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 would note — 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 always knew, possibly even more than young Campbell, that 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, businesslike 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’s name 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 a proven track record to sell. Not since Earle Bruce coached the Cyclones and ran off three consecutive eight-win seasons from 1976 to 1978 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 regular 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.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.