After a 32-55 run in which his most successful season was his first (7-6 in 2009), Paul Rhoads is out at Iowa State. The highest he was ever able to take the program was to the level of "bowl eligible party-spoiler" that won a few big games at home in Ames, most notably their victory over 2011 Oklahoma State who would have otherwise been undefeated and competing for the national title.
In the final three seasons of Rhoads' tenure, working now entirely with his own recruits and not McCarney's or Chizik's, Rhoads was 8-28 and totally uncompetitive within the Big 12 save for against similarly helpless Kansas. In an attempt to save his program he turned to Mark Mangino two years ago while converting the defense into a 3-4 for the 2015 season, which only resulted in Mangino's abrupt and awkward departure and a 66th rated defense by S&P.
Ultimately, Rhoads failed to bring in players that could compete within the Big 12 and he failed to build a Cyclone identity other than that of a team that earnestly wanted to be physical and run the ball on offense while playing tough, bend don't break defense but rarely did either particularly well.
Now Matt Campbell comes from Toledo with a staff of young recruiters looking to lift the Cyclones out of the dregs of the Big 12. His game plan? To make Iowa State the midwestern team in the Big 12.
The team that Rhoads built
Paul Rhoads had an all too familiar strategy that is too commonly bandied about by people as the best way to build a good football program. He tried to recruit nationally and snatch up players from local areas, Texas, Florida, the South, and even out west to California.
Who is hurt when you open up trade to include multiple nations? Local manufacturing.
Who's hurt when every program is trying to recruit California, Texas, and Florida? The last dog to the bowl. Iowa State was always the last dog to the bowl and Rhoads' attempts to build classes by choosing the looked over options from the top high schools in the over-exposed regions rarely generated results.
Here's a look at Rhoads' recruiting by region over his tenure:
Here's the problem that Rhoads discovered at Iowa State, they are never a top choice for any recruit from any region. If you are a D1 recruit in the South or in Florida you are probably going to want to play in the SEC. Even without that opportunity, a good southern or Floridian player will likely have several options before Iowa State becomes appealing like staying local and playing in the AAC or leaving the region but playing for a better program.
Iowa State rarely plays other midwestern programs so their access to local talent is also limited and even in the state of Iowa itself they play second fiddle to the Hawkeyes.
Much of Rhoads players came from the state of Iowa itself, from Texas where the Cyclones play several times every year, from Oklahoma (classified here as the South), from the big schools in Florida where Rhoads and his staff were connected, and from JUCO programs in California, Kansas, Texas, and Iowa.
In all of these instances the Cyclones were one of the last dogs to the bowl and the results were the following 247 rankings for their recruiting classes:
What's more, the Cyclones repeatedly had to remove some of their most talented players from the program for disciplinary reasons as Rhoads had to take risks on kids other programs passed on in order to try and improve his talent pool.
An effective strength and conditioning program combined with Rhoads' culture was not enough to lift these talent levels above the league's floor and that's where they found themselves when his players were the only ones on campus.
The Rhoads strategy of fielding physical run games was hopeless when they never had the necessary talent to impose their will in the trenches while their defense was frequently bent past the breaking point due to a lack of athletes at corner or in the pass-rush where Rhoads never had a player that reached 10 sacks in a season.
Where can Campbell recruit?
The key for every college program is not to try and match Notre Dame's national appeal and recruit across multiple state lines, nor to look in Florida for the best players if there's no compelling reason for winning players from that state to choose that program.
Every coach has to determine where his own recruiting advantages lie and then how to make the most of that talent against the opponents on their schedule. Iowa State doesn't really have any great recruiting advantages as a program, but it does have some possible areas they can hit.
First there's the JUCO programs within the state and in neighboring Kansas where the Cyclones regularly play. Bill Snyder has moved away from mining the Jayhawk community college programs to an extent, save for offering preferred walk-on spots for graduates of that system, and there are opportunities for Campbell to snag some players every year from that pool.
Then there's Texas, which has a massive pool of players and several unpolished or overlooked gems every year that could be convinced to go to Iowa State in order to play against the Big 12. For instance, Iowa State would have been Baker Mayfield's best offer and only Big 12 scholarship opportunity.
