AMES, IOWA — On a cold December day in 2011, the two up-and-coming budding coaches weaved their way through the back roads of the Midwest, nearing Gary, Indiana, and headed for Chicago where they’d see three, maybe four, prospects on a recruiting trip.
The cell phone rang. It was the boss.
Matt Campbell answered. Louis Ayeni listened.
“Matt,” Toledo athletics director Matt O’Brian started, the phone sitting on speaker, “how would you like to be the youngest coach in Division I football and come back and lead our football program?”
“Absolutely,” Campbell responded.
“Well, you’ve got a press conference in three hours,” O’Brien told him. “You guys have to get back here.”
Toledo coach Tim Beckman had just left for Illinois and Campbell, at 32, would become the youngest FBS head coach by three years. First, the two youthful assistants needed to book it back to Toledo some 200 miles away.
“We whipped a youie and got that thing rolling pretty quick,” Ayeni recalled four years later. “We had to go back, we had to get our suits, get them pressed.”
The two wrote Campbell’s introduction speech on the way back. They talked about all the little details Campbell would need to address, building toward what Campbell was going to set out to do in the future.
“We were bouncing a million things off each other,” Campbell said.
“We started mapping out everything and it worked to a charm,” Ayeni added.
Campbell coached from the press box in Toledo’s bowl win later that month with Ayeni, his associate head coach, on the sidelines. For the next four years, Campbell turned Toledo into a power in the Mid-American Conference. In four seasons, he went 35-15, including 9-2 this season, while leading the Rockets to a top-25 ranking.
With the success came interest, and when Iowa State fired coach Paul Rhoads, Campbell was at the top of athletics director Jamie Pollard’s wishlist. Ayeni, who had moved on to Iowa State in 2014 as running backs coach, waited.
Campbell had no interest in talking with schools until his team had played in the MAC Championship on Dec. 4. To get there, Toledo would need to beat Western Michigan the day after Thanksgiving.
"I tried every, every possible way to not have that be the case," Pollard said. "I called in every favor I could find, but he stayed steadfast to that belief and every time I ran up against that wall I was frustrated because I knew if we had to wait a week in this landscape, it probably wasn’t going to turn out the way I wanted it to turn out."
Pollard and a crew from Iowa State positioned themselves in Detroit on Friday just in case Campbell became available. That's when fate intervened.
When Toledo lost to Western Michigan to eliminate it from the championship game, and Campbell had met with his staff, he picked up his phone and dialed Ayeni.
“Let’s talk,” Campbell told him. “Give me a little bit of insight about this place. What can we do and how can we do it?”
Here the two were, four years later, coming full circle.
Just as the two had done on a speedy car ride back to Toledo they now did over the phone some 600 miles apart.
“We went back to old times,” Ayeni said. “We went back to the nuts and bolts of it. How we can win, what we need to do, how you need to do it, who you need to be with, who you need to talk to. It’s the process.”
That is the catchphrase Campbell covets.
Campbell interviewed early Saturday and by later that night he had agreed to become Iowa State’s next head coach. He quickly began that process that he so often talks about by beginning work on his coaching staff and working on recruiting.
By Monday, he had arrived at his office in the Bergstrom Football Complex.
“I think it’s going to be a process,” Campbell started before shifting. “You’re going to hear me talk a lot about process and probably get annoyed with it at times.”
“Process,” Ayeni said with a smile. “It’s like, ‘The process. The process.’ You’re going to hear that all day long, man.”
Yet the process is what has Campbell in Ames.
Four years ago he was an assistant headed through Indiana on a recruiting trip when a call altered his career trajectory. Four seasons as a head coach later, Campbell was the one making the call late Friday night to that familiar friend in Ames.
The two talked about the blueprint just as they did years before.
“Four years later he lasted. He did a great job and the plan worked. All said and done he’s here now and I think it’ll be good,” Ayeni said. “We went back to that [car ride] and when he was talking to me I could feel his energy about this place. I know he wanted to do something special here and he wanted to be here.”
“The first thing is you want to be here,” Ayeni told him. “So let’s do this man.”
Now Campbell begins the process yet again at Iowa State.