AMES — A week after 23rd-ranked Iowa State struggled to beat Army at home in September 2005, it quietly slipped out of the Top 25.
Few knew then that it would take a dozen years — and three different head coaches — for the Cyclones to finally return to the national rankings.
Iowa State (5-2, 3-1 Big 12) sneaked back to the Top 25 on Sunday at No. 25 on the strength of three straight wins, including victories at Oklahoma and Texas Tech.
The surprising Cyclones return home Saturday to face No. 4 TCU (7-0, 4-0) in a highly anticipated game that many see as another measuring stick in how far Iowa State has come. Second-year Coach Matt Campbell on Monday tried to downplay the hype that has suddenly surrounded the Cyclones.
“I think it is what it is,” Campbell said about landing a spot in the rankings. “The reality of it is that’s what makes college football really hard, and that’s why people don’t stay in that poll because they do react to it. ... It’s great for the school, but the guys between these walls and this staff, I think, could (not) care less about it.”
Of course, Campbell couldn’t keep fans from being downright giddy about it. It was understandable reaction, given that the most common theme for Iowa State football over the last dozen years was disappointment.
Iowa State rallied later in that 2005 season, coming within a field goal of winning the Big 12 North under former Coach Dan McCarney. That finish heightened expectations heading into 2006, but Iowa State stumbled to a 1-7 finish in the Big 12 and McCarney was let go.
The Cyclones thought they had found the man who’d finally turn things around in Texas Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik, whose arrival so excited the fans that a local bank made a coin in his likeness. Chizik won just five games in two seasons before bolting for Auburn, where he later won a national title with Cam Newton.
Iowa State turned to another defensive coordinator, Iowa native Paul Rhoads. He led the Cyclones to a bowl game win in his first season in 2009 and two more postseason appearances in 2011 and 2012. But by 2015 the program had once again sunk to the bottom of the Big 12, and Rhoads was shown the door.
Athletic Director Jamie Pollard, whose unorthodox hiring of neophyte coach Fred Hoiberg helped revive the men’s basketball program, took another big risk when he made Campbell, then 35, the youngest coach of a Power Five school.
Campbell, much like Chizik before him, stumbled out of the gates. He lost eight of his first nine games before closing with home wins over Kansas and Texas Tech in 2016.
Though there was some optimism heading into this season, questions about the offensive and defensive lines left Iowa State fans simply hoping for a bowl trip of any kind. A maddening 17-7 home loss to Texas and the subsequent and somewhat mysterious absence of quarterback Jacob Park only seemed to make things worse.
But all the work Campbell, his coaches and players had done finally paid off in a 38-31 win at then-No. 3 Oklahoma on Oct. 7 — and the Cyclones haven’t stopped since. Iowa State pounded Kansas 45-0 on Oct. 14, and held the high-powered Texas Tech offense to just 13 points on Saturday.
The Cyclones may drop out of the Top 25 after just a week if they can’t upset the Horned Frogs, who are favored by a touchdown and have College Football Playoff aspirations.
But the bigger takeaway is that Campbell has put Iowa State in position for sustained success, in part by changing the culture of a program.
“There’s a really good bond between players and coaches,” Campbell said. “We’re not gimmicky, we’re not rah-rah, but this group has a lot of fun together.”