After Iowa State's best season ever, all the team has to do is be even better in 2021
Iowa State football is used to waiting.
The Cyclones played for more than 75 years before they made their first bowl game in 1971. It was another 29 years, in their third century of existence, before they actually won a postseason game.
It wasn’t until its 128th year of existence that Iowa State finally put together a no-doubt, unmatched and unrivaled best-season-ever, with a Big 12 championship game appearance, wins over Texas and Oklahoma and a Fiesta Bowl championship.
Cyclone football waded through 23 presidential administrations (and were just a few weeks shy of a 24th), seven different actors portraying "Batman" on the big screen, two World Wars, six moon landings and 655 losses on the field before having that truly nationally-relevant breakthrough season.
Now, immediately, the Cyclones are expected to top it.
The time for patience, it seems, has passed.
No. 8 Iowa State opens the season Saturday against Northern Iowa (3:30 p.m.; ESPN+) with its first preseason top-10 ranking and higher expectations than the program could have ever previously even fathomed:
Winning the Big 12 and competing for a national championship.
“That could be really suffocating to a team that’s starting over,” sixth-year tight end Chase Allen said. “That’s one thing we’re very fortunate to be — we're not really starting over. We’ve got the same coaches, the majority of the same players. It’s the same guys that did it last year. We feel a sense of security in that. “
It’s a season that takes on added stakes as Iowa State football faces an existential threat with the fate of the Big 12 in doubt upon the impending departures of cornerstone programs Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC. The Cyclones waited decades for this opportunity, and if their conference standing is diminished, the odds for such another chance diminish with it.
“There were one or two plays we could have done differently (last year), and it would have been an even better season in school history,” Allen said. “That gives us confidence that we can take it game by game and focus on winning that game and see where the chips fall.”
While coach Matt Campbell and the 2020 Cyclones recorded the unquestioned best season in school history, it’s not the first time the Cyclones have had a breakthrough year on the gridiron.
The first of the modern era was 1971, when coach Johnny Majors’ team reached a bowl game for the first time in program history.
“Anytime you’re the first, it’s pretty neat,” George Amundson, who quarterbacked the Cyclones from 1970-72, said in a phone interview this week. “We really felt good about going to the bowl game.”
Backing up that bowl game, though, was no easy feat. The Cyclones' return to the postseason in 1972 (with a one-point loss to Georgia Tech in the Liberty Bowl), but they went 5-6-1 overall and 2-4-1 in the Big Eight.
“It’s always tough to repeat a good season even in the best of times,” Amundson said, “especially when you have injuries and things change and personnel changes. And maybe there’s a little complacency, too.”
The Cyclones were able to match 1971’s eight-win total and bowl appearance in 1977 and 1978, but it wasn’t until 2000 when Dan McCarney’s group went 9-3 overall and won the Insight.com bowl to break the program record for victories and earn that first bowl victory.
The 2001 season saw Iowa State’s roster turnover and record a 7-5 campaign with an Independence Bowl loss. The Cyclones reached as high as No. 9 in the Associated Press poll in 2002, but finished the season 7-7 overall and unranked after a loss to Boise State in the Humanitarian Bowl.
“It’s always difficult to follow up a great season with another one because you have to stay motivated,” Jack Whitver, an Iowa State wide receiver from 2000-02, said. “You have to continue to do the little things that got you to that successful season. The biggest change is you go from being the hunter to the hunted.
“You get a target on your back, and it’s a whole different level of (challenge). It’s a lot more difficult to be the hunted. You get everybody's best shot every week, and that’s different than sneaking up on people.”
'You can't hide anymore'
Iowa State believes its positioned to reach even high levels of success because of the five-year process its taken to reach this place that no Cyclone team before it could.
“There’s a standard of excellence of how we do everything that is demanded day in and day out,” Campbell said. "You can’t hide anymore. If you’re not going to do it to the standard, it sticks out.
“Early on, you could kind of hide because it was easy to talk about it, but it was hard to show that. Now, I think it’s being shown by some of the top players in our program of what that looks like. What that excellence looks like day in and day out and really holding those guys accountable to it, but also everybody else in the program.”
That what may help separate this Cyclone team from the earlier ones trying to build on a breakthrough — nearly the entire roster, with a number of potential NFL players, All-American candidates and loads of experience, is back from last season.
“Back in 2000, we were led largely by a group of fifth-year seniors that have been through a lot, and finally as seniors put together a really good year where we won a lot of close games,” Whitver said. “There were a lot of guys that played in the NFL that we had to replace, and you have a lot of guys that are anxious to step up into those roles and try to win their spots.
“This year is totally different.”
Mentalities, though, may be the same through the decades.
“People talk about, ‘We broke through the ceiling,’” Amundson said, “but I still think young men and women at that age really think that they should win, so winning is just what you expected.”
Battling any sense of entitlement or complacency is something is well underway for these Cyclones.
“At the start of fall camp, that was something that was kind of a wrench in it,” Allen said, “but then we heard a great quote: ‘If you’ve climbed a mountain before, you still have to start at the base the next time you climb it.’”
Recalibrating after every year, every week and every day is something that Campbell has built his program upon. This season will test the Cyclones in a myriad of ways, and Campbell’s culture, along with every aspect of his team, will be tested like never before.
“It’s always harder to get to the top than stay on top,” Whitver said, “but I would say this team hasn’t been on the top yet. They had a great year. They won the biggest bowl game that Iowa State’s ever won, but if you talk to the players, they don’t feel like they accomplished everything they wanted to. I think you still have that desire, that motivation to keep climbing to get to the top.
“They came back because they’re still hungry.”
It should be noted, as Iowa State embarks on perhaps the most significant and consequential season of its existence, the hungry are rarely patient.
Travis Hines covers Iowa State University sports for the Des Moines Register and Ames Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (515) 284-8000. Follow him at @TravisHines21.