The man who turned one of the nation’s perennially mediocre, uninspiring football programs into a team with confidence and soul had to be from this place.
He had to grow up just 11 miles of cornfield away from Jack Trice Stadium. He had to watch the chip growing on this program’s shoulder when it always played second fiddle to the University of Iowa in the heart of flyover country. He had to experience what it was like here as an assistant coach early in his career, to go through 3-8, 2-9 and then the 1-10 season.
He had to live through all of this to comprehend the cynicism and embarrassment that surrounded the moribund Iowa State football program.
So Paul Rhoads is from Iowa. So he’s got roots. So one of the benefits to coming back here was to be near his ailing mother, who died from Alzheimer’s last year. So he knew an alum could have had a child during the school’s 1978 bowl game and not seen another bowl game until that child was 22 years old.
What does any of this even matter in the college football industry, where any coaching job outside the top tier is merely a stepping-stone to the next? What do your roots matter when your administration is clamoring for wins and your fans are begging for relevance and the media are ignoring you altogether, more occupied with the playoff system than some down-on-its-luck school?
But even in our rootless country, where families are dispersed and jobs take us from one state to the next, Rhoads believes roots still mean something. And they must for this man, who just might be the biggest coaching surprise in college football as well as its most authentic, refreshing character.
Why? Well … when Rhoads took over this program in 2009, all hope seemed lost. The supposed coaching savior, Gene Chizik, had skipped town after two losing seasons (3-9 and 2-10) for a bigger, better job at Auburn. Some players were looking at their third coach since they’d been recruited. Rhoads walked into his first team meeting and told the players they would win a bowl game that coming year. Then he said this: “I am so proud to be your football coach.”
That meant something.
It meant something when his team snapped the nation’s longest road losing streak in his first road game. It meant something when his Cyclones won at Nebraska for the first time in 34 years, and a choked-up Rhoads quieted his jubilant locker room with this: “Listen to me! I am so proud to be your football coach!”
It meant something when a video of that postgame speech was played over and over on TV and the internet, showing Iowa State football players dancing and jumping and singing their fight song. It meant something even Tuesday when President Obama, in Ames for a campaign speech, said, "I won’t pretend I can give a speech like coach Rhoads can, but I’m going to try."
It meant something when that 2010 team won a bowl game, only the third bowl win in school history. It meant something last year when the Iowa State Cyclones — the Iowa State Cyclones! — changed the national championship picture with a come-from-behind, double-overtime victory over second-ranked Oklahoma State in the most exciting college football game of 2011.
And in a sport where long-term contracts don’t really mean all that much, it meant something when Rhoads signed a 10-year deal last year to stay in his home state.
One recent morning Rhoads paused a game tape showing on his office wall to lift up a homesick freshman who missed his girlfriend. He told the freshman about when he was a youngster and had to plug coins in the pay phone to call up his lady. At least you got cell phones!
And even though Rhoads and his team are focused on the upcoming season, with one of the nation’s toughest schedules with six opponents in the Top 25, that little moment meant something, too.
“Coaching is the greatest form of teaching, because you have so many avenues to get to players,” Rhoads told FOXSports.com. “But make no mistake: I’m a CEO. That’s what this job is. It is big business. I’m the CEO of this organization, and this business is getting nothing but bigger. It’s not shrinking any time soon. People talk about trying to bottle up these facility wars — it’s not happening. It’s just not happening. There’s too much money in it.”
And that is now the challenge for the hometown boy who has succeeded at his hometown school in his first head coaching job. He must remain true to those roots while pushing his career forward. He must know that when you find success at a place like Iowa State, the big boys come calling, and the realities of big-business college football clash with the romanticism of sticking to your roots.
This was the state where Rhoads, now a 45-year-old father of two teenage boys, grew up watching his dad coach high school football, listening to his dad’s emotional pregame speeches, idolizing the players. Then he left Iowa and gained some life perspective. He coached college ball in all four US time zones by age 26.
He got his best job yet as the defensive coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh, and he brought his wife and two young sons to live in a fifth-wheel trailer at a campground while they waited for their bid to go through on a house. He was offered a bigger, better job at Auburn shortly into his stint at Pittsburgh, but he didn’t take it: The timing didn’t feel right. He was trying to build something at Pitt, and he wasn’t done yet.
And that loyalty meant something, too, when he came back to this place that felt like a jilted lover after Chizik left.
“The players before him went through a lot of coaching changes, and those players were very excited to know we had a coach that was here for a while, for a long, long time,” said Jeremy Reeves, a defensive back entering his senior season. “The seniors were so relieved: ‘The school has a coach now. The coaches wouldn’t be in and out.’ There were coaches coming and going, and him saying he was so proud to be their coach — they never heard that.”
And so when the Cyclones upset the national championship picture last November, this was more than a 26½-point underdog stepping up big on the national stage. This was more than the first time Iowa State had ever beaten a team ranked in the top six. This was more than an Iowa State middle finger pointed in the general direction of Auburn, Ala.
This was Paul Rhoads starting a bit of a winning tradition in a place that’s used to being the underdog.
“You’re not walking by a bunch of trophy cases and tradition-rich things when you step on our campus,” Rhoads said. “The biggest challenge as I look at it is taking a piece of success and an energy that surrounds our program right now and improving upon that.”
Let’s not overstate things. This underdog has not officially “arrived.” The Cyclones still won only three games in the Big 12 in each of Rhoads’ three seasons.
Even after their eye-opening Oklahoma State win, they’re still picked to finish eighth or ninth in the Big 12 this season. Tulsa is favored to beat Iowa State in the opener this weekend — the Cyclones are the only Big 12 team not favored in its opening weekend. It’s at least a couple of eight-win seasons before people take Iowa State seriously. Old reputations die hard.
But that Oklahoma State game represented a newfound hope and confidence in a program that’s not used to either. The idea of Rhoads leading this team to a bowl win in his first year sounded far-fetched until it happened. The idea of a coach authentically proud to be at Iowa State seemed implausible until it became so self-evidently true. The idea of Iowa State nearly doubling its season ticket sales over the first three years of Rhoads’ reign seemed laughable, but, yep, it happened.
The idea of a perennial doormat becoming nationally relevant seemed impossible, too — until Kansas State did it, then Oklahoma State did it, then Baylor did it, and that’s just in Rhoads’ own conference.
For now, Iowa Staters can be as proud of their turned-around football program as their coach is. They can revel in their ebullient coach jumping down the sidelines and crying in the locker room. And they can point to Paul Rhoads’ success as proof to us all that, yes, staying true to our roots really does matter.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.