AMES, Iowa — Iowa State has long been considering by some as a "coaching graveyard" for football, a school with a small budget and small stadium compared to the rest of the Big 12.
Coach Paul Rhoads is in danger of becoming its latest victim.
Rhoads burned through much of the goodwill he built up early in his tenure with back-to-back losing seasons. The Cyclones went 3-9 in 2013 and 2-10 and winless in the Big 12 last season.
Most people don't seem to believe Iowa State will be better in 2015. The Cyclones were picked ninth in the media's Big 12 preseason poll released in July.
If Iowa State can't surpass such lackluster expectations, it might be looking for a new coach in December. The Cyclones open against FCS rival Northern Iowa on Sept. 5.
"We haven't shied away from the adversity that we went through and what caused it. If you don't learn from it, you're not growing. You're not improving. Our guys have," Rhoads said Thursday during the team's annual media day.
Until recently, Rhoads and the Cyclones seemed like a perfect match.
As a native Iowan and an assistant under former Cyclones coach Dan McCarney, Rhoads understood as well as anyone the challenge of competing against the likes of Texas and Oklahoma at a school with a disparate recruiting footprint.
Rhoads started strong, earning bowl bids in three of his first four seasons that prompted athletic director Jamie Pollard to sign him to a 10-year, $20 million extension before the 2012 season.
But things fell apart in 2013.
A one-point loss to Texas — when what appeared to be a late Longhorns fumble was instead ruled a touchdown — began a seven-game slide.
Last season felt like it ended before it started.
The Cyclones opened with a 20-point loss to North Dakota State of the FCS and finished with a 55-3 loss to TCU. The Cyclones were so lightly regarded by December that the Horned Frogs were bumped out of the College Football Playoff despite beating Iowa State by 52 points.
Injuries have played a major role in Iowa State's recent downturn.
The Cyclones had just four players start all 12 games last season, prompting the coaching staff to look to keep their players healthier this offseason.
"Decimated is an accurate word," Rhoads said. "We've examined all the factors, and we've got a plan in place to work to keep us healthy...and you need a little luck. That's part of it."
But even though Rhoads' future at Iowa State seems somewhat shaky, a bounce-back season does appear possible.
The Cyclones return a senior quarterback, Sam Richardson, and one of the more talented receiving corps in the Big 12. Iowa State also has an experienced secondary and plenty of intriguing prospects amongst its defensive lineman.
The coaching staff, including second-year offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, has settled in after a turnover-filled offseason prior to 2014.
The schedule looks like its set up well for Iowa State, too. A visit from rival Iowa appears to be the biggest challenge until TCU visits Ames on Oct. 17.
Rhoads said Thursday that the Cyclones are closer than they've been in the past, while alluding to "lapses" and "hiccups" in team chemistry in recent seasons.
The next step is tangible improvement on the field.
"We've said it a million times," Richardson said. "Winning is a habit. It's a mindset."
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