AMES, Iowa — A big Midwestern job opens, and the national spotlight turns to Matt Campbell.
Just moments after Nebraska fired favorite son Scott Frost, the list of candidates hit the Internet to replace the man who led the Huskers to two national titles as a player but couldn’t get them competitive in the Big Ten as a coach.
High atop most of those lists is Campbell, who earned his way into such regard by turning a “laughingstock” program (his phrase) into a consistent winner over six seasons.
So in the ever-increasing intrigue that are coaching searches, everyone’s first thought becomes who’s next.
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WHAT WENT WRONG?: How Scott Frost went from slam dunk to failure at Nebraska
For Campbell, though, the September firing of Frost was further evidence of an industry going in a direction he believes is counter to its mission.
“It’s crazy,” Campbell said of the early-season firings becoming commonplace in college football without being asked to comment on speculation about his future. “I just think what’s unfortunate is, what is it about? It’s still about 18-to-22-year-old people. It’s about serving, caring, loving, guiding these young people through this journey.
“Whether that’s the coaches have lose their way on the impact they have on 18-to-22-year-olds, our industry has, getting those things back in the box and still providing platforms, environments and cultures that allow people to grow — that’s really got to be our job and responsibility.”
That is how Campbell, whose team plays Ohio on Saturday (1 p.m.; ESPN+), sees the world and his profession, and it could be insight into how he may react should the Huskers eventually come calling to gauge his interest.
Other than his words, predicting what his response may be is probably best done by looking not into the future, but the past.
And each time this has come up in the past, Campbell has remained a Cyclone.
This time could be the same.
Or it could be different.
It’s worth exploring the possibilities that could decide either course.
Among the last times the noise between high-profile programs and Campbell reached a noticeable decibel was back in 2017 and 2019 when Tennessee and Florida State, respectively, had openings.
Both have strong legacies with the Vols winning a national title in 1998 while the Seminoles won a pair in the 1990s under Bobby Bowden and, more recently, under Jimbo Fischer in 2013.
They’re both high-profile national programs with fan bases expecting to compete for national championships — even if conventional wisdom would suggest their best years may be behind them.
Sound familiar at all?
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Nebraska became synonymous with excellence over the 30 years that Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne won five national championships, but the last of those — 1997 — is now a quarter-century old. In the past 25 years, Nebraska has shed its reputation for excellence and developed one for being wholly unsatisfied with pretty-good-but-not-great seasons.
And now that’s even deteriorated into the sub-.500 mess Frost and former coach Mike Riley created.
If Campbell didn’t like the look of that sort of attitude in Knoxville or Tallahassee, that mindset in Lincoln might not sit well either.
The other thing Tennessee and Florida State have in common is their geography. In the United States’ Southeast, they’re way outside of Campbell’s Midwest comfort zone. Don’t forget, Campbell is the guy who left Pittsburgh football after a year to return home to Ohio to attend Mount Union College in 1999.
He then spent the next 16 years in Ohio as a player and coach before leaving for Ames.
So while Nebraska isn’t the Buckeye State, it’s certainly just as Midwest as its easterly neighbor. Maybe even more so when you consider its conference (more on that later).
The 2022 season has a long way to go, but the Cyclones are 2-0 for the first time under Campbell after his first win against rival Iowa. The Cyclones turned the page from some of the best and most successful players in program history, and, while the story remains to be written, it certainly looks like Iowa State isn’t going to lack for talent.
The Cyclones’ recruiting is as strong as perhaps it ever has been, with Campbell and Co. bringing a caliber of player to Ames rarely seen — and they’re doing it at volume.
It’s a good and, apparently, sustainable situation. That could be hard to walk away from.
The Big 12 likely did just as well as it possibly could have in bringing in BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF to offset the loss of Oklahoma and Texas. In a bad situation, the Big 12 pivoted admirably.
And with the Pac-12 now stepping into the turmoil of losing flagship programs, the Big 12 could be in position to absorb some of their stronger programs, should they get cold feet.
