In December 1967, new Iowa State head football coach Johnny Majors didn’t make enough money to feel comfortable buying a house in Ames, so he rented one for his first year in town.
In December 2008, new Iowa State football coach Paul Rhoads has a contract guaranteeing him $1,150,000 per year for five years.
But envy was the furthest thing from Majors’ mind Saturday afternoon. For one thing, he made pretty good coin before finishing a 29-year career as a head coach that began with five seasons and two bowl trips at ISU, and included a national title at Pittsburgh and seven bowl wins at Tennessee.
For another, Rhoads is a good friend of his. No one from Iowa State called Majors to get his thoughts on candidate Rhoads, but they would have gotten an earful of encouragement had they done so.
Majors retired after coaching at the University of Pittsburgh in 1996, but lived in Pittsburgh almost the whole time Rhoads was the defensive coordinator at Pitt from 2000 through 2007.
“I saw many of their practices when he was defensive coordinator,” Majors said. “I watched film and talked a lot of football with him. He called me today to tell me he got the Iowa State job. It was a complete surprise to me. After I hung up, I was very enthused and very excited, like a little kid.”
At his introductory news conference in Ames later in the day, Rhoads said, “Coach Majors was a little excited. I think if I’d tossed him the ball, he would have carried it all the way across the goal line.”
We can list all sorts of statistics of how Rhoads’ defenses ranked at Pitt and in the season that just ended at Auburn. The numbers look good, but nothing an assistant has done tells us how he’ll produce once he runs his own program. Anyone who says they know is deluded.
But a learned football man like Majors kept using the phrase “time and place” Saturday, saying he thinks Rhoads is the right coach at this time for Iowa State.
“In my opinion, he’s extremely well-prepared,” Majors said. “Only time will tell what the end result will be. But this, I think, is an ideal fit. They could have spent a year researching and had all sorts of search committees, but for time and place, school and man, I don’t think they could have done better.
“I’m not trying to paint a dream world. I just think here’s a young man who I think has excellent character, is very sociable, and is someone I think is a great connector. He knows Iowa and the Iowa people, he speaks their language, and he’s also worked at Iowa State, which I think is very beneficial.”
Ames isn’t some distant memory to Majors. He said he has returned to Iowa State yearly since he left the school to become coach at Pittsburgh after the 1982 season.
“Iowa State people are resilient and loyal,” he said. “They respect competitive spirit and intense play. With the right type of coaching and recruiting, you’ll be able to win at Iowa State even though it’s very challenging as a job.”
Majors knows what it’s like to win at ISU, and so does Northern Iowa assistant football coach Atif Austin. Rhoads helped recruit Austin to Iowa State from Tampa, Fla. Rhoads was Dan McCarney’s secondary coach from 1995 through 1999 before becoming defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh in 2000.
“I think Jamie Pollard made a great decision hiring Paul Rhoads,” Austin said. “I have no doubt he’ll put his heart and soul into it as Dan McCarney did. I know Iowa State fans are looking for a turnaround, and I think Paul Rhoads will be the guy who can get that done.”
Austin described Rhoads the coach as demanding, but fair.
“Every player has the opportunity to get on the football field and prove himself,” Austin said. “I liked that about him. He’s a lunch pail, blue-collar kind of coach, a guy who works his butt off. What I remember about Coach Rhoads is he coached 100 miles an hour with passion.”
Granted, close friends and his former players who are in the coaching profession are going to give Rhoads ringing endorsements. But when Majors, who professed his undying love for Iowa State and Iowans repeatedly in a phone interview, was so happy about Rhoads becoming the Cyclones’ coach, it means something.
When Austin, a former player of Rhoads’ who now coaches in UNI’s highly successful program, says ISU got its man, it means something.
Can this 41-year-old lifelong defensive coach hire the right person to orchestrate the Cyclones’ offense? Can he assemble the total organization needed just to compete in the Big 12, let alone win in it?
Can he inject a winning attitude in a program that has gone 3-21 in the Big 12 over the last three years and get ISU football out of the basement and back into bowl games?
Couldn’t tell you. As Rhoads said Saturday, “Words really don’t mean anything at this point.”
Still, in this case it takes a fire to get a spark. Rhoads demonstrated Saturday in his news conference that he comes from the Dan McCarney school of intensity.
His fervor will be fun at Cyclone Club banquets come spring.
“We will hit you coming off the bus,” Rhoads said Saturday.
But what about during the games? We’ll wait to see, just as we waited on Gene Chizik to show us he could win before he skipped out on ISU without leaving behind evidence he could.
Look at it this way: Bob Stoops, Mike Leach and Mark Mangino got their first head coaching jobs at their current Big 12 schools. They’ve done pretty well.
Chizik’s first head coaching opportunity was in the Big 12, too. He’s also made out quite nicely. For himself, anyway.
The Cyclones basically traded their head coach to Auburn for the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. Won’t it be rich if Iowa State gets the better of that deal?