That’s how Iowa State football coach Paul Rhoads, who will lead the team onto the field one last time 11 a.m. Saturday at West Virginia, described his first commitment’s last game as a Cyclone.
That player — Jake Knott — became a legend, though this week, reflected both fondly and sadly on the career of the one head coach who truly believed in him. The Central Iowa guy who gave him a chance when no one else deemed him talented enough to earn a spot on a power-five conference football team’s roster, let alone compete and develop into an All-Big 12 player. A guy he respects, loves and to this day refers to simply as “Coach Rhoads.”
“For me to be able to finish it at Jack Trice, and with kind-of the narrative that was in place, it was almost — go out with a bang — and that’s always something that I’d hoped to do,” Knott said of the parallels and differences between the last game for him and his coach. “But with coach Rhoads’ situation, there’s so much (going on). I didn’t have to worry about moving my family and finding other jobs. There’s just so much more, but I know how much Iowa State means to him and how he will — I imagine he’s going to be looking at it just like I did my last game: ‘I’m going to give everything I possibly can and all my time and energy and devotion to help win this last game.’ That’s the type of guy he is.”
The Cyclones (3-8, 2-6) enter their dramatic and emotionally-charged finale as two-touchdown underdogs to the Mountaineers (6-4, 3-4).
The last time the two teams played in Morgantown, ISU pulled off its biggest comeback in school history, as then-starting quarterback Grant Rohach led the Cyclones from a 31-7 deficit to a 52-44 triple-overtime win. It’s a game Rhoads referenced in his Monday farewell news conference. It’s the type of performance — minus needing a comeback, maybe — his players are keen to replicate as the Rhoads era comes to an end.
“We’re going to go out there and complete,” said quarterback Joel Lanning, who’s thrown 10 touchdown passes t two interceptions this season. “West Virginia’s a great team. It’s going to be another tough game. We just have to go there and finish a game now. Just play a complete game and go out there and get a win for these seniors and this coaching staff.”
Rhoads implored his team not to focus on him as this season in which complete games were in short supply draws to a close.
Fat chance, Knott said.
The relationships he’s built with his players — that overriding “All In” principle put into daily practice — won’t allow them to separate what happens on the field Saturday from what he means to them.
“He’s going to take the field with the same amount of passion,” Knott said. “I’ll guarantee you he has those guys fired up, more then probably ever — and yes, they would be lying to you if they told you they weren’t going to play the game for him. So I think it will be bittersweet. They have to cherish every moment that they have out there with him as the coach.”
They’ll do so while trying to corral West Virginia’s revamped offense that features the nation’s 10th-most prolific rushing attack (244.4 yards per game).
They’ll counter with a revived running game of their own led by redshirt freshman Mike Warren, who leads all Big 12 backs in conference play with an average of 139.4 rushing yards per game.
“We’re going to coach our tails off this week, go to Morgantown and try to get these seniors a victory to end their careers as Iowa State Cyclones,” Rhoads said Monday.
Just like Knott did at home. Doctors allowed him to play in the last game of his Cyclones career, a 35-21 win over Baylor during which he forced a goal-line fumble on the opening drive despite playing through a severe left shoulder injury that would require surgery.
Twelve tackles later with a victory secured, his ISU career ended. Knott’s physical pain remained and even intensified, but it also never felt so good.
There’s a different kind of pain reserved for Saturday, of course, but not enough to overshadow the warmth he nurtures for the guy who believed in him when no one else did. For the guy he still and always will call “Coach Rhoads.” It’s the ultimate honor for a local and driven man who wanted so desperately to “do things that hadn’t been done before” for the Cyclones’ program — and to a significant degree, succeeded in that ambitious aim.
“It’s all I’ve known at Iowa State, so it will be sad,” Knott said of Rhoads’ last game. “It will be a new look next year. It will just be different. You hope the best for all those guys."