Dible Overtime: Pollard’s firing of Rhoads won’t fix Iowa State’s football woes

Quarterback Joel Lanning gets hit from behind and fumbles the ball, which was then recovered by Kansas State. The Wildcats rallied back to win the game 38-35 on a last second field goal at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan, Kan., on Nov. 21, 2015.

Max Dible

What if Cole Netten made a 32-yard field goal against Toledo? What if the Cyclones made one more defensive stop late against Oklahoma State in Jack Trice Stadium? What if Mike Warren never fumbled inside of two minutes at Kansas State?

What if?

Iowa State (3-8, 2-6 Big 12) could be 6-5 right now. The Cyclones probably should be 5-6 at worst, blowing two road games against Toledo and Kansas State that they held in their collective palm with only a precious few seconds remaining.

But the time for what ifs; the time for would haves, could haves and should haves are through. Those are hypotheticals, and this is reality.

Paul Rhoads is out as Iowa State’s head coach after seven seasons at the helm.

“This is a decision that I certainly wish [I] didn’t have to make, I wish we didn’t have to be in this spot because it disappoints a lot of people,” said ISU athletic director Jamie Pollard. “Sometimes you can want something more than it wants you.”

Potential and the hope it breeds for the future were no longer enough to satiate Pollard, and he said as much on Monday afternoon when he announced that Rhoads would coach his final game for the Cyclones at West Virginia this upcoming Saturday.

“I believe our team has got more talent in that locker room than we’ve had in my 10 years that I’ve been here,” Pollard said. “We have unbelievable potential, but unfortunately they don’t keep score on the scoreboard for potential and talent. They keep score on results, and we just didn’t get the results that we need to get.”

Results are harder to come by in the Big 12 than almost anywhere else in the country, and the reason why is simple: every team plays every other team, and at a school like Iowa State, that’s a recipe for underachievement. Like it or not as an ISU fan, this team should be graded on a curve.

When asked about realistic expectations and the ISU fans’ relationship to them, Rhoads hinted at a problem before deciding to press the “mute” button.

“I’ll leave that alone,” Rhoads said with a wry smile, after offering a heartfelt thanks and appreciation for the fan support throughout his seven years. “Reality and fans sometimes is very convoluted.

“I’ll just leave that alone.”

You leave it alone, Paul. I’ll take it from here.

You have to wake up, ISU fans. Hope is all you get, and that’s not your coach’s fault (or former coach’s fault, as it were) — at least not entirely.

Rhoads made some questionable calls late against both Oklahoma State and Kansas State, and his explanations for all of them felt like wobbling excuses. He constantly reminded the media of how difficult the schedule was and too much of his post-game rhetoric was littered with hints at moral victories.

It was almost like he was leading a thinly veiled campaign to keep his job ever since Netten blew that “gimme” kick in Toledo, dropping the Cyclones to 1-2 in non-conference play.

Yet still, on several occasions, it was Rhoads’ players who let him down — who put him in the position to make bad calls, and they weren’t mistakes born of a lack of talent. They were simply mistakes that all players make on occasion. They just happened to come at the worst possible times.

The players felt that guilt when they met with the media Sunday and Monday.

“When the coach gets fired you think to yourself, ‘What could I have done differently to maybe get us a touchdown in the second half to put the game away?'” said quarterback Joel Lanning, who fumbled with only seconds remaining in a tie game at Kansas State. “There’s always that sense of guilt, you know? You feel like you didn’t do everything possible.

“It’s just heartbreaking.”

Lanning wasn’t alone in his sentiments.

“As a player, you relive every play in every close game,” said senior offensive lineman Brock Dagel. “‘Maybe if I had taken two more steps here, if I would have blocked him for a half of a second longer here, maybe things would be different.’ And that’s a huge reason why it’s so sad. It kind of weighs on you.”

Rhoads’ job is one of the most difficult in the Power Five conferences, and absolutely none of that is his fault.

Four Big 12 teams reside and recruit in Texas, a premier state for football talent, and one in which Iowa State eats only table scraps. That wouldn’t be such a big deal if the Cyclones didn’t have to play each of those teams every season, not to mention Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

Iowa State has played the fourth-toughest schedule in the nation through 11 weeks, according to sports-reference.com. The influx of money into football facilities has certainly helped the program’s recruiting efforts, but trying to excite players from the south about sub-zero winters in a town that’s a far cry from a metropolis is no easy task.

That task is compounded by a program lacking historical prestige, it’s last conference title coming more than a century ago.

Simply put, there’s a couple major reasons that the Cyclones have one winning season in the past decade, and new blood on the coaching staff isn’t the most effective medication for alleviating Iowa State’s football headaches.

“I think that the schedule right now in the Big 12, with 10 teams and a round robin of nine, is very difficult for Iowa State,” Rhoads said. “It would be in Iowa State’s interest to be in a 12-team league, with two divisions and not having to play everybody [every year].

“Those are some things that need to change for Iowa State to have an opportunity.”

There aren’t enough votes in the Big 12 yet to expand the conference back to 12 teams or to a higher number, and that discussion boils down to money.

Due mostly to the current television deal with ESPN and Fox, each of the 10 member universities cash in from the conference to the tune of more than $25 million annually — well over one-third of the revenue brought in yearly by all ISU athletic programs collectively.

