Moments after winning Iowa State’s first New Year’s Six bowl game on a beautiful Arizona afternoon, Iowa State head football coach Matt Campbell took time to show gratitude to his players and their parents.
As a live nationally televised audience tuned in, ESPN’s Quint Kessenich asked Campbell, “In the most challenging year in college football history, you managed to win nine games, tell us about the character of these young men.”
Campbell didn’t flinch. Very few fully understood the dedication from this exceptional team.
“I first want to say to the parents, this doesn’t happen without their support and belief in our program. Thank you,” Campbell said to the jubilant Cyclone fans watching. “It was also the commitment and belief of the 17 seniors who stayed the course and allowed us to be here today.”
Iowa State rewrote the football record book in 2020:
- Finished first in the regular-season conference standings for the first time ever with a school-record eight conference victories.
- Tied school mark with nine overall victories.
- Produced a school-record four All-Americans, including its first-ever unanimous First Team All-American in running back Breece Hall.
- Made the Big 12 Championship Game for the first time in school history.
- Participated in a program-first New Year’s Six bowl game, defeating No. 25 Oregon in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.
- Tied school record by defeating three ranked teams (Oklahoma, Texas, Oregon) and achieved its highest ranking in school history in any poll (#6 CFP).
The list of records and achievements accrued were plentiful, but the unprecedented success of the 2020 Cyclone gridders is perhaps even more amazing considering it was attained during a global pandemic.
For Iowa State to carry out this enormous undertaking it took an entire team effort. This included an “all hands on deck” initiative from the university, athletics administration, the coaches/staff and, most importantly, the players.
The results were amazing. Not only was Iowa State a national success story on the field, it was exemplary behind the scenes in mitigating the threat of the COVID-19 virus while keeping its players safe and competing every Saturday.
How did they do it?
It started with elite leadership. Campbell had a plan, and with the endorsement from Director of Athletics Jamie Pollard, he inspired his staff and players to choose greatness under the most uncertain circumstances.
“From the very beginning, you knew there were great challenges, and those challenges were equal off the field and on the field,” Campbell said. “The constant reminder of what’s giving us a chance to get ourselves better and have the ability to grow day in and day out, is making the best choices we can outside of football.”
“That’s really hard. You have kids going to class. There are times you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You continue to try and educate your kids, teach through it and remind your kids that they’re trying to play football through a pandemic.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact the United States in March of 2020, the country was turned upside down.
The NCAA basketball tournaments shut down along with Iowa State’s spring football season. A three-month quarantine was in place, as Iowa State University finished out the semester via online classes.
Iowa State, along with the rest of the football teams nationally, just lost a critical developmental period. Campbell was keen in his awareness that teams better prepared to handle adversity will come out on top.
Campbell reached out to his staff and administration and developed a concise program to counter the inability to mentor his squad in-person.
New Director of Football Strength and Conditioning Dave Andrews and his staff sent daily workout regimen and communicated through FaceTime to ensure players were properly training on their own.
Because of varying positions and weights, this involved personalized plans, making communication even more vital.
Rachel Voet, who was hired in January of 2020 as football’s Director of Sports Nutrition, mentored the players and guided them in maintaining a proper diet and fueling during quarantine.
Nate Postma, Assistant Director for Sports Medicine, and his staff conducted rehabilitation exercises virtually to injured athletes unable to use Iowa State facilities.
The majority of ISU’s players ventured away from Ames, but some were unable to do so. For those remaining, Campbell got the green light from the administration to set up a meal plan for the athletes.
Constructing A New Normal
The challenge Iowa State had during quarantine was difficult, but it was going to get tougher when the players returned to campus.
The Big 12 Conference announced on May 22 that football student-athletes were permitted access to campus athletic facilities and support personnel for voluntary conditioning and training exercises beginning on June 15.
As the players gradually made their way back to Ames, a new normal was established. The team handbook was tossed in the garbage. Everything would be different and assisting with implementing safety guidelines was Associate Athletics Director for Sports Medicine Mark Coberley.
Campbell and Coberley spent months planning and devising methods on how to keep the players safe.
Sure, everyone adhered to the rules laid out by the Centers for Disease Control by wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings, but there was more to it than that.
A football team is comprised of over 125 student-athletes and over 50 staff members. Every day requires a large gathering.
The team made drastic changes and remained vigilant throughout the entire season.
- Players utilized the spacious Bergstrom Indoor Football Facility as a makeshift locker room for social distancing.
- The main locker room was off limits until the season started. Half the team used the regular locker room and the other half used the indoor facility. Every other locker was blocked off with barriers at six feet apart. Players stationed 10 feet apart in the indoor facility.
- Weightlifting groups were set up in small pods while using multiple weight rooms in the Bergstrom Football Complex and Olsen Building.
- Offensive and defensive staff meeting rooms switched to large team rooms in the Bergstrom Football Complex for proper spacing.
- For team meetings, the staff used the Scheman Building’s massive convention room area, a vital asset in allowing the entire team/staff to meet as a group.
- Meals served in the Sukup End Zone Club in a grab and go format.
- Travel was precisely organized by Director of Football Operations Greg “Skip” Brabenec. Players who previously tested positive were roomed with players who hadn’t contracted the virus. The amount of busses doubled to spread individuals out. Seating assignments were issued on airplanes to avoid position groups going down through contact tracing.
It was a massive overhaul, but essential in keeping the players safe and the season on track.
