Nothing against the bar scene in this college town, but Iowa State running back David Montgomery had a different idea how to spend Friday and Saturday nights last January and February.
He trekked to the Cyclones’ indoor football facility, initially by himself. Teammates became curious and started following along.
“It became two players, then five, then 10, then 30 and finally everybody,” Iowa State associate head coach and running game coordinator Louis Ayeni said. “All in there, blasting music, playing catch, running seven-on-seven, no coaches.
“This was a group that was tired of losing.”
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The dead of winter self-improvement sessions is a good place to start explaining the turnaround of Iowa State football from a program that entered this season with an 11-37 overall in the previous four years to the 6-3 team that owns victories over top-five opponents in Oklahoma and TCU as it heads into Saturday’s home game against Oklahoma State.
A Big 12 Conference championship remains a possibility. Finishing in the top two of the final standings earns a ticket to the league title game next month and Iowa State holds tiebreakers over two of the leading contenders.
This isn’t a sleeping giant awaking. Iowa State has never played in a major bowl or won a conference championship since 1912. The Cyclones are 4-2 in league play for only the fourth time in school history.
An understanding of that history is why some Cyclones players greeted new coach Matt Campbell with skepticism when he was introduced the after the 2015 season. Campbell had fast-tracked through the ranks, a member of NCAA Division III national championship staff at Mount Union (Ohio), assistant stints at Bowling Green and Toledo before becoming the nation’s youngest head coach at Toledo at age 32.
“He was all fired up,” Cyclones linebacker Joel Lanning said. “At first you have to wonder. He hasn’t been at this level. Was he ready for this?”
Campbell saw doubts on his end.
“The biggest thing I felt the day I came in here, I didn’t know our kids believed they could beat anybody in the conference,” Campbell said. “In our first meeting, it was almost like I said something wrong when I told them that we could play and beat anybody in this conference if you really believe in what it takes to get there.”
One thing Lanning noticed as his role as the starting quarterback for nine games in 2016 was Campbell’s consistent message, even as losses piled up.
“Since day one, he came in preaching championships, and the process,” Lanning said. “He literally lives off the process. Every single day, all the time.”
Fans got a peek inside Campbell’s dedication to the process as a camera rolled during his TCU postgame speech.
“If you fall in love with the process, then eventually — eventually — the process will love you back,” Campbell said.
Even a speech was part of the process.
“Those moments after a game are such great teaching moments,” said Campbell, 37. “They’re raw, they’re real. Something positive or negative just happened. They’re listening. I think it’s a great time to remind us why we had success or why we didn’t, who we are and how we move forward.”
Process has meant progress at Iowa State, which is happening despite an offense that often struggles and a senior quarterback in Kyle Kempt, at his third school but hadn’t started a game in his career until this year.
But where the Cyclones are good, they’re very good, starting with defense. Iowa State has held all six Big 12 opponents to at least 10 points below their scoring average. They’ve surrendered 24 points total in the second halves of those games.
Iowa State is the only team in the nation without a fumble lost this season. They’ve run 631 consecutive offensive plays dating to last season without losing a fumble. Also, Iowa State is the least penalized team in the Big 12 and ranks fourth nationally with 34 flags.
Succeeding in the discipline categories is essential because, as Campbell says the Cyclones are still playing catch-up in talent.
“We don’t have a bunch of five-star players,” Campbell said. “Our niche is doing common this with uncommon consistency.”
Process and belief aren’t all that carry the Cyclones. There are some top-notch players like wide receiver Allen Lazard, who scored the game-winner against Oklahoma. Montgomery is a tough, productive runner mindful of a player many of this staff coached at Toledo, Chiefs rookie Kareem Hunt. Transfer Ray Lima has made a major impact on defense at nose guard.
But no player embodies the transformation more than Lanning, who just before spring practice was switched from quarterback to linebacker upon the staff’s request. He does a little bit of everything, leading the team in tackles, lining up at quarterback in the “Lan Ram” short-yardage formation, and playing on special teams.
“At first, it was like, sure let’s do it,” Lanning said of the position switch. “You think about it later and I’m thinking my whole life I wanted to be a quarterback in the NFL, and it comes to an end, and geez, it hits you a bit. But in the end I just wanted to know what I could do for this team.”
The answer was put the Cyclones in a better position to win, and that’s what happened. What also has happened is an inevitable by-product of success: The what’s next for Campbell speculation. The coach who earns $2.1 million this season figures to be one of the hottest names on the job market after this season.
“It’s something we dealt with at Toledo,” Campbell said. “We came to Iowa State to build something that can last. We haven’t gotten anywhere close to where we think we can go and what we can do with the football program.”
The process continues.