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Iowa State coach Matt Campbell preaching his ‘five-star culture’ as Cyclones strengthen

Cyclones have produced four straight winning seasons, beating Texas twice in the process, and now looking for a Big 12 title

ARLINGTON — Looking tanned and relaxed, Matt Campbell still looked oddly out of place Wednesday at Big 12 media days.

Um, why is he even here at AT&T Stadium? Why is this guy still coaching at Iowa State?

“For me, very simply put, I didn’t get in this profession to be somebody,” Campbell said. “I got in this profession to do something.”

The college football world would certainly understand if Campbell had moved on. The Cyclones have won at least eight games in three of the last four seasons, the high-water mark coming last year at 9-3. Iowa State pushed Oklahoma to the limit in the Big 12 championship game before ultimately falling short at AT&T Stadium, which is right back where he was on Wednesday.

Campbell is 35-28 in five seasons in Ames, 70-43 in nine seasons overall. Maybe the right school didn’t call. Perhaps the ones that did weren’t all that attractive. The New York Jets were rumored to be flirting with him, but that got shot down rather quickly in January. 

Related:Iowa State football picked second, behind Oklahoma, in Big 12 Conference race

Heck, maybe with climate change, things aren’t so bad there in the winter now.

“Did a three-year sentence in Ames, Iowa,” former Texas coach Tom Herman told a Houston crowd in April 2016. “Anybody been to Ames, Iowa? Yeah, it’s awful. Siberia.”

Four straight winning seasons is nice. Maybe Campbell truly doesn’t want to move on until hoisting a Big 12 championship trophy. Oklahoma can’t win it every year, although six straight would seem to indicate otherwise.

Put down those ribs from Jethro’s barbeque and think about what’s possible: Is this Iowa State’s year? The Cyclones have a staggering number of veterans returning — 10 starters back on offense, nine on defense and three specialists. 

Quarterback Brock Purdy, who has almost 9,000 passing yards and 62 touchdowns, is back for his senior season. So is the reigning Big 12 defensive player of the year, linebacker Mike Rose. Eight Cyclones were honored on the All-Big 12 preseason team.

Iowa State coach Matt Campbell and quarterback Brock Purdy could enter the 2021 season ranked in the top 10 of some national polls. Purdy has thrown for nearly 9,000 career yards and 62 touchdowns.

Still, even with all that experience coming back, Campbell plays the underdog card, squeezing all the juice from that rock. “We have to work week-in and week-out to be the best team we can be,” he said.

Running back Breece Hall still embodies his rather electrifying statement after Iowa State’s 23-20 win over Texas last season in Austin. Hall took a blowtorch to the Longhorns by saying “it’s five-star culture vs. five-star players.” 

Asked about it Wednesday, Hall said “That really just came to my head, it wasn’t anything planned or anything like that.”

“The five-star culture just really defines our team,” said Hall, who for the record was a four-star prospect from Wichita, Kan. “It shows that we don’t have those guys that everybody wants. We don’t have the guys who care about the glitz and glamour and the guys with all the hype. We just have guys who are ready to come in, work their butts off and play.”

Fifth-year safety Greg Eisworth II said Hall’s phrase was “short and sweet.” 

Iowa State running back Breece Hall gives his glove to a fan after the Cyclones' 42-6 win over West Virginia last December. Iowa State went on to narrowly lose to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game.

Now that athletes can profit off their name, image and likeness, you too can get a “Five Star Culture” shirt with Hall’s name in the Cyclone Fanatic Shop for $25. Or a “Welcome to Brocktober” shirt to promote the quarterback. Hurry, supplies are endless.

“I’m trying to buy one, man. I’m trying to get some of those,” Campbell joked. “The great thing about our guys is that they’re never going to do anything that’s above the team.”

Based on recruiting rankings, Iowa State probably shouldn’t be this competitive. The Cyclones had the seventh-best recruiting classes in the Big 12 in 2017 and 2018. They moved up to sixth in the league’s composite rankings in 2019 and sixth again in 2020, according to 247Sports.

Texas and Oklahoma are almost always battling for the top two spots. Yet the Cyclones currently have a two-game winning streak over the Horns. They’ve won two of the last five against the Sooners, losing the Big 12 championship game by just six points.

Eisworth said recruits must “have enough humility to put your ego aside, buy into what we’re doing here and that’s how we’re going to roll.”

Players always play harder for coaches they like and coaches they trust. It’s clear Campbell has a bond with his. Maybe it’s because he switched up the spring practice schedule, going to NFL-style OTAs that are less physical and more about teaching.

Recruits also quickly learn it’s not about the fancy facilities or the program’s bells and whistles. It’s about the personal relationships one forms with their coaches and teammates, Eisworth said. And he was a South Grand Prairie graduate, someone who once thought he’d never move that far from Texas.

“Campbell, I could view him as a father, I could view him as a brother,” Eisworth said. “From day one when you talk to him, he keeps it real with you. There are no limits on the conversations you can have with him, and I think a lot of guys respect that. That’s what you’d want from a head coach or someone that you’re playing for.”

This season, Iowa State opens against Northern Iowa and Iowa at home and then plays UNLV at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. If there’s been one hitch in Campbell’s giddy-up, it’s been an early-season stumble, like the one last season against Louisiana.

Yes, it was those same Ragin’ Cajuns that are coming to Austin to face the Longhorns in the season opener. Texas coach Steve Sarkisian will have to face a loaded Louisiana squad with one of the Big 12’s most inexperienced rosters, if game experience counts for anything.  

Campbell has the demeanor of someone who isn’t afraid of anything. Maybe that’s because he knows Iowa State is close to a Big 12 championship, which puts the program close to being in playoff contention.

Five-star coaching? Maybe. Five-star culture, indeed.

“I should probably get a copyright on that, but I didn’t,” Campbell said of Hall’s line. “When your best players stand for what you believe in, and they’re willing to fight for the standard and the culture, then I think your culture has a chance to bleed out.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.