Is Matt Campbell Ready for L.A.?

Leave Iowa State? Matt Campbell’s answer may alter USC’s coaching search

J. Brady McCollough (LA Times)  —  Interested observers of Matt Campbell from Los Angeles to Baton Rouge, La., to Gainesville, Fla., may be looking for a blueprint as to how a pursuit could proceed in the coming days. There is one man other than Campbell himself who can be of some assistance — the only athletic director who has ever seen the long-coveted Iowa State head coach say goodbye to a place he loves.

The man’s name is Mike O’Brien, and he’s been the Toledo athletic director for two decades. O’Brien oversaw the promotion of Campbell to offensive coordinator, named him interim head coach when Tim Beckman left for Illinois, evaluated his performance in that role — “It was as if nothing had changed,” he’d notice — and then made Campbell at age 32 the youngest head coach at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

The two developed a strong bond as Campbell won 35 games in four seasons, but O’Brien, possibly even more than young Campbell, always knew it would come to an end. That’s just how it was in the Mid-American Conference — if a coach had success, he left.

Thanksgiving weekend in 2015, Campbell’s moment arrived. The Rockets played Western Michigan that Friday, and after a tough loss, Campbell found O’Brien and told him that he was going to meet with Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard on Saturday morning in Toledo.

“I assumed it was over,” O’Brien says.

The next day, Campbell met with O’Brien and told him he had accepted the job. But this interaction was no ordinary, business-like formality. Not for Matt Campbell.

“Matt shed a tear or two, that’s fair to say,” O’Brien recalls. “Our conversation was difficult. We had a wonderful AD-head coach relationship. I offered him his first head coaching opportunity. He was very open about our success at Toledo and the times we had.”

Next, Campbell met with his team, and, with that, he was on a flight to Ames that Saturday night.

But, once at Iowa State, he made one thing very clear in his early interviews.

“I thought I’d be at Toledo the rest of my life, and I’ll be honest with you, totally happy with that,” Campbell told the Des Moines Register. “My whole thing was always about people and surrounding yourself with great people. … It’s never been about the level. That had zero to do with why I coach or why I’ve wanted to go or any of those things.”

The last few years, after quickly building Iowa State into a respectable Big 12 outfit and a fixture in the top 25, Campbell has reinforced that sentiment with solid rock (fitting for a guy whose first job out of college was as at a cement company in his native Massillon, Ohio). Campbell has been bandied about for various NFL and Power Five openings, reportedly turning down an offer to coach the Detroit Lions last offseason before signing an extension with Iowa State.

Campbell’s repeated decision to stay at Iowa State, traditionally one of the least successful Power Five programs, has been viewed as unconventional to say the least.

“Well he’s a very loyal person,” says Gregg Brandon, the former Bowling Green head coach who gave Campbell his first job as a graduate assistant in 2003. “That’s what I noticed about him as a young coach. He’s committed to building and sustaining a program. He’s just all in. His head is where his butt is.”

Campbell only left Bowling Green for his alma mater, Division III Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, where he reunited with legendary head coach Larry Kehres. There, as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, Campbell began his unorthodox journey as a defensive lineman by trade who was making his name coaching offense — a move that has served him well.

Playing and then working under Kehres, who led Mount Union to 11 national championships and 332 wins over 27 seasons, Campbell was picking up more than football knowledge.

“At Mount Union, they’re taught you do things a certain way,” O’Brien says. “Treat people with respect, whether they’re players, donors, whoever you’re dealing with. It’s ingrained within that program. Larry Kehres, that’s the godfather. Anyone who played for him, they picked up a lot of traits.”

Before Kehres, Campbell was molded by his father, Rick, the longtime coach of Jackson High School near Massillon. In the Campbell family, a good coach got to work building something special and stayed to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

When Campbell arrived in December 2015, Iowa State had not been ranked in 10 seasons and had just one winning campaign. Ames is one of the hardest places to win because of its lack of talented players to recruit within its footprint and proven track record to sell. Not since Earle Bruce coached the Cyclones and ran off three consecutive eight-win seasons from 1976-78 had Iowa State demonstrated consistent success was possible. Bruce’s reward? The head job at Ohio State, where he replaced Woody Hayes.

In between Hayes and Campbell, Iowa State became a coaching career graveyard. Campbell, with early recruiting classes routinely ranked nationally in the 50s, has put the Cyclones in the top 25 five straight years. Campbell has beaten Texas three consecutive times. He has beaten Oklahoma twice during his tenure but lost to the Sooners in the 2020 Big 12 championship game. That defeat sent the Cyclones to the Fiesta Bowl, where they beat Pac-12 champion Oregon 34-17.

This season was set up to be Campbell’s best yet, with about 20 returning starters including quarterback Brock Purdy and star running back Breece Hall. The Cyclones began the season ranked No. 7 but have not been able to reach last year’s level of play, carrying a 6-5 record into Friday’s season finale against Texas Christian.

Regardless of Iowa State’s disappointing finish in 2021, athletic directors and NFL owners remain enamored with the 41-year-old Campbell. The big picture is still beautiful, which is why USC, Louisiana State, Florida, Washington and the NFL are all potential destinations.

