Tom Dienhart Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
When Paul Rhoads arrived at Iowa State in January 2009, one of the first things he told his players was that they were going to win a bowl game that season.
"They had just come off 10 straight losses and only two wins," Rhoads said. "I'm sure they thought that was inspirational and good coach-speak. But it didn't take long for them to buy into the things we were trying build. If they hadn't, we wouldn't have achieved those expectations in Year One."
If few could have envisioned capping a 7-6 debut season with an Insight Bowl victory over Minnesota, even fewer could have seen this past Saturday's 28-21 win at Texas coming.
The Longhorns were a 21-point favorite and coming off a huge victory at Nebraska with a roster loaded with four- and five-star recruits and a coach who makes $4 million a year. Iowa State was coming off consecutive beatdowns, losing 68-27 at home to Utah and 52-0 at Oklahoma.
More reasons not to like the Cyclones' chances in Austin: They have one of the smaller athletic budgets in a Big Six league and have a roster loaded with players who had no scholarship offers from Texas -- or many other top-level FBS schools, for that matter.
This was a superpower vs. a third-world nation. But the Cyclones pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2010 season.
This is the second year in a row that Rhoads and Iowa State have engineered a big upset, as the Cyclones won 9-7 at Nebraska last season. It all has been part of a remarkable turnaround under Rhoads, a fast-rising commodity.
He arrived in Ames after Gene Chizik abruptly left the program after two unsuccessful seasons (5-19, 2-14 Big 12) to coach Auburn. Enter Rhoads, a 43-year-old native son who was born near Ames, in Ankeny, Iowa, and relished the opportunity after serving as an assistant at Iowa State from 1995-1999 under Dan McCarney. Rhoads had built a strong resume as a defensive coordinator at places such as Pittsburgh and Auburn before arriving at Iowa State.
Rivals.com spoke to Rhoads as the Cyclones (4-4) prepared for a visit from a struggling Kansas team this week.
How did you pull off the win at Texas?
"We talked about perseverance and trust. 'Trust' is a word we talk about all of the time. We have talked about blind trust, and earned trust in the year and half we have been here. We have enough earned trust established between coaches and players and players and coaches that they just kept on believing that the things they were being taught were the right things, that the schemes we were putting together were the right schemes, and if we just kept working hard and executing better, that we would have success. And the bottom line is we executed better [than Texas].
"Against Oklahoma, playing against a great, great team, we didn't hold our gap, make tackles, things like that. In this game, we did. I don't know if we played any harder because we didn't have any loafs as a defensive football team against Oklahoma. But we sure as heck played better."
What did you say to your players in the aftermath of the 52-0 loss at Oklahoma?
"[Oklahoma has] a tight locker room; they all came together, didn't take a knee because we were in cramped quarters. I talked to them about staying the course, having faith in what we were doing and going back to work the next day and approaching it that same way. I haven't thought the kids changed from that. I think they have remained focused and kept working."
What was your game plan for Texas?
"There were two things we talked about during the week, and we added a third later in the week. First off, I wanted them to know what our plan was going to be. And the second thing was I really wanted them to know our opponent. And the third thing was, as the week went on, to focus on the individual battles and fights they were going to have to win play after play after play. The guard seeing the defensive tackle. The defensive end seeing that offensive tackle. I really wanted them to focus on the guy they were going against and the individual battle they would have to win.
"I think we knew our plan and understood the opponent. They go formation into the boundary, meaning they put more receivers into the short side of the field than the wide side, and we were going to have a check for that. I wanted to make sure things like that, that they really understood going into the game."
What about offensively?
"We wanted to have success on first and second down and not be forced into third-and-long situations, where we had to protect the quarterback for a longer amount of time, where we had to get open against defensive backs that had more speed and athleticism than us. That didn't happen against Oklahoma and we gave ourselves no chance.
