‘The talk of college football’: A look at Iowa State’s national attention

A member of the Iowa State football high fives fans after arriving back in Ames Oct. 7 following the Oklahoma football game where Iowa State defeated Oklahoma 38-31. 

Emily Barske

The tide turned when Iowa State defeated then-No. 3 Oklahoma on national television. The Cyclones were no longer being watched by fans around the state of Iowa, but fans and sports analysts all around the country.

There was a quarterback the season prior — Joel Lanning — playing on defense, special teams and offense. There was a quarterback — Kyle Kempt — who was a walk-on before leading the team to its best season in more than a decade after making his first start at Oklahoma. There was a wide receiver — Allen Lazard — who caught passes some might think uncatchable. And there was a head coach — Matt Campbell — who was only in his second season with the Cyclones.

Needless to say, there was enough for a national storyline. 

Perhaps no one knows that better than Mike Green, assistant athletics director for communications, who heads up media relations for the football team. The Daily sat down with Green to talk about what went on behind the scenes during and before the national attention.

Q: From your perspective, what were some of the biggest moments this season?

A: It was a fun year. I think a lot of people saw late in the 2016 season that this team could do something. We really improved last year and I know a lot of people kind of forget that …. We showed a lot of progress. But we’re still picked ninth (in the Big 12) at the beginning of the year. 

All in all: Wow. It was a fantastic season and exceeded a lot of people’s expectations. You throw in the fact that we finished 7-5 and three of our losses literally came down to the final play of the game — if that play doesn’t go that way, we win the game. And the other two losses were right there.

Then you put in perspective that we won the Oklahoma, TCU games, which were nip and tuck. So we could’ve easily lost those games, but we closed it.

To be ranked again was huge for us. Although I know our coaching staff will probably downplay it because what they say is accurate, it’s more important to be ranked at the end of the year than during the year. Which is true, but to get that national recognition out there was really positive for our program.

Q: The Oklahoma game was on national TV and a lot of people were not expecting that win. What was it like for you after that win?

A: I mean life changed for everyone after that game …. If you want to get your name out there and you want to be a part of the conversation, beating a really tough team and national program on the road, on national television, will pay huge dividends for you. 

Then you throw in the circumstances … you’re a 30-point underdog, which that doesn’t happen very often. Let’s put in perspective that Oklahoma has lost one game all year and they’re the No. 2 team in the College Football Playoff and a lot of people are predicting them to win the national title.

So you don’t want to ever say that’s the greatest win in school history, but you gotta put it up there. And then you throw in the circumstances behind the game, where you’re playing a quarterback that has only completed two passes in his entire time as a fifth-year senior and hadn’t really played significant downs in his entire college career. 

To shock the world like that, we became the talk of college football …. It certainly helped a lot of our players become nationally known. And it helped them reap national awards at the end of the year. You prove that you can go down and beat Oklahoma in Norman and you’re probably a pretty good team.

The beauty of it was that we didn’t stop there. We kept rolling …. This team kept fighting and we got above .500 in the Big 12 (which hasn’t happened since 2000). This is a good football conference and to do what we did, especially on defense, you know we stopped these teams that normally score 40 points a game and put up 500 to 600 yards of total offense. If you can do that, then you can hang in games.

Q: Were you just flooded with phone calls after that Oklahoma win?

A: Yeah, I was actually. It was so refreshing and this is why we do what we do. The next day was — in all my years working here — one of the most interesting days I’ve ever had… It’s hard to count how many national media inquiries I received, but it was into the 20s. And from all across the board: ESPN, all the national publications and it’s times like that you’ve got to capitalize on the situation. 

Give my staff and players credit, they’re very accommodating. We tried to take care of as many as we could, but it was hard to say no. We couldn’t do all of them.

I’ve been working here a long time and I’ve never got a call from Lee Corso. So it’s kind of shocking when Lee Corso calls your cell phone number. 

All these years I’ve been covering football and you wanted to get to know a lot of these national guys, well we gave them a reason for them to call us.

Q: There are a lot of accolades here at the end of the season, are there some bigger ones that stick out to you of all of those?

A: Having Joel (Lanning) become a First-Team All-American, I haven’t been that happy since I got the news that he got that. A guy that works so hard, and is so selfless, all about the team — he deserves everything he gets.

He didn’t win the Paul Hornung Award and I was down. I thought he should’ve won that. We did everything we could to get his name and his brand out there. Joel did a ton of interviews. People knew who he was. The bottom line, I just still feel it was hard to fight that Penn State brand and Saquon Barkley. Don’t get me wrong, Saquon Barkley is a great college football player, he’s phenomenal. My personal opinion is that the award was still more geared toward what Joel Lanning did. 

But if you would’ve told me at the start of the year that Joel would be a First-Team All-American, and you had to pick one or the other (the Hornung award), I would still say being a First-Team All-American is probably a higher honor. I told Joel this… when you come back to campus five years down the road or ten years down the road, people are going to know that you were a First-Team All-American and some people don’t even know what the Paul Hornung Award is.

Then you had David Montgomery get First-Team All-American by Pro Football Focus, which is pretty accredited. We had more guys get First-Team All-Big 12 than I can remember. It’s rewarding to see all these players get rewarded for their work and they kind of stuck through everything. 

Q: With Lanning, it seemed like during games on national television, that seemed to be one of the storylines. 

A: We really tried to play up his versatility. He’s unprecedented. I couldn’t tell you the last time that a college football player, playing at the high level that he was playing was doing the things that he was doing.

You couldn’t tell me the last time a guy was playing linebacker and quarterback. And not as a gimmick. I always tell people this, he didn’t do this as a gimmick. It was not a gimmick. It was to help our team win football games. 