Even in that best-case scenario, though, the Big 12 — and the rest of college football — is falling miles behind the Big Ten and SEC in television revenue. And TV money is a big part of the engine that drives successful programs at the highest level.
It’s not the only thing (just look at Cincinnati last year), but it goes a long way.
The Big Ten is going to be swimming in money with its newly-minted multi-billion dollar contract, and that will allow its programs to separate from the rest of the country, the SEC excluded. When you have double or triple (or more) the budget, that separation just seems inevitable.
An expanded College Football Playoff keeps the Big 12 in the national title discussion, but as we’ve seen in a four-team playoff, the differences between first and fourth (and even first and second) can be stark. Being the 11th-best team in the country may get you in the playoff, but your chances of actually claiming a title are going to be pretty slim.
If nothing else, the uncertainty of the league is troublesome, especially when weighed against the behemoth that is the Big Ten.
Campbell’s $4-million-a-year contract with Iowa State is already eye-popping by Cyclone standards. It was just seven years ago that Paul Rhoads, on a deal signed when he seemed to have Iowa State pointed toward unprecedented success, was making $1.8 million.
Campbell, though, could be making plenty more elsewhere.
Certainly, Tennessee and Florida State could have dwarfed those numbers, and Campbell reportedly turned down more than $8 million a year from the Detroit Lions.
Simply, if Campbell wanted to cash the biggest paycheck possible, he would have left Iowa State already.
But he’ll be on that Jack Trice Stadium sideline Saturday.
The Cyclones have more than doubled their football coach’s salary and kept up with a healthy assistant coaching salary pool in under a decade. Campbell no doubt drove this with the success — and revenue — he’s produced, but it still would seem to be near the upper-bound of what Iowa State can pay, especially if it is about to enter an era with flatlining or decreasing TV money.
So while athletic director Jamie Pollard will certainly look under every rock and ask every donor to check their pockets, there may be a closely approaching limit on what Iowa State can responsibly pay their football coach.
Nebraska does not have that problem.
Frost was already making $5 million a year from the Huskers, and now that athletic department is about to see its balance sheet further bloated as that mega-TV deal kicks in.
If Huskers athletic director Trev Alberts becomes convinced Campbell is the best person to return the Huskers to glory, contemplating the number he’d go to becomes an interesting exercise.
Remember, this is a program approaching desperation, if they’re not already there. And, despite the pandemic-caused financial challenges of the last two years, they know that TV money is coming.
Is $8-million-a-year in the budget?
And while the per-year salary is what gets reported, don’t forget that in modern athletic department-coach negotiations, most, if not all, of a coach’s contract is guaranteed. So, depending on the length of a contract Nebraska is prepared to offer, Campbell could potentially, on the extreme end, be looking at something approaching a $100 million decision.
Is there a point where money, even if it’s not your animating desire, is just too darn much?
Campbell has rarely offered much insight into his thinking about his long-term job prospects. He’s talked about wanting to impact the lives of young people, but that doesn’t constrain a coach to a single school. He’s said repeatedly he wants to do something rather than be somebody, but wasn’t that just as true at Toledo?
And ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what a coach says. Or even what he has done.
This sport has seen coaches say all the right things. It’s also seen them back up those words with actions.
And it has seen those same men leave for another job they think is better for them and their family. It has also seen coaches carve out multi-decade careers at a single school.
Just last year we saw Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly, coaches with “forever” jobs at Oklahoma and Notre Dame, bolt. And we saw John Harbaugh, coaching for his job at his alma mater, make the playoff and secure his future.
Sometimes what mattered less earlier in a career matters more later. Sometimes the situation changes. Sometimes people are content to stay put.
No one can say what combination of priorities and circumstance could get Campbell to Nebraska or anywhere else. Maybe that confluence never comes.
There are plenty of variables to weigh, but only one man has the scale.
AMES, Iowa — A big Midwestern job opens, and the national spotlight turns to Matt Campbell.