Adding two teams would theoretically would make Iowa State’s piece of the money pie smaller, but over time, with entrance into the right markets and the addition of a conference championship game, revenues may actually be driven up.

It might not even take that long.

The motivation to expand for programs like Texas and Oklahoma will come if the Big 12 is excluded from the College Football Playoff for the second time in two years, an outcome that’s entirely possible considering the current rankings, and one that is compounded by the fact that the Big 10, SEC, ACC and Pac 12 all hold championship games.

But those schools don’t need the conference money like Iowa State does. The motivation for Iowa State will have to rise out of big-picture thinking from Pollard, who must be willing to champion a risk on the notion that splitting the conference in two will allow for an easier schedule.

That schedule will allow for more wins, more prestige, better recruits and eventually more success. More success will allow for more money and that cash influx may be accompanied in a few short years by 12-team conference revenues per school matching or exceeding the 10-team conference revenues Pollard is currently reticent to relinquish.

Nothing on the money side is guaranteed, but a Big 12 television network is also more likely with 12, 14 or eventually 16 member conferences reaching into more markets across the nation.

The Big 10 and the SEC each have their own networks, and they just happen to be the two conferences that pay out their member universities more than the Big 12 does, despite having 14 member schools each — or to put it another way, four more mouths to feed.

The decision to fire Rhoads is going to cost Iowa State roughly $4.5 million over the next six years, or about $750,000 annually until 2021. That’s a big hit to a university with a profit margin as thin as Iowa State’s, but Pollard said the coffers have been filled to meet a challenge exactly like this one.

“We’ve run an athletics program that has not only invested in itself but is prepared for a day like this,” Pollard said. “The price of poker just continues to go up. I think we’ve positioned ourselves very well to have to deal with that. Five years from now, the cost of getting the wrong person will be even far greater than it is today. In 10 years, it’ll be a multiplier.

“I don’t like to spend that kind of money because I’m prudent, but it’s the cost of doing business.”

It may well be time for Pollard to extend the “cost of doing business” attitude toward conference expansion. He said before the season that expansion simply doesn’t make financial sense, adding that there aren’t two teams out there that can add the kind of revenue to the Big 12 to make the 10 member schools whole immediately after an expansion.

But if he’s making decisions for the future, then he has to realize a minor hit over the next few years to add two teams to the Big 12 has the potential to pay real dividends down the line. It will make Iowa State competitive more quickly, and that should help Pollard avoid another buyout situation where he’s paying a coach roughly $1 million per year not to work for Iowa State.

The likelihood that the athletic department finds itself in a similar situation in three or five or seven years is enhanced by the reality that there will be more than a dozen other schools looking for head coaches this offseason, creating what Pollard called a “seller’s market.”

He’s probably going to have to pay a less-qualified, less-familiar coach more money to walk into one of the toughest jobs in America.

When all the dollars and cents are considered, the sense of letting Rhoads go doesn’t add up, at least not this season.

Pollard said the media wasn’t called to the Jacobson building and the Bergstrom Football Complex Monday because Iowa State fumbled twice inside of two minutes against Kansas State. But he also answered the question of whether or not we’d have been there if the Cyclones had held on in Manhattan, Kan., by calling it a hypothetical question — unknowable.

There is a thin line between winning and losing at the highest level of college football. Pollard himself admitted there was more talent in the ISU locker room than he’s seen in his decade-long tenure as athletic director.

Rhoads did that.

Rhoads made hard choices, firing Mark Mangino and dropping fifth-year senior quarterback Sam Richardson to a back-up role in favor of Lanning — changing the dynamic of the offense. He incorporated a 3-4 defense. He went the junior-college route as a recruiter as a stopgap following five wins in a two-season stretch.

And even if he did make the occasional excuse, blow the occasional call and tout the occasional moral victory — he was an Iowa State man through and through. He was trusted and loved by players in a way most coaches aren’t, having given many of them an opportunity to play major college football when they likely wouldn’t have gotten that chance anywhere else.

He was a good value, and he was one missed kick and two fumbles shy of coaching for a bowl-game birth this Saturday at West Virginia. Instead, he’s coaching his final game as a Cyclone.

I can’t assert that there isn’t cause for Pollard’s firing of Rhoads. Eight wins in three years is about as abysmal as it gets.

But I can say that without wholesale changes to priorities at Iowa State and a shift in the Big 12 back to a two-division conference, coaching changes won’t make one lick of difference.

Iowa State may go bowling next year. Rhoads thinks the Cyclones will, but much like Rhoads’ first season in Ames — characterized by a 7-6 record and a bowl victory — at least partial credit will be due the predecessor.

Maintaining that hypothetical level of achievement will prove the kicker, the elusive outcome at a football program with built-in disadvantages around every corner.

What if Cole Netten made a 32-yard field goal against Toledo? What if the Cyclones made one more defensive stop against Oklahoma State in Jack Trice Stadium? What if Mike Warren never fumbled at Kansas State?

We’ll never know.

But here’s the more pertinent question now: What if the next coach at Iowa State has the exact same problems and the exact same results in a 10-team conference?

I think we’re about to find out.