None of the top college jobs open are in the Midwest, the only region where Campbell has ever lived.

“That’s all he knows,” Brandon says. “He grew up in that part of the country and has coached there all his life. I think there’s some degree of comfort because he knows the culture.”

Says O’Brien, “Not that football isn’t important in L.A. and other parts of the country, but it’s part of the fabric here in the Midwest.”

Still, the buzz around a potential match between USC and Campbell has been building since Iowa State’s loss at Oklahoma last weekend. Perhaps Campbell, his wife, and four children are open to a big life adventure. Perhaps not. FootballScoop, which tracks coaching movements, has reported that LSU has interest in Campbell, too.

Some might say Campbell has been acting a little strange lately. Last week, he went on a rant at a press conference about how his goal has never been to win a Big 12 championship but to help young men reach their full potential. This week, with Senior Day approaching, Campbell passionately talked for two minutes about this group of players who were not ballyhooed recruits but never wavered and set the program on a new trajectory.

But was Campbell also putting a final public stamp on his era in Ames? Is he finally ready to bid adieu to Iowa State? If so, which athletic director, if any, will be parked in Ames this weekend?

His quick Toledo exit indicates USC fans could get their answer soon. With Campbell’s season-ending Friday as it did in 2015, his decision will likely be one of the first dominoes of what is sure to be a wild coaching carousel.

latimes.com

_________

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volunteerTrojan
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volunteerTrojan(@volunteertrojan)
November 27, 2021 7:20 am

A good statistical case for Campbell.

https://www.on3.com/teams/usc-trojans/news/musings-from-arledge-matt-campbell/

If this posted link is a repeat, I apologize, I’ve been off the grid up in Yosemite for nearly a week.

rleeholder1
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rleeholder1(@rleeholder1)
November 26, 2021 5:28 am

Whether it’s Campbell, Aranda or someone else, discipline, focus and toughness need to return to the program. I’ve been thinking a defensive-minded coach would be good for SC because the Defense is so poor and porous. Scoring 33 points on Offense isn’t bad, but if you give up 62, then that’s a recipe for disaster. People have laughed at me for years suggesting Jack Del Rio after Sark was let go. Being an All-American Linebacker at USC, Jack knows the SC culture. He’s a disciplinarian and doesn’t take sh*t from anyone. He’s well respected in the NFL for his defensive… Read more »

TrojanRJJ
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TrojanRJJ(@trojanrjj)
November 26, 2021 7:20 am
Reply to  rleeholder1

rlee, I disagree. Jack has no experience anywhere as a head coach and he has no recent experience in the collegiate game and recruiting. He is simply not qualified to be the head coach. Look at the errors in the last three hires: Kiffin – HC experience – Raiders (fired by Al Davis half way through his first year for being a fraud), Tennessee (one year and no success). He came to SC without any success as a HC, was extremely immature, but had a ton of potential. SC is NOT a job where one comes to learn on the… Read more »

rleeholder1
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rleeholder1(@rleeholder1)
November 26, 2021 8:05 am
Reply to  TrojanRJJ

Jack Del Rio was Head Coach in the NFL for both the Jaguars and Raiders. He had no talent to work with when he was coaching at each place and flaky owners to deal with at the time. The dilemma seems to be whether the next USC Head Coach should have experience as a College Head Coach or not. If Donte Williams stays on as Assistant Head Coach, the recruiting would be taken care of. I mentored and taught public accounting auditing when I was an Audit Manager for Ernst & Young to Duane Bickett who was the other All-American… Read more »

Chris
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Chris(@chris)
November 26, 2021 8:06 am
Reply to  TrojanRJJ

I’m not a Del Rio fan either, but the guy has 12 seasons as a NFL head coach.

Rock2112
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Rock2112(@rock2112)
November 26, 2021 10:38 am
Reply to  rleeholder1

I was in favor of a Del Rio hire after Kiffin, but he took the Jaguars job at that time and that ship has sailed. I think his time has come and gone. I am in favor of a defensive-minded coach. I will never understand USC. We had huge success at USC with the model of a defensive minded HC and premiere OC, and then we hauled off on hiring every offensive HC we could get our hands on. The bottom line is that a football team needs toughness and discipline first, and the Xs and Os happen at the… Read more »

rleeholder1
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rleeholder1(@rleeholder1)
November 27, 2021 5:11 am
Reply to  Rock2112

I agree with you Rock2112 regarding the model for success. When I was getting a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Business at USC in the 1970s, the football team won 3 National Championships. Under coaches McKay and Robinson, SC had a solid defense and a balanced, run-first offense. The QB’s job was to be efficient and accurate. Now SC throws the ball all over the lot, has the worst defense I’ve seen in my 56 years of following SC football and must lead the nation in penalty yardage. I’d sure like to see a defensive-minded coach come in because giving up… Read more »

Trojan96
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Trojan96(@trojan96)
November 25, 2021 8:48 pm

Reading Matt Campbell’s comments he sounds like Helton 2.0. “I don’t care about championships, I care about creating the best versions of ourselves”. (Paraphrasing). How low has SC become to get a mediocre Midwest coach with only 1 impressive season under his belt. We need a defensive minded coach. Not a former D-Lineman turned Offense Coordinator. Hell I would take Kiffen 2.0 over this guy in a heartbeat. At least he has matured and has balls of steal.