“When we started we did a lot of upstream thinking and looking at what will cause us to fail, not how we are going to get through it,” said Coberley. “You have to assume that somebody is going to have a case, and if they do, how can you completely minimize the damage that can occur?”
“We knew that contacts would cause us to fail more than positive cases,” Coberley added. “Everybody understood that, so we concentrated on how we would minimize a positive case. The testing just told us how we were doing. The planning part of it was so much more important.”
The accessibility of Iowa State Center’s Scheman Building was a game-changer. The Athletics Department took over operations of the Iowa State Center in 2019 and found a hidden gem in Scheman.
Scheduled events dwindled at Scheman, a venue where weddings, conferences and seminars are held, because of the pandemic.
Its availability and large conferencing areas were perfect for the football staff to host team meetings.
“Having access to the Scheman Building was critical for us,” Coberley said. “We had three isolated cases of COVID-19 in the last two-thirds of the season. If we had not been in Scheman and still meeting in the Bergstrom, we would not have been able to play some games. We would have had entire position groups out, but we had zero contacts because we were meeting at Scheman.”
“If you ask me,” Coberley added. “The smartest thing we did was to use Scheman. It allowed our team to meet in person and communicate with each other. All the tables were 10 feet apart from each other and players were required to wear masks at all times. We didn’t have to worry about contact tracing at all.”
Players began testing on June 8 and tested regularly throughout the season. The summer was an important time to observe how the virus works, and Coberley was taking notes.
Like many schools, Iowa State had its share of positive tests in July. Observing how the virus spread among individuals gave the Iowa State Sports Medicine staff a chance to react and make changes in its mitigation process.
“We had some players get COVID-19 while they were at home before we brought them back,” said Coberley. “What we learned over the course of the summer was that almost all cases were due to close enclosed contact with somebody breathing the same air. Very little was coming from surface contact. We didn’t know that when we started. We figured this was about sharing airspace with somebody. We learned along the way things we can do to keep the damage to a minimum.”
Weekly testing was a daunting task. The costs would be high and the staff had concerns on how quickly the tests were calculated.
The Athletics Department, however, had an ace in the hole in Iowa State University’s world-renowned Veterinary Medicine College. With the assistance from Vet Med, test results could be processed at a rapid rate. Because Vet Med lab technicians could quickly post test results, the football staff swiftly alerted positive cases to minimize escalation of the disease.
“The biggest problem we had at the beginning was it was taking too long to get test results back,” Coberley said. “If you don’t get the tests back quickly, you can’t start tracing individuals to keep things from spreading. The quality of the testing at Vet Med is second to none, and we were getting super accurate results very quickly.”
The collaboration with Vet Med gave the Cyclones a boost. Practice schedules were altered around testing times.
“Because of Vet Med, we could get tested on Wednesday mornings and by practice in the afternoon, we could pull a guy out if he was positive. Vet Med was also PCR testing, which is the gold standard of COVID tests, and very reliable. We went from having the worst access to testing in the Big 12 when we started in June, to becoming the best in the league thanks to Vet Med.”
Leadership And Messaging
Businesses, organizations and athletic departments can implement all the necessary safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but if a few people are not compliant, the whole operation is doomed.
Campbell stressed this daily with his team. He was fully aware he needed 100 percent buy-in and accountability from every team member. If they were going to get through this difficult season, everyone had to pitch in.
Post-practice and post-game, Campbell remained firm in his message: Do your part. Don’t let up.
“The challenge in college athletics is you’re dealing with 18-to-22 year olds,” The three-time Big 12 Coach-of-the-Year said. “We can’t keep our kids in a hotel. We can’t keep them in a bubble like the NBA. So, the reality has to be in the buy-in value of the players. Can they make great choices? Are they going to wear a mask if they go out in public? Will they stay home instead of go out?”
“Those are all challenges and sacrifices our guys had to make for the privilege to play football. Our kids did that and made great sacrifices all season.”
The sacrifices were even more noticeable from a special group of seniors, a collection of leaders who produced the winningest four-year period in school history with 32 victories.
The seniors had come too far to let this season slip, and the respect they commanded within the team was paramount to the team’s success.
“We had a great group of senior leaders within our walls and they said, ‘Here’s what we want to do. Here’s what we want to accomplish,’” Campbell said. “They had so much respect from their teammates, they were able to create a bubble within our walls.”
Late in the season, senior captain Chase Allen summed up why the Cyclones were doing all the right things behind the scenes.
“We put a lot of emphasis on making wise choices because this is something we get to do,” Allen said. “This whole year was almost taken away from us. This isn’t something we have to do, we get to do it.”
Coberley agrees the players deserve all the credit for making this season one of the best in the annals of Cyclone football.
“We were honest with them. If we were going to get through this life is going to stink,” Coberley noted. “Is everybody in or out? If you are in, everyone has to hold each other accountable. They were committed and made tremendous sacrifices to do things the right way.”
All-American Breece Hall brought this term to the masses after Iowa State’s come-from-behind win at No. 20 Texas in November. It’s appropriate because it signifies how Iowa State was triumphant in this ever so taxing season.
Iowa State never had a pause in activities and played every game on schedule. It was also the only team ranked in the top-12 of the final CFP poll without a postponement or cancellation.
Since school started in late August, the football team only had seven positive cases.
Because of their diligent efforts, the Cyclones rejoiced in Arizona by raising the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl trophy.
“We learned if people do the right things, you really limit your chances of getting the disease,” Coberley concluded. “If you can do that, you have a chance to keep the organization afloat.”