Matt Campbell has won pretty much everywhere he has been as both a player and coach, but it hasn’t been easy.
Campbell’s father was a football coach, but moved to the rival school to allow his son a dad-free coaching experience through high school. The move paid off, as the younger Campbell won three conference titles as a defensive end/tight end during his high school years in Massillon, Ohio.
After an initial stop in Pittsburgh to play for the Panthers in 1998, he transferred to the University of Mount Union, a Division III Liberal Arts college in Alliance, Ohio that boasts one of lower division football’s most glaring rates of success. Campbell helped lead the team to three National Championships during his time as a Purple Raider.
But then the honeymoon ended. The high school success and division III championships just weren’t enough when he looked to continue his football career and after college, he struggled to find a job in coaching. He sent his resume everywhere to no avail and found himself working at a cement factory back in his hometown.
However, a stroke of fortune allowed him a Graduate Assistant (GA) position at Bowling Green (BG) and he made the most of it. During his stint as GA at BG, he was tasked with entertaining visiting VIPs on occasion. One such guest was Scott Pioli, Director of Football Operations for the New England Patriots. Campbell, at the age of 23, impressed Poili enough to get an interview offer to be a part of the most illustrious staff in the last twenty years (if not ever). He declined.
After joining the staff of his alma mater in the years to come, he would revisit Bowling Green a few years later as offensive line coach and running game coordinator. According to a 2015 AP article, Urban Meyer tried to hire Campbell without even meeting him. “Someone recommended him to me and I started asking my friends who were high school coaches in the state and to a man they loved the guy,” said Meyer. “Then I started doing my homework on his football acumen and it all came back plusses.” Though he struggled to break in to the profession initially, Campbell controlled his coaching future by his late 20s.
He got his big break when he found his way onto the Toledo staff in 2009. Less than two full years later, he took over as head coach and four years after that, his record stood at 35-15.
During three of his four full seasons at Toledo, Campbell won nine games and during his final year, he finished with a record of 9-2, the exact tally that Nick Saban notched during his year at the same university in 1990. He walked by a framed picture of Saban each day as he walked the team’s facilities.
His greatest accomplishment to date is his complete resurrection of a perennial underdog in Iowa State. This is what makes him the coaching candidate with the highest ceiling, and one that every school with a vacancy will likely entertain.
It took a few months to change the culture in Ames, but by the tail of his first year at Iowa State, the team was starting to buy in. Since 2013, Iowa State were 11-37 (6-30 in the Big 12) and the Cyclones went 3-9 during Campbell’s first year. But at the end of Campbell’s first campaign, the Cyclones averaged the fourth most yards per game on offense in school history (421.6/game). The Cyclones had three running backs with over 500 yards and a 1,000-yard receiver in what was widely described as a balanced offensive attack. This year, Iowa State is one of two squads that has five players with over 30 receptions. He’s a coach who played defense, coaches offense and understands the intricacies of each side of the ball. But if you ask those who know him, it’s his respect for both peers and players, along with his love of the process, that has made him one of the most sought-after coaches in the country. Campbell’s own “code of conduct” follows him to every stop he makes, urging everyone in eyeshot to be polite. It’s a simple concept, but one that he demands of his players and coaches. He also has a few old-school policies in place (including a no-bar policy during the season).
His second season in Ames has featured wins over two top five teams (Oklahoma and TCU) with a walk-on quarterback and a quarterback playing linebacker (and playing very well). Iowa State held a record of 1-54-2 against top five teams before this season. After a good bit of research, there is a clear reason for the Cyclones’ success and it’s Matt Campbell. I’m willing to bet that wherever he goes next, that same success will follow.
The biggest concern with Campbell is that he’ll probably be the next coach at Ohio State (his home state school), whenever Urban Meyer decides to hang up his whistle. That, and the pesky 9.3 million buyout that any school that hires Campbell will owe Iowa State. Matt Campbell does not have an agent and currently earns just over $2 million as a base salary, which makes him the 53th-highest paid coach in the country. Here is the incentive-laden contract he and his team came up with.
There are three parts to the manifesto that Campbell wrote at a table with his wife before he got his first full time gig as a head coach: “Recruit, retain, develop.”
If the former staff at Tennessee had done a better job with items two and three on the list, we wouldn’t have just expired our free reads on the Des Moines Register website. Hear from Campbell himself after his team’s second top-five win of the season below.
Story edited by Anna Reddick