After a meeting that almost wasn’t, Matt Campbell lands job as ISU head coach

From left, Matt Campbell, new head football coach and Jamie Pollard, director of athletics share excitement as Campbell steps up to new position on Nov. 30.

Ryan Young

Matt Campbell and the Toledo Rockets arrived early to Jack Trice Stadium two years ago — a little too early.

The team and most of the coaches hopped off of the bus and headed down into the locker room to start getting ready for their game against the Cyclones. Campbell did not.

Instead, he took a walk.

Campbell went out into the parking lots, just to explore. He saw hundreds of ISU fans tailgating, having a good time. He saw the ISU football team and coach Paul Rhoads get off of their team bus and walk through hundreds of fans during their weekly “spirit walk.”

But most importantly, he saw something he’d never seen before.

“I don’t know what sparked me that day,” Campbell said. “I think it was just being blown away by what I saw. I’ve played in some great venues and some great places, but I’m really impressed with this.”

The Rockets eventually fell to the Cyclones that day two seasons ago, but that didn’t matter. The impression was made.

And as Campbell led his team back up the ramp from the locker room to the busses, he noticed something else. Everyone was still there.

“I went out in the parking lot, and nobody left,” Campbell said. “They were still having a great time. I just said, ‘This place is really neat.’”

Campbell then called his wife Erica to explain what had happened — and that he could envision living in Ames one day. In fact, he even told Erica that if the ISU job ever became available, it was the one he wanted.

“As the game ended, we left. Before I got on the bus, I made that phone call,” Campbell said. “I told my wife, I said, ‘Erica, you’re not going to believe this place. It’s incredible. The culture, the fans, the facilities, the people — this is a really special place.’”

On Monday, athletic director Jamie Pollard officially introduced Campbell as the new head coach of the ISU football team.

The job he envisioned two seasons ago was finally his.

More than a dozen head coaching jobs remain open among Division I schools this season — including ones at some of the nation’s perennial football powerhouses such as Georgia, Miami and South Carolina.

But Pollard doesn’t have that problem anymore.

“This week and next week will be very stressful for many directors of athletics,” Pollard said. “It’s going to be really fun to sit back and watch and enjoy all of that, because we found our man.”

Pollard had his sights set on the 36-year-old coach almost instantly after deciding to part ways with Rhoads nearly two weeks ago.

There was a problem, though. Campbell still had a game to play.

“We thought Matt wasn’t going to be able to meet,” Pollard said. “He’s a high-character person. He said he would absolutely not meet before Toledo played its last game. I tried every, every possible way to not have that be the case, but he remained steadfast in that belief.”

Toledo fell to Western Michigan last Friday night, marking the end of the Rockets’ season. After the game, Campbell knew it was time to start looking into Iowa State.

Pollard, who was in Detroit at the time, quickly set up a meeting with Campbell and Erica, and they sat down the very next day. They spent several hours together, talking about the job and just getting to know each other. By the end, Pollard said it was simple.

“Matt looked at Erica, they quickly talked about it — they had heard everything they needed to hear,” Pollard said. “He reached his hand across the table and shook my hand. We hadn’t even talked about compensation yet. He said, ‘I want to be the Cyclones’ football coach.’ That doesn’t happen in this day and age, folks.”

As Campbell and Pollard left that meeting room, both would consider it a success. For Campbell, he had the job he had dreamed about.

And for Pollard, the hard part was over. He had his man.

“It’s been a whirlwind of a 72 hours,” Campbell said. “[Pollard] hit the nail on the head. It’s been crazy. But fate has led us here. I am beyond thankful and beyond grateful to be the next leader of this football program.”

The move to fire Rhoads two weeks ago may have gone over well with fans and those outside the program, but those inside the program didn’t necessarily feel the same way.

Wide receiver Allen Lazard, an Iowa native and a Rhoads recruit, was still dealing with the decision on Sunday — and wasn’t entirely happy with it.

“I’m still disappointed with the whole thing,” Lazard said. “I’m still trying to soak in the whole thing with coach Rhoads leaving, but it’s time to turn the corner and hit the ground rolling.”

Lazard, along with running back Mike Warren, quarterback Joel Lanning and others, attended Campbell’s introductory press conference Monday. They wanted to hear what he had to say and gain a first impression of their new coach.

And after hearing both Campbell and Pollard speak, they liked what they heard.

“Sitting in here and listening to him talk the whole time, he said some great things,” Lanning said. “He’s going to get us in the right direction.”

Pollard thought so too, even getting briefly emotional while listening to Campbell address the media. He said he hit a home run with Campbell, and that his character is what separates him from the rest.

“There’s not a person that we talked to that could say one bad thing about Matt Campbell,” Pollard said. “We wanted a winner. I said this about the basketball search. Find me someone who wins, and they’ll win again.

“The end of the season has mattered in every season of his life, and we plan on having it that way going forward.”

Pollard, Lazard and even Rhoads said they expect next year’s football team to be playing in the postseason — and all seem behind Campbell as the man to lead the team to its first bowl game since 2012.

It’ll take more than just a patch job to accomplish that, though, and Campbell knows that. He said he doesn’t plan on Ames just being a pit stop for him and his family.

He’s here to stay.

“This place is special. I’m as loyal as you’re going to get,” Campbell said. “I really believe that the building process in taking something and making it special is what I love to do. That’s not a short-term fix. You’re not going to see a short-term fix by me or my staff. I’m here for the long haul … quite honestly, I look forward to raising my family here in Ames.”

And even though the process of hiring a new coach has been difficult, Lanning said he and the rest of the team are ready to buy in to what Campbell is going to bring to the table.

“Everyone on this team kept an open mind,” Lanning said. “We’re obviously going to let the new coach come in and give him a chance. He deserves that chance. Obviously, he’s had success where he’s been at, and we’re going to embrace it.”

Campbell said it’s still too early to get into the specific changes and tweaks he plans to make. In the meantime, though, his focus is going to be just getting to know his new team and hiring his new staff.

And while he officially gets things going in the coming weeks, one thing is for sure — he’s all in.

“From this day forward, every decision that I make will be strained to bring greatness to the fans, alumni, community, the great students and the great student-athletes that I get a chance to coach on a day-in and day-out basis,” Campbell said. “I’m truly honored to be a Cyclone, and I’m truly honored and humbled to be the head football coach here.”