campbell said when that becomes the bar Iowa State players hold themselves to rather than just growing day by day and competing, fear sets in, and the pressure of not letting fans and fellow teammates down festers.

“I go back to (2019), and I’m talking of myself included where you paralyze yourself because you want to be so perfect, so bad for the players on this team because of what they’ve sacrificed and what they’ve done and yet, we play a sport that’s imperfect,” Campbell said. “It’s never going to be perfect. No game will be perfect.”

When it comes to Iowa State, the perfect case study of succumbing to fear and the noise of outside expectations was clear in the play of Brock Purdy in 2020. The senior quarterback for the Cyclones spoke openly at media day, Aug. 9, about how he and the rest of his teammates needed to reset during their game against Baylor on Nov. 7.

Purdy had three interceptions in the first half against the Bears and, up to that point in his junior season, had not produced up to his usual standard in previous seasons. 

But once he and his teammates gave less oxygen to critics and even those who constantly praised, things got better. And he thinks the 2021 season should be played with the same approach.

“There was no more fear,” Purdy said, reflecting on how Iowa State refocused after the Baylor game last season. “Leading up to that point in the season it was like, ‘OK, we have to play a certain way and we have to do this and we have to do that.’ A lot of it was driven by fear.”

“We do have expectations and standards we expect out of one another, but to say we’re trying to do this for people outside these walls that say we need to do this or do that is wrong.”

I’m excited just as anyone to see what this season holds, but this isn’t life or death. These players are college students and, most importantly — human beings.

“Expectations” will be the buzzword with this team all year long, but let’s make sure those don’t turn into demands, rather than keeping them as simple, exciting aspirations.