We needed him in crucial situations. And we put him in there and almost every time, he was successful. He was 9-for-9 on third down and fourth down conversions. We put Joel in there and he was perfect. To me that’s his greatest stat, how he helped our team win games. 

Joel Lanning will go down, no doubt, as one of the greatest Iowa State football players of all time. Not just for being First-Team All-American and all that jazz, but he will go down as he could’ve taken the easy route and quit. I would say 90 percent of the people would do if they lost their job, they would probably quit football or go somewhere else to play. But he took one for the team and said I would do anything in my possible ability to help this team out in any way I can.

Basically got demoted, and rose up to become a First-Team All-American. His legacy will be cemented forever for that. 

Q: When did you find out he was making the transition to linebacker?

A: Right before spring ball. So it would’ve been February of last year.

I remember sitting in Coach Campbell’s office and he told me ‘Yeah, I think we’re going to move Joel to linebacker.’ And I’m sitting there going, ‘How do you take a guy from quarterback to linebacker.’ I have watched football my whole life — I think I know football, but I don’t know football like that. 

I’m just like ‘What? That’s impossible. How’s he going to do that?’ And I remember Coach Campbell sitting there going ‘he’s going to become one of the greatest players in college football.’ He said this in February. He had that much confidence in Joel Lanning. 

And I just walked out of there like ‘Wow, we’ll see.’ I tell you what, coach Campbell was right. He knows what he was doing. He was right. 

Q: Coach Campbell has had some national attention on his as well.

A: Yeah, and it’s been great… We’ve had four assistant coaches get national awards. It’s all across the board — it’s our players, it’s our coaching staff. Everyone paid attention to Iowa State football this year.

Q: How has that changed how people view Iowa State football?

A: I think nationally it’s changed. I couldn’t tell you about in Iowa still. You still have a lot of people that favor the University of Iowa and that’ll never change. But I think nationally, it has. 

More people are realizing that this isn’t the same old Iowa State team anymore. After we beat Oklahoma, I think a lot of people were going ‘Oh my gosh, what a horrible loss for Oklahoma, they’ll never recover from that. How could you lose to Iowa State?’ And then about three weeks later, I noticed those same people going ‘that wasn’t actually a bad loss.’

I started noticing that our brand was picking up steam nationally. People were revering our team’s accolades. We started gaining a lot more followers on Facebook and Twitter. You put something out it gets more impressions, it gets more views, it gets more likes. 

We haven’t had a really good, or successful, season since social media became so big. The last time we made a bowl game was 2012. This was the first time we could really capitalize on social media. 

Q: I have to ask you about the TCU game, too. What did that win mean?

A: Why the TCU game was so important for us was that that game was the first time we won a significant game against a legitimate, really good team at home. And the importance of that game to have our fans, who are the greatest in the nation, who support us through thick and thin. The importance for us to get a marquee win at Jack Trice Stadium was paramount for us.

A lot of our good wins in the last four or five years, if we had one, were on the road …. We went a legitimate five years where we didn’t have a marquee win. Well we got one. 

Q: One of our (Iowa State Daily) tweets with the most engagement was a photo of the crowd on the field with the quote from the announcer, ‘You can tell your grandkids you were here.’

A: I was sitting next to the ABC guy, Tom Luginbill, and he was a sideline reporter. It looked like we were going to win …. He comes up to me and I just ask him ‘Do you want to get the coach and players if we win?’ And he looked at me and he goes, ‘Are you going to rush the field?’ And he goes, ‘Good, I like that.’

He actually wanted that — it’s good for TV. If that happens, I don’t know how I’m going to get everyone with the scrum… I was supposed to get him Joel Lanning and the crowd rushes the field. And I knew he (Luginbill) got coach Campbell… and I’m getting crushed by everyone. I thought, ‘There is no way I’m finding Joel Lanning.’

I gave up. So finally Joel comes into the locker room, it seems like it was a half an hour later. And I go, ‘I couldn’t find you, I had to give up.’ He goes, ‘Well I held 50 kids.’ He said — and he’s probably exaggerating a little — ‘I had to hold 50 kids and take pictures with people and their children on the field after the game.’

How awesome is that? You know, you’re going to remember that for the rest of your life. There were just so many happy Cyclone fans that wanted to get a picture with Joel Lanning after the game with their kid on the field. I just started laughing, I thought that was hilarious.

Q: Is there anything else that sticks out?

A: I just was so amazed at how our guys fought through adversity this year. I think a lot of past teams may have folded, and this team didn’t. They had a lot of curveballs at them this year. With the quarterback situation, questionable calls, games that we could’ve won. They kept fighting and they always believed in themselves.

If you look back, even some of our really, really good teams, they had a stinker of a game. You know one game where they just didn’t play very well. I don’t want to say they got blown out, but they just really didn’t have a chance to win this game. You can’t say that this year. 

Every single game we had a chance to win. Every single game. You’d have to go back a long time to find another year like that. You walked into that stadium and you know something, we had a chance to win this game. Because our players believe that they can beat anyone. 

We might not have as much talent as the other team — and in a lot of cases we didn’t — because this team believes in each other and they have a fight in them. You notice teams that have a fight in them. 

Q: Do you have any expectations for the bowl?

A: It’s going to be a tough game. We’re playing a ranked team on their home field. And they (Memphis) can score a ton of points. 

I’m guessing it’s going to be one of the most attended bowl games of the season. Our fans are going to be there — we’ve already sold out our ticket allotment — and you know Memphis fans are going to be there. 

You’ve got a high-powered offense in Memphis and they’re going to be jacked up to play in their home stadium. We’re going to be excited. We haven’t been to a bowl game since 2012. I don’t think they’ve ever played a defense like ours, so that’ll be interesting to watch how they respond. 

This is going to be a tough game. There’s no doubt we’re going to have to play well to win.