Rhoads taking next step after big debut

AMES, Iowa -- Paul Rhoads’ eyes are wandering. Not like the coach before him at Iowa State, but they’re wandering. He rushes to finish his sentence, slyly watching -- out of the corner of his eye -- a group of young linebackers run through a half-speed drill focused on taking angles and wrapping up ballcarriers.

“Are you driving? Do you have a plane to catch or anything?” he asks me. “Can you give me three minutes? I’ll be done in three minutes.”

Rhoads jogs a few yards over to his linebackers, throws his hat down to mark an angle for the drill, and gets back to coaching some extra work after practice. Two hours isn’t enough for Rhoads, even if it’s only April.

“Nice rep right there, nice rep!” he yells. “That’s what we want!”

Second halves of interviews can wait. It’s always time to coach.

A year ago, Rhoads was just Coach No. 3 for some of his players. Gene Chizik spent two seasons in Ames after Dan McCarney stepped down, but split for Auburn with just five wins on his resume.

“They’d been betrayed; they felt that way. There was bitterness. There was anger,” Rhoads said. “You go in having to earn their trust and credibility.”

Rhoads began by telling his players he was proud to be their coach, a refrain he repeated in the locker room after a season-defining upset of Nebraska and pleaded with them to trust him blindly. He believed those that did could be part of something special, and quickly, so did his team.

“Right when we got here, we saw Coach Rhoads, knew he was an Iowa guy and knew he wanted to be here,” senior quarterback Austen Arnaud said. “Everything about him was positive.”

A first-time head coach in his home state, Rhoads received that blind trust, and squashed any lingering doubts with a seven-win season in year one.

“When you’re coaching a kid on a field for 30 minutes and you’re drilling him and you’re wearing him out, and then you can turn around and show him game film or 11-on-11 film where that exact drill came into play and allowed him to be successful, then you’ve got your kids right here in the palm of your hand,” Rhoads said. “Because they trust you and they believe in what you’re giving them.”

Rhoads knows progress when he sees it, and he’s seen it this spring. But Iowa State has one of the conference’s toughest schedules, with games at Texas and Oklahoma and matchups with Northern Illinois, Iowa and Utah in its non-conference.

Rhoads believes the Cyclones could be better in 2010 and still win fewer games.

“He’s not going to lie to you,” said running back Alexander Robinson. “What you see is what you get with him, and he’s always positive.”

No one in the Iowa State program is settling for fewer wins. There’s only one way to one-up a schedule Rhoads says he’s embraced, and isn’t hiding from: Get even better. There’s plenty of room between the Cyclones and their ceiling.

“We had a winning season by one game. Otherwise, we were average,” Arnaud said. “We have to know we were average last year and be better, because you don’t want to be average. You want to be great.”

Last season’s win over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl legitimized Iowa State’s program, Rhoads says. But it’s only a step in the direction of an eventual goal -- a championship. The step the Cyclones are taking right now happens on the practice field.

“We have a team that’s upbeat about what we’re doing, that believes in what we’re doing, and that comes to work with a little bit of an extra bounce in their step,” Rhoads said. “We capitalize on that.”

Rhoads has the trust of his team. His depth chart is significantly less shallow than a season ago. He knows where he wants to go.

His eyes won’t be leaving that target anytime soon.