Life can sure be lonely at the bottom rungs of the Big 12 Conference, where the goal of upward mobility requires surpassing established football programs and often doing more with less. This is an existence that Kansas football knows all too well, and for the last two seasons, it’s been reality for Iowa State and Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads.
Once considered a giant-slayer, Rhoads rode into Ames in 2009 and led the Cyclones to three bowl games in four years. Rhoads’ program racked up a slew of remarkable upsets, and the head coach, a walking, talking, strapping embodiment of a Football Coach, became a yearly staple on those locker-room celebration videos you see on YouTube.
The last two years, though, have borne out a major regression in Ames. The Cyclones are just 5-19 since 2013, and they finished 0-9 in the Big 12 last season, supplanting Kansas in the conference cellar. In the aftermath of two losing seasons, Rhoads is working on a minor renovation job at Iowa State, a project underlined by a literal construction job — a $60 million expansion to Jack Trice Stadium.
The project will raise the stadium’s capacity to 61,000 — the third-largest in the Big 12, if you can believe that — and Rhoads is hopeful the product on the field will match the new surroundings.
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“If there was one thing that our fan base really wanted to see take place with any of our facilities, it was this project,” Rhoads says.
The on-field upgrade, meanwhile, will focus on improving a porous run-defense and unlocking a stagnant offense that ranked 89th nationally in total offense last season. The offensive rebuild will fall on former Kansas coach Mark Mangino, embarking on his second year as the program’s offensive coordinator.
“I think Mark has a much better understanding of where the league is at right now, going into his second season as the offensive coordinator,” Rhoads says.
Sitting at Big 12 Media Days on Tuesday, Rhoads spoke in his usually optimistic and confident tone. He talked of injuries that handcuffed Iowa State the last two years. He mentioned that the Cyclones return 11 players with starting experience. And among those returners, perhaps no one is more important than fifth-year senior quarterback Sam B. Richardson, who has battled through his own myriad of injuries the last two seasons.
As a junior, Richardson completed 56 percent of his passes for 2,669 yards while throwing for 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions. In a conference with few sure things at quarterback, Richardson is a veteran. But can he lead the Cyclones back to respectability? In Rhoads’ view, the answer is simple: Yes.
“We're very fortunate to have Sam in place,” Rhoads said. “It's the first year in seven years at the helm that we've had a veteran quarterback like Sam ready to lead us into the season.”
For the Cyclones, the season’s first four games could be pivotal. Two years ago, Iowa State suffered a season-opening loss to FCS program Northern Iowa. Last year, the Cyclones went down early to FCS power North Dakota State. Each loss set an ominous tone for the year.
This year, with another opener against Northern Iowa looming, Rhoads yearns for a more stable start. During the season’s first five weeks, the Cyclones will also face in-state rival Iowa, Toledo and play host to Kansas on Oct. 3, opening the season with a slate of winnable games.
Remember: A year ago, the Cyclones took one on the chin at Kansas, losing 34-14 inside Memorial Stadium. It was a painful signpost for how far the Cyclones had fallen. One year later, Rhoads’ is counting on an offseason renovation plan paying dividends.
“We are a closer football team heading into 2015,” Rhoads says. “Talent, experience, continuity, (it’s) all very important. But if you don't have that chemistry, you don't have that closeness, you're starting at a disadvantage.”