MEMPHIS — Jamie Pollard knew what he was doing when he lobbied the Liberty Bowl to invite Iowa State to its football game.
Iowa State has sold about 14,000 tickets to its game here Monday afternoon against Tulsa, making Memphis look very kindly upon Iowans.
“They expect between 20,000 and 25,000 Cyclone fans,” said Pollard, ISU’s athletic director. “They think we’ll have half the stadium blocked out with our fans. That should be pretty neat.”
Iowa State was available to this game because the Big 12 Conference had filled all its bowl slots before getting down to its lone 6-6 team, the Cyclones. The Southeastern Conference didn’t have enough bowl-eligible teams to fill its spot in the Liberty.
So Pollard applied persuasion, not that the Memphis folks needed much. They’d like to have a Big 12 affiliation here in future Liberty Bowls, and were keener on inviting ISU than Louisiana Tech.
But the number of visitors from Iowa have the locals especially delighted. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is typically the slowest for tourism here all year.
“Memphis is the closest of all 35 bowls to Ames, Iowa,” Pollard said. “It’s drivable, relatively affordable, a good location, and the Dec. 31st date is good.
“From talking to my peers, they’re scratching their heads wondering how we get so many people here. The other six schools that have sold as many bowl tickets are either in BCS games or big games. Here we are, a 6-6 team.”
But this is a fan base with overall good feelings about its athletic program.
“Paul Rhoads and (men’s basketball coach) Fred Hoiberg bring a lot of excitement to the fans,” said ISU graduate Erik Miles of Cedar Rapids, who drove to Memphis Friday.
“There have been a lot of improvements to the stadium, the scoreboard. I just think there’s a whole new level of excitement. The stadium is just packed every game.”
Iowa State is fresh off its best two-year period in football season ticket-sales and overall attendance. Cyclone fans like Rhoads, who is finishing his fourth season as ISU’s head coach and is coaching his third bowl team in that time.
Rhoads, like Pollard, Hoiberg and women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly, and other ISU coaches, have built a lot of goodwill with fans through personal interaction.
“I think it’s creating a culture,” Pollard said, “and having the right people understand what Iowa State people are about, people who respect hard work and discipline. And it’s remembering who our constituents are, communicating with them through email, phone calls, shaking hands, answering their questions.
“Those people are paying a lot of dollars to support us, and we need to pay them back. I don’t want us as a department to have success and rest on our laurels.”
On a Saturday night less than 48 hours from a bowl, many head coaches would have themselves and their assistants in undisclosed locations, out of fans’ sights.
But on Sunday Rhoads said “Last night I took the staff out for dinner, and we made a stroll through that area.”
“That area” was Beale Street, Memphis’ epicenter for music, food and drink. It was stuffed with Cyclone fans, from B.B. King’s Blues Club to the Rum Boogie Café.
“Cyclone Nation has officially showed up in the city of Memphis,” Rhoads said, “and Memphis was very aware of that last night. If they think that was all, they’ve got another thing coming.”
Meaning, more cardinal-and-red was coming on Sunday. And it did, as the Liberty Bowl’s Beale Street Parade looked more like an Iowa State pep rally.
“I-55 south of St. Louis looked like Cyclone Alley,” Miles said. “You couldn’t believe how many cars had Cyclone flags. We stopped in a Burger King in Cape Girardeau, and there were Cyclone fans in there.”
Dave and Cindy Lenz and Corrine Thielen of Dubuque, the father, stepmother and mother of ISU senior wide receiver Josh Lenz, chartered a bus and brought 40 fans to Memphis. The group left Dubuque at 7 a.m., Saturday and got to Memphis at 6:30 p.m.
“We have people from Dubuque, Cedar Rapids, Maquoketa, Zwingle,” Dave Lenz said. “We have 92-year-old Jean Lange (an Iowa State football letterman from 1939 through 1941). He’s out here on Beale Street somewhere, having a great time.”
Lange and thousands of younger Cyclone fans were smiling here Sunday. So, too, were their Memphis hosts.