AMES – Iowa State football coach Matt Campbell’s favorite thing about being a head coach is developing leaders.
Campbell’s theory is that if he has a player-led program, the buy in will be that much more from his athletes. He has to develop the leaders, but he lets them take the reins once they’re established.
It’s something he learned from legendary coach Larry Kehres at Mount Union, and it’s something he’s carried through as a head coach himself.
“My Mount Union experience, and comparing it to my Pittsburgh experience from when I was there, the one thing that was drastically different was the players’ ownership within the program,” Campbell said.
To establish leadership within his team, Campbell developed a leadership counsel.
“It’s one of the most prestigious things that can happen (in our program),” Campbell said. “It’s voted on by our team – we already voted on next year’s team. Mid-way through the winter, we started a leadership class.”
The leadership classes consist of on internal and external voices regarding various topics of leadership.
“I take ourselves back to our teaching days and it’s kind of like my own class,” Campbell said. “I bring different coaches in, outside people in, use different themes.”
Last year, Cambpell used a book called Legacy, it’s a book basketball coach Steve Prohm previously used.
Campbell took different chapters he thought would have the most impact and he went in-depth on the teachings.
“(The class) always changes because there is always new challenges and new complexities to leadership of every football team,” Cambpell said. “It can’t be the same curriculum and class every year, it has to be ever-changing and evolving.”
Cambpell goes to such great lengths to teach leadership because he learned as a young coach that he can’t always expect it to happen organically.
“You have to give them some tools for their tool belt to be able to handle situations and be able to lead,” Campbell said. “I think those things become foundationally critical to your success. My job is to help guys learn how to lead. Those things happen organically at times, but it’s our job to teach leadership, it’s our job to continue to grow and develop the leadership in our program.”
In an ideal world, the seniors teach the juniors how to lead, and it trickles down to each class.
Because of this, the leadership counsel consists of at least one player from every class. It also consists of one player from each position group.
“I’ve always said change happens in small groups, now we have those small groups,” Campbell said.
And Iowa State has already seen changes. The Cyclones won eight games last year, including a bowl win.
Last year’s senior class gets the credit. Joel Lanning and Allen Lazard are the first names that come to the mind of many. But Campbell mentioned J.D. Waggoner, Jake Campos, Marchie Murdock and Jack Spreen.
Each of those guys took someone under their wing, and made them better. They put their egos aside allowed the younger players to flourish and arguably become better than they were on the football field.
“The growth the JaQuan Bailey made, J.D. Waggoner took the bull by the horns,” Cambpell said. “Jake Campos and Julian Good-Jones. (Good-Jones) being immature and then having football become the most important thing in his life. I think Hakeem Butler and the impact Marchie Murdock had on him.
“They’re not finished products yet, but you saw growth in every aspect of their life because a senior said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to let you fail. I’m going to keep pouring into you. I’m going to get you on our side. I’m going to get you over the hump.”
Spreen is a special case. He took in fellow senior Joel Lanning. Lanning had the maturity aspect of it down. But he was transiting from quarterback to middle linebacker.
Spreen was a walkon and primarily played special teams. He had an opportunity to compete for the middle linebacker job when Lanning made the switch.
But Spreen still spent every day of the summer watching film with Lanning and dissecting the ins and outs of playing the position.
“Ego gets in the way of a lot of us,” Campbell said. “Everybody that plays this sport wants to be on the field, they want to be the one to make the play, but they can’t. The quicker you learn to accept and know your role, and then excel at your role to define the success of the team, the more success the team is going to have.
“Jack’s one of those guys that has always known that. Somebody moves over to his position, and he’s willing to spend all of the summer watching film with him to better him because he knows it’ll better our football team. It’s profound. I think Jack taught a lot of these young guys what unselfishness looks like.”
Kyle Kempt and Murdock also did that. But they were rewarded with playing time. Spreen was still a special team’s player.
“The young guys now know the reward that comes with (selflessness) – from a team aspect,” Campbell said. “That’s monumental, in my opinion.”
The impact the last year’s senior class made on the Iowa State football program will lay in its foundation for a long time. And for the first time Campbell can remember, every position group has a chance for its best player to be its hardest worker – something he said is vital to success.
But it’s also more than football for Campbell. He knows only a handful of guys have a realistic chance at playing in the NFL. The rest have to get a "real-world" job.
“Winning and losing is getting these guys to reach their full potential,” Campbell said. “The scoreboard will take care of itself, but the reality is, how do we get these guys the tools, that when they leave here, they have the opportunity to go be successful. To be great husbands someday, be great fathers someday, be great leaders in the community.
“If this is just about football, if that’s what we’re doing, then we’re failing. A lot of programs are at that level. And if they are, that’s cool, that’s how they run their program. But that’s not how we run it. To me, it’s about the evolution of coming in as an 18-year-old young man and leaving our program as a 22 or 23-year-old man and having all the tools – not just being a good football player – but to go out in life and be really successful.”