Rhoads was right to look in Oklahoma, where the Cyclones also play often, which has a lot of overlooked 2/3 star talent due to the fact that it's a rural state that doesn't see a ton of scouting. Case in point, the 1k yard sophomore RB that Campbell once recruited to Toledo and now finally inherits as a player, Mike Warren.
Finally there's Iowa itself and the talent beds within a four hour radius of Ames, which is largely barren of major population centers or talent pools. That's the starting point for any Iowa State head coach in terms of building recruiting pipelines.
This plain reality of Iowa State's difficult position means that any hire needs to bring with him connections to scout and recruit those areas as well as possible, particularly Texas, and probably the resources and know-how to expand the Cyclone's reach into other regions. Matt Campbell is hoping to bring with him the state of Ohio.
At Toledo, which has a much weaker conference affiliation than Iowa State though more local draw, Campbell recruited classes that were near the top of the MAC conference every year and was working on a 2016 class ranked near where Iowa State tended to finish under Rhoads.
The Rocket roster included 53 Ohioans as well as 10 kids from Pennsylvania, all of which were from Pittsburgh. His early additions to his staff have included Tyson Veidt and Alex Golesh, both of whom have been Toledo recruiting coordinators focused on recruiting Ohio.
In his introductory presser Campbell noted, "we're the Big 12 option in the midwest," and it's clear enough that recruiting Ohio and Pennsylvanian kids and playing midwestern-style football is the underpinning of Campbell's strategy for elevating Iowa State within the Texas-focused Big 12.
What kind of team can Campbell build?
There's a reason Campbell chose the Iowa State job and finally left Toledo after years of opportunities born from his good reputation and success as an assistant and eventually head coach there, he prefers to build something new and unique at a place like Iowa State rather than try to catch on at the big programs. As a young man (only 36) he's like a young entrepreneur keen on building a culture and power like what he experienced at D3 power Mount Union rather than working his way up the ladder at a corporate chain.
His plan for building a midwestern football program within the Big 12 will follow the typical pattern for midwestern football powers. His defense at Toledo was a Norm Parker-esque defense focused largely around two-deep coverages, bend don't break philosophies, and good fundamentals. Whether they follow that same pattern in Ames is unclear since Campbell hasn't made a hire yet, but it's likely that it will.
His offensive philosophy is more concrete and its essentially to build a diverse run game that forces defenses to bring numbers into the box and leave defenders isolated on the outside so that the QB can beat them with simple hi-low reads like "curl-flat." They'll do this from big or small formations and prefer to be as multiple as possible but this is still the main strategy for moving the ball.
To build a system like that at Iowa State that can compete in the Big 12 will require that Campbell load up on the needed OL recruits and beef them up, WRs that can punish defenses when working in isolation, RBs worth handing the ball to twenty times a game, and a strong-armed QB to stand tall in the pocket and deliver the ball down the field. The OL and QB have been the sticking points for Iowa State in the last several years, many of the other pieces are already in place for Campbell.
From there, the Big 12 has other challenges for midwestern football, namely the need for an offense that can score points. You can be a Big 12 team that runs the ball effectively, burns clock, and plays tough defense, but you can't win the league without winning some shootouts. No defense is immune from getting lit up a few times per year.
The upshot there is that the QB has to be able to connect in the passing game or the RB has to be an explosive player because scoring 20 points and running 35-40 minutes of clock isn't enough when the league's best offenses can routinely score in less than two minutes.
The Big 12 is filled with teams that are executing at a high level on offense and even defense without loading up on super high-rated recruiting classes. The key is that Campbell's Ohio pipelines provide him with players to control the trenches and a QB or RB who can deliver the ball to the end zone through sheer physical talent. That his evaluations are effective for finding players that have the right skills to plug into a system and be made to look as talented or more talented as they truly are.
The reason that a Baylor or Texas Tech can field dominant offenses is that they have systems which allow the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. Midwestern football can accomplish those same aims in the Big 12 if Campbell can find the kinds of players that make it work.