"What we did on those third downs [against the Sooners] is we ran certain plays, we gained 7, we gained 6 and 8 yards on third-and-10 and it didn't matter. We wanted to take those types of plays and gain 6, 7 and 8 yards on first down with our running game and put ourselves in manageable positions. We had a 63 percent efficiency rate on first downs. Our goal was 48 percent. Doing that gave us a chance to execute and score points."
"Nothing in particular. He said basically the same stuff he said in the post-game press conference, that our team came prepared to play and that we played hard and executed."
How does this win compare to the Nebraska win?
"They came at different points in our record. It's actually the same week as last season. But a year ago, we were 4-3 going into that game and coming off a victory already having some confidence in ourselves. That win put us at 5-3.
"Here, we were coming off blowouts. We got our butts kicked and turned around and got this victory to even up our record at 4-4. Both are equally important, but this is historic in the fact that Iowa State never had beaten Texas. It was the last of the Big 12 schools we hadn't beaten. It was important. We hadn't won at Lincoln in 32 years. They are very even in what they mean to our program and what we are trying to build."
Did you envision getting these types of wins so soon in your tenure?
"I'm afraid I'd sound arrogant if I said 'yes.' We think we are building things right. We know we have a football team that knows the importance of preparation. I don't think there are many coaches or players who will tell you they go into a game expecting to lose. We expected to win in Norman and we got beat by 52 points. If you don't envision [victory], it has no chance of happening. So, I'd like to think at this point we would have a couple of victories like that."
At what point Saturday did you feel you were going to win the game?
After the first quarter, I knew we had an opportunity to win because we came to play. We talked about having early success to build confidence. We get beat by Utah 68-27, and as a staff we talked about having to make sure our fragile football team built their confidence. We wanted them to get through the practice week feeling good about themselves. And I am still learning things as a head football coach. What I learned is you can't talk your way into [a big win like this]. You have to play your way into it. To have success on the field, to truly get that confidence ... you have to win it.
"After the first quarter Saturday, we were playing hard and well. And at that point, I knew we had an opportunity to win it. I think when we went up 28-6 in the fourth quarter, the way our defense had been playing, I thought we had a chance to finish it off."
How does your talent compare to Texas' talent?
"[Laughing] I know if we were to lock ourselves into a room and have a draft, I don't think there are a lot of our players who would be picked. That's not a slight on my kids. I love them and I love what they give every single day. But we don't have a lot of players who will be drafted by the NFL. And there are a lot of other teams in this league that will have players drafted. I think week in and week out, we are outmanned when we take the field."
What facilities need to be improved for you to keep up with other Big 12 schools?
"We need a new football facility, period. We have an indoor facility that is as good as there is in the country. It is a great selling point for us in recruiting and a great tool for preparation. But we are behind the Joneses in everything about our football complex. We need more spacious meeting rooms, we need offices with more privacy that are more conducive to meeting with players and recruits. We are trying to turn the corner on that. [Athletic director] Jamie Pollard is fully aware of that. And with a new television contract coming into play and some people stepping up, I am anxious it could be on the horizon really soon."
Do you think the players were shocked after the former regime bolted?
"I think so, but we moved forward. We are 4-4 in the second year. We have played the toughest schedule in the country; I don't think there's anyone who would debate that now. Our opponents have a combined record of 41-16; every team we have played has a winning record. Three teams are bowl eligible and two are one win away from it. There are two that are two wins from being bowl eligible and one of those is Texas and the other is a FCS school that can't go to a bowl but is leading its league. For us to be 4-4 at this point, I think our kids are still believing and are anxious to get to the last third of the season."
How many phone messages did you get after the win?
"When it got to 125, I finally stopped counting. I turned my phone on after the game as I got ready to do our coaches' show and put it back in the holster. I could hardly stop giggling as the show was going on because my phone was constantly vibrating. At the first break in the show, I looked and it was at 85 and counting.
"Being able to return all those and read all those is a lot of fun."