By Cam Huffman
On Sunday, Paul Rhoads found out his time as the head football coach at Iowa State was over. Six days later, he’ll be on the field coaching the Cyclones one last time when they visit Milan Puskar Stadium to take on West Virginia at noon.
That’s not the way these situations usually play out. Normally, the only way a coach and a team know it’s a coach’s last game is if he’s retiring. If a coach is let go during the season, it’s usually immediate. Otherwise, firings usually happen after the season, when the final game is already in the books.
The situation for Rhoads, who has been mostly popular among players and fans at ISU despite a 32-54 overall record and a 16-44 mark in the Big 12 in seven seasons in Ames, Iowa, is unique. But it’s one he’s confident his players can handle.
“I don’t believe it will be a distraction,” he said Monday during the Big 12 coaches teleconference. “Any time there is change and finality to something, it’s hard. Different personalities accept it and deal with it in different ways. But I think our team, as it has been all season, is very dedicated to our preparation and one last opportunity to go out and be successful as a team.
“I don’t think we have a challenge. Our kids will play. They’ll prepare, and they’ll play.”
The fact that ISU is on Thanksgiving break could help. Players won’t have to field questions from their classmates and friends about the situation. They’ll deal with it as a football family, without all the usual noise from the outside.
“They’re going to spend a great amount of time together this week,” said Rhoads. “It’s going to be an enjoyable week, and they’ll come to work every day ready to prepare and win.”
Prior to Rhoads’ firing, there wasn’t a whole lot for which to play this week for the Cyclones (3-8, 2-6 Big 12), but Sunday’s announcement changes that. Now, Saturday’s trip to Morgantown is a chance to send Rhoads out a winner.
“It won’t be important for me personally,” said Rhoads, trying to deflect the attention. “But it will be important for the players, and especially for the senior class. I’d love nothing more than to see them go out as winners. It’s always been about the kids and always will be.”
For WVU (6-4, 3-4 Big 12), Rhoads’ future isn’t really an issue. It has its own motivation on Senior Day, trying to send the Class of 2015 out with a win in front of a big crowd and a Fox Sports 1 television audience.
“I’m looking forward to a good day for our seniors,” said head coach Dana Holgorsen. “This senior class was instrumental in the transition into the Big 12. It’s our job to put those seniors in a position to enjoy the Senior Day. It’s important to me to give them a chance to sing ‘Country Roads’ one last time in this stadium.”
Holgorsen said he did meet with his team Monday and explained the situation with Rhoads, mainly because he wants the Mountaineers to be ready for a few extra tricks on Saturday. With nothing to lose, Holgorsen believes the Cyclones could throw caution to the wind.
“We understand that we need to be on high alert for them doing different things,” said Holgorsen. “They don’t have to be as cautious as some teams would be. We need to be ready for anything.
“They’re a program that does that anyway. They fake some stuff and take some chances on offense and defense.”
Although Rhoads’ situation means little else in terms of this week’s game plan, according to Holgorsen, the Mountaineer coach admitted the news of his firing, especially this week, was a bit of a shock.
“I was surprised,” said Holgorsen. “I don’t understand why it has to happen at this point. Paul’s a good football coach and a great guy. He brings a lot of energy to their team and is extremely competitive.
“The one thing I’ve always admired Paul Rhoads for is getting his team to play and never quitting. It doesn’t matter who they’re playing. It doesn’t matter where they’re playing. It doesn’t matter what their record is. Their team just always keeps playing. I would anticipate this game to be no different.”
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