The rumor mill is heating up, and Matt Campbell is one of the names being thrown around.
I don’t know if Matt Campbell will be offered the USC job or if he’ll accept it. I’m not a journalist; I’m a columnist. Really, I’m more of an official complainer – a role I take very seriously.
But if Matt Campbell comes to USC, for the first time in a long time, I’ll be excited about the future of USC football.
There are no guarantees with coaching hires. Sometimes the can’t-miss, rising stars flop. Sometimes NFL rejects that nobody wants win national titles and seven conference titles in a row.
Matt Campbell could come to USC and fail. I don’t know. Nobody knows.
Still, you’re better off hiring a top-tier candidate than somebody that nobody else would hire, just as you’re better off recruiting five-star players than guys that nobody else has offered. For the first time in a long time, USC may hire a five-star coaching prospect instead of, say, a guy who was about to get fired at a conference rival or a mediocre (at best) career assistant whose primary qualification is that he wouldn’t show up to alumni events drunk. (But, after a couple of seasons, all of the alumni would need to show up drunk.)
Yes, that’s right, Matt Campbell is a five-star coaching prospect. I’ve been promoting Campbell as the next USC coach for a couple of years, and I said weeks ago that if I were making the decision, Campbell would be my guy.
I know that’s not a universal sentiment, especially among Trojans who are high on Dave Aranda. For what it’s worth, I am also high on Dave Aranda. If USC hires Aranda or Luke Fickell instead of Matt Campbell, I will be pleased. I have no idea which of these three guys has the greatest likelihood of being successful at USC. Nobody can know that.
But I know this: Matt Campbell’s tenure as a head coach is the most impressive of the three.
In judging a head coach, I look to see how much the coach has elevated a program above its norm, and I want a real sample size. Sample sizes in college football are small, because there are so few games. The difference between 10-2 and 8-4 can be two plays, and those two plays can be the difference between a Rose Bowl and a Sun Bowl.
Look, Clay Helton won a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title, and he was utterly clueless. But he had the advantage of coaching at a program with a built-in advantage, as almost every USC coach wins a Rose Bowl (Tollner did, Smith did, JRII did), and in the first couple of seasons, Helton’s sample size was small. People who didn’t understand football were fooled.
But when you looked at the underlying numbers, you could see that Helton’s record was better than the key metrics would indicate. His yards per play and scoring figures were barely higher than mediocre, and he was winning a lot of close games, which means you’d expect that his luck would change with a larger sample size and that things would take a turn for the worse. I was writing this a few years ago and offering statistics to support the analysis when it was still unpopular. And boy did things take a turn for the worse. (Seriously, Georgia Southern? Seriously?)
It’s always dangerous to look at a season or two in isolation, and it’s always foolish to look only at a win-loss record and not look at the coach’s situation. You can be a great coach at go 5-7 at Oregon State. Going 5-7 at Ohio State is a different story.
So let’s start with Luke Fickell, who coaches at a school with a built-in advantage compared to its opponents. Lots of coaches have won there, just like lots of coaches win at Boise State and Houston. Brian Kelly even went undefeated at Cincinnati. Luke Fickell is an excellent coach. I would be thrilled if he takes the USC job. But other Cincinnati coaches have recently done what Luke Fickell has done.
Dave Aranda is a defensive genius. He has done a great job at Baylor this year. I really like Dave Aranda. If he takes the USC job, I’ll be thrilled. But he is not risk-free. The transition from coordinator to head coach is a tricky one, and Aranda has a very small sample size as a head coach. Essentially, he had one disastrous first season and a very good season this year. That’s it, and it’s not a lot. It’s also not unprecedented. In the last decade, two other Baylor coaches have also had seasons this good.
What Matt Campbell has done at Iowa State is unprecedented. It’s remarkable. If we throw out his first season there (and first seasons at failing programs are almost always a disaster), he’s 38-24. That’s 61%. At Michigan that gets you fired. At Iowa State, it gets you canonized.
Iowa State has had good coaches in the past, yet none has come close to doing what Campbell has done. Earle Bruce was at Iowa State. (Yes, the Ohio State coach who is now in the College Football Hall of Fame.) He got the Ohio State job after going 36-32 at Iowa State, including finishing his tenure there with three straight 8-win seasons. Bruce was 5-17 against ranked teams at Iowa State, an amazing record at Iowa State. Excluding his first season there, Campbell is 8-10 against ranked teams at Iowa State.
Johnny Majors coached at Iowa State. (Yes, the guy who won a national title at Pittsburgh and has multiple streets and facilities named after him at Tennessee.) Majors went 24-30-1 and Iowa State. He never won a game in 14 contests against ranked opponents.
Gene Chizik coached at Iowa State for two horrific seasons. He then won a national title at Auburn.
Iowa State is where coaches go to die. Before Campbell arrived, Iowa State had Chizik (14 games under .500 in only two years), Dan McCarney (24 games under .500), Jim Walden (29 games under .500), and Paul Rhoads (23 games under .500).
I mentioned earlier that Campbell is 8-10 against ranked teams at Iowa State in his last five years. In the years before between Earle Bruce and Campbell, Iowa State was 12-121-1 against ranked teams.
In the last five years, Matt Campbell has four wins against top-10 teams. Over the 80 years before Matt Campbell arrived, Iowa State had only eight.
This is Matt Campbell’s sixth season at Iowa State. In the previous five seasons, he was named conference coach of the year three times.
At a school with no recruiting base, no history, and – historically, at least – no hope, Matt Campbell completely changed the culture of Iowa State football and built a program that can compete with the best in the conference, including blue bloods like Oklahoma and Texas. Let me say that again: Matt Campbell has made it so Iowa State can compete with Oklahoma and Texas. At a school that has one Hall of Fame coach and two others who won national titles elsewhere, Matt Campbell has turned in the best seasons in school history, and it’s not close.
I hear some people say that they’re not sure if Campbell can succeed with blue-chip athletes. Of course he can. Matt Campbell can spot talent – finding good players in the pool that nobody wants is virtually the same skill as figuring out which blue-chip athletes are the best fit for your program – and he can develop them. He’s also a proven success at turning broken, hopeless cultures around and instilling a work ethic and a belief amongst his players.
I can’t tell you whether Matt Campbell will succeed at USC. Nobody can know that. But if you think Matt Campbell is anything other than a first-rate football coach and a tremendous prospect for USC, you just don’t know very much about football.
So, if that’s how you feel, do yourself a favor: let’s just see what happens, and if Mike Bohn hires Matt Campbell, put aside the disappointment that USC didn’t hire the guy you preferred, and give Matt Campbell a chance. I can’t make any guarantees, but if I had to bet, I’d bet that Matt Campbell would dominate the conference and have USC in playoff contention within just a couple of years. He’s that good.