We are essentially Vanderbilt on the west coast.

Last edited 5 days ago by Trojan96
PN4SC
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PN4SC(@pn4sc)
November 26, 2021 7:19 am
Reply to  Trojan96

Your take on Campbell is seriously misguided. I don’t think he is coming, but SC would be fortunate to get him. He has consistently won at a program that has had no historical success. One of the best coaches out there, but I guess if he doesn’t get ISU to the playoffs, he must be a loser.

Trojan96
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Trojan96(@trojan96)
November 27, 2021 8:10 pm
Reply to  PN4SC

No. I just have higher expectations than you. Matt Campbell has 1 good season under his belt. That’s far from proven. Watch Bama, Ohio State, Georgia. I expect SC to compete on the same level. A 2nd tier coach who couldn’t compete in the Big 10 is not our guy. It make 2-3 seasons for you to come to the same conclusion. But I’m patient and wait to say “I told you so”.

TrojanRJJ
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TrojanRJJ(@trojanrjj)
November 26, 2021 7:28 am
Reply to  Trojan96

I agree with PN4SC. Campbell has a proven track record of excellence as a HC at the collegiate level. The philosophy you object to is the same one John Wooden espoused on his way to 10 NCs. The problem is not the philosophy, it is how it is implemented. His goal is to develop each player and the team to its maximum. The way he implements this philosophy has worked really well in Ames, IA. Will it succeed at SC? Who knows, but no one can deny he is an excellent coach who has had success at a school when… Read more »

Trojan96
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Trojan96(@trojan96)
November 27, 2021 8:06 pm
Reply to  TrojanRJJ

Really Proven??? That’s pure nonsense. One good season is not considered proven.

UtahTrojan
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UtahTrojan(@utahtrojan)
November 25, 2021 3:46 pm

These are the casualties of a mid-season coaching change, as USC has now lost five commits in five-star DE Mykel Williams (flipped to Georgia), five-star CB Domani Jackson (still considering USC along with Alabama and Michigan, Brown (the No. 48-ranked national prospect overall and No. 4 pro-style QB), four-star RB De’Anthony Gatson and three-star linebacker Ty Kana (now committed to Texas Tech).

UtahTrojan
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UtahTrojan(@utahtrojan)
November 25, 2021 3:47 pm
Reply to  UtahTrojan

And I couldn’t be happy that Helton is gone.

Chris
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Chris(@chris)
November 25, 2021 2:11 pm

I am good with any hire that will just come in and do his job. If you think about our horrible era of football since Pete, we’ve had zero competency. Kiffin was immature and hampered by limited scholarships which set us back a long time, Sark was a bad hire with huge personal issues, Clay just couldn’t develop or coach. It was a perfect storm of horrible decisions with no sustained period of anything near competent. If Bohn brings in a coach who is ready to recruit and develop players, we will be a good team again. I’m ready for… Read more »

Steveg
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Steveg(@steveg)
November 25, 2021 2:25 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

We have always known that no matter who gets hired, someone won’t like it. It might be you or me, but there will be someone.

John Weld
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John Weld(@johnnynumbers)
November 25, 2021 1:03 pm

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TrojanRJJ
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TrojanRJJ(@trojanrjj)
November 25, 2021 1:39 pm
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Any hire other than Nick Saban or Urban Meyer will set some part of the fan base off. I read one poster whose standard for the hire was winning multiple national championships, which is totally unrealistic. I have given my picks and it is all about timing and willingness. I assume that Bohn has been in negotiations with all three through their agents (and probably more than these three). If Aranda will not commit or discuss seriously until after the season and Quinn is the same, then Campbell may well be the best choice. It would be an absolute bummer… Read more »

rleeholder1
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rleeholder1(@rleeholder1)
November 26, 2021 5:21 am
Reply to  Allen Wallace

Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving Allen and many thanks to you and John for keeping the blog fresh with new information. It’s one of the highlights of my day!

Steveg
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Steveg(@steveg)
November 25, 2021 10:00 am

Things start to really warm up and another new name appears on the horizon. Jeff Tedford says he is now healthy and ready to get back in the game. He did good work at Cal and even better at Fresno. He would still be at Fresno if he hadn’t had to step down. I kind of think he could find great success at USC.

RialtoTrojan
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RialtoTrojan(@rialtotrojan)
November 25, 2021 9:52 am

I know being early on the post usually means nobody sees what you said, but I have got things to do and people to see today so I’ll write and check back later. First happy Thanksgiving! The great Turkey wasn’t friendly to Trojans this year, but there is hope. Next I finally saw the game (replay video) last night. There’s nothing we can do about it but the refs were not kind to the Trojans during the Ucla contest. I would claim that they rigged the game, but I only have suspicions. I noticed that after the WTF pass interference… Read more »