Underrated? YES, but Damn He's one PROUD coach!!
"I am so PROUD to be your football coach," those nine words uttered following a huge upset over Nebraska in 2009 sum up all you should need to know about Iowa State Cyclones head football coach Paul Rhoads.
When Ankeny, IA native and former Cyclone assistant coach Paul Rhoads entered the fray there probably wasn't a more under the radar hire heading into the 2009 season for BCS teams. That was the year we saw Chip Kelly, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, and the return of Bill Snyder grab the headlines in the coaching changes category. For Rhoads and the Cyclone fanbase that's just fine with them.
Winning at Iowa State isn't the easiest of tasks in the world of BCS conference football, just ask national championship winning coach Gene Chizik who went all of 5-19 in his two seasons in Ames, IA. The program has just a .457 all-time winning percentage to boot.
Then there's the fact that they've won just two conference crowns (all in the Big 8 era) and only one division crown in the old format of the Big XII and you get the picture, failure is more often the case than success.
Since his hire Rhoads has captured the spirit and hearts of one of the most loyal fanbases in the United States, doing so despite facing one of the most difficult schedules over the past three seasons. Yet, he's found a way to lead his team to the promised land of bowl eligibility as he rebuilds a program that hit rock bottom at 2-10 the year before his hire.
Now in the interest of full disclosure, I did attend Iowa State but was not there during Rhoads' tenure and have looked on from afar since my departure from Ames. I do follow the Cyclones program and I'll admit it's been a fun ride over the past three years, but at the same point I'm more than willing to call a spade a spade.
Having said all of that, there may not be a single head coach in a BCS conference that's doing more with less. It's not to say they don't have talent or aren't sending talent to the NFL as LB's A.J. Klein and Jake Knott are All-American candidates this season (and future high NFL draft picks) and Kelechi Osemele was a high NFL draft pick this year.
What I mean by doing more with less is the fact that Iowa State has one of the smallest budgets, albeit a growing one, in the Big XII, facilities that simply can't compete with what Oklahoma and Texas can offer, and then there's the weather - seriously, a game at Jake Trice Stadium in November can be one cold experience. (This comes from someone who grew up in Green Bay and has experienced brutal conditions at Lambeau Field more often than not)
What makes him successful on the field? It's his ability to translate the pure passion and heart that he has for this job to his players. If you're going to take this program or say the likes of Indiana in the Big Ten or Duke in the ACC you better be committed to the cause or it's not going to work - again I point to how Gene Chizik's tenure went, not exactly noteworthy, and it's because he wasn't totally committed to the cause.
All Rhoads did was come in and clean up the culture of the football program and instilled a sense of belief that anything was possible. In his first season in Ames he took basically the same team that Chizik led to a 2-10 record and turned them into Insight Bowl winners, pulling off the programs first win over Nebraska in Lincoln since 1977 to make themselves bowl eligible along the way. They pulled the upset with a hard knocks defense and despite an offense that was without their starting QB and RB.
Just how big of a deal was this victory? I'll let the video show you just how "bought in" the team and staff was/is:
Since that upset it's become a tradition for Iowa State to do something that "no one saw coming" on an annual basis.
In 2010 the Cyclones went into Austin following a 52-0 drubbing from Oklahoma the week before and defeated 22nd ranked Texas for the first time in school history and get their first win over a ranked opponent in five years.
Then last season they kicked it up a notch with a victory over rival Iowa and of course no college football fan can forget what occurred late last season as the Cyclones took down the 2nd ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys in Ames following an emotional week for the OSU community. Again, it produced one of the best videos of the year,which you can see here. ISU had never beaten a top 5 ranked opponent, let alone a top 2 and pure joy filled Jack Trice Stadium in one of the best scenes of the year.
Winning two major games in a season continued the progress Rhoads has made at Iowa State.
Now you may be asking, how can a coach that has a record of 18-20 be underrated? He's got a losing record for cyin' out loud. Again, I point to the fact that teams that usually sport those kind of records also don't pull off those kinds of victories on a yearly basis.
Let's also not forget that before Paul Rhoads' arrival this was a team totally on the decline. They went from back-to-back 7-5 seasons in 2004-05 to 4-8, 3-9, and 2-10 the next three years. Clearly the direction wasn't positive. Turning that around in one season should give you all you need to know about the quality of his coaching ability.
Rhoads' record as Cyclones head coach is already 9th best in school history (of those that have coached more than two seasons), behind the likes of guys like Pop Warner, Clyde Williams, Mike Michalske and more from around the turn of the 20th century to the WWII era. In the modern era (post WWII) of college football he's only behind Earl Bruce's record of 36-32.
He's also one of only four coaches... yes I said FOUR coaches in Cyclone football history to lead a team to a bowl game. He's won one of the two games, coming after the 2009 season in a 14-13 victory over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl.
I'd argue give Rhoads the talent of fellow conference teams like Texas and Oklahoma and combine that with his passion and there's no way he's not a national championship contender year in and year out. What he's been able to build at Iowa State in the short tenure he's had so far has been remarkable, so much so that Pitt and a few other schools took a hard run at making them their head coach just this last off season. So, he may be underrated to the general public, but clearly to those in the know he's not at all.
Of course Iowa State isn't exactly competing for the Big XII championship yet, but for a school that's not used to consistent bowl game appearances, let alone conference championships, it's the small steps along the way that are being ticked off the board that should have cyclONE nation excited and show proof that he is one of the most, if not the single most underrated head coach in the United States.
If you ask Paul Rhoads and the Cyclone fans they're just fine with being underrated, as long as they keep pulling upsets and keep pushing forward to a point where they aren't upsets anymore. Jamie Pollard and Co. inside the Athletic Department sure know his value as they inked him to a 10 year contract extension this off season, paying him more money than any coach in the history of Iowa State has ever made.
Hard work, determination, and belief were rewarded and that's a rare thing in the "what have you done for me lately" world of college football. Clearly Rhoads is PROUD to be the Cyclones coach and Iowa State fans are PROUD to have him as their coach for the long haul. Continue to under-estimate the Cyclones if you want, but look out for a team that will never quit.