The curious case of Austin McBethThe story of a college athletic career that spanned three schools and two sports
AMES — “Each time I tell this story, I either get chills or cry,” begins Austin McBeth.
The story of McBeth’s collegiate athletic career is full of twists and turns, peaks and pitfalls.
The tale begins with McBeth’s graduation from WACO High School in 2007. A multi-sport star for the Warriors, McBeth amassed 1,237 career points and 397 assists as a four-year starter at point guard for the WACO boys’ basketball team. He also was a second team all-state quarterback as a senior for the Warrior football team, throwing for 952 yards and 14 touchdowns and running for nine more scores.
He was recruited to North Iowa Community College to play both basketball and football for the Trojans, but before he got there, the strangest thing happened — both coaches who recruited him left the school for different jobs.
“I found out when I came up on a visit,” McBeth said. “It was right around April Fools’ Day, and I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’”
It was no joke. But McBeth decided to honor his commitment and stay at NIACC. The new football coach at the school decided to play only the returning sophomores, so McBeth decided to redshirt.
IN THE MEANTIME, MCBETH and one of his teammates had been in touch with the football coach who had recruited them, Scott Strohmeier, about transferring to Iowa Western Community College. At the time, McBeth felt that football was his future, so he transferred at the spring semester.
In spring ball, McBeth was locked in a quarterback battle with David Blackwell, a player who had signed with the University of Iowa but didn’t make the cut academically.
“He was a better athlete than I am, but I felt like I was the better quarterback,” McBeth said. “The spring game went awesome, and I ended up getting the player of the game award. I broke 6-7 tackles on a 30-yard touchdown scamper. I felt like that earned me my spot.”
McBeth returned home and kept working on his game, sure he would be the Reivers’ starting quarterback in the fall. But when he returned to school, he found himself buried on the depth chart behind Blackwell and another quarterback. When the Reivers started the season 0-2, McBeth found himself questioning his decision to transfer to Iowa Western.
“I transferred, came all this way, gave up basketball, and now I’m not even playing,” he said.
But in Iowa Western’s third game, with the Reivers trailing Joliet Junior College by a large margin, McBeth finally got his chance to play. And he made the most of it, leading the team on back-to-back touchdown drives in the loss.
“I played well enough that [Coach Strohmeier] realized that Austin’s probably our guy,” McBeth said.
IN HIS FIRST START, McBeth had an outstanding game, but the Reivers lost to 16th-ranked Grand Rapids Community College 54-36 and fell to 0-4 on the season. But from there, McBeth and Iowa Western rolled, winning their final five games of the season. McBeth completed 65 percent of his passes on the season and threw for 1,103 yards and eight touchdowns, earning himself second team all-conference honors.
Following the season, Strohmeier informed McBeth that schools were calling to ask about the quarterback.
“He’s naming a bunch of small schools and Division II schools,” McBeth recalled. “I said, ‘Here’s the deal. I want to go to Iowa. I’ve always wanted to play sports at Iowa.’ So he called [then-Iowa offensive coordinator] Ken O’Keefe, and O’Keefe was impressed with my tape, but he felt like I would be better off at a school like UNI. I was frustrated, because I wanted to go to Iowa.”
McBeth had received a preferred walk-on offer from Iowa State, but he had no interest in playing for the Cyclones, a team he’d grown up despising.
“First of all, I’m an Iowa fan,” McBeth said. “I’m not going to Iowa State. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. And I didn’t want to be a walk-on. I wanted to get a scholarship. It wasn’t about the money, it was about the prestige of saying I’m a scholarship athlete.”
BUT FOLLOWING CONVERSATIONS with his coaches at Iowa Western, his mother and God, McBeth, the son of Andrea and Kevin McBeth, decided to walk onto the Iowa State football team.
“By Jan. 2, I’m still praying about it,” he said. “All of a sudden I have this peace about going to Iowa State. And I never wanted to go to Iowa State. I’m still a Hawkeye fan at heart. But I had a lot of peace about it and felt that God opened this door for a reason.”
That door opened to a strange new world for McBeth.
“I had three or four days to sign up for classes, and I got accepted to Iowa State,” he said. “I packed up my stuff and moved there. I didn’t know where my classes were, what campus was like, who anyone was. I was completely lost with a whole new adventure in front of me.”
Least of all, McBeth had no idea who his new teammates were.
“I could have named you every single starter for the Iowa football team because I loved Iowa football,” he said. “But I didn’t know any of the Iowa State players. When I was at Iowa Western, I watched the Iowa State-Nebraska game, and Jerome Tiller came in and they were talking about how he’s going to be the next big-time quarterback at ISU. I’m watching that game and thinking, ‘I can do this.’”
McBeth met Tiller, and began trying to beat him at every drill. It didn’t go as well as he’d hoped.
“I had no idea Division I football was so hard,” McBeth said. “People have no idea how intense practices and workouts are. We’re doing 7-on-7 and all these things and I’m not close to as good as Tiller or Austen Arnaud. They don’t look that good on TV, but they are. Defensive backs are picking me off on every play because they’re faster than they look. I’m getting frustrated, but like every other challenge in my life I met it head on. I’m going to get good at this, and I’m going to play.”
BUT AFTER SPRING PRACTICE, McBeth wasn’t even on Iowa State’s 105-man traveling roster. And once the season started, McBeth found himself on the Cyclones’ scout team. So he began to reassess his goals.
“I’m like, ‘I’m going to start at scout team quarterback,’” he said. “That was my opportunity at that time. That was my opportunity to play against the starting defense. That was my opportunity to get seen by the coaches. So that became my goal.”
By the third week of the season, McBeth became the starting scout team quarterback, ahead of scholarship players and ahead of players who had been in the system for two years. He spent the rest of the season working hard to become a better quarterback, but was exhausted by the end.
“After the season, I was like, ‘This is tough,’” McBeth said. “It was a near death experience every day trying to get through those workouts. Honestly, I was just burnt out. I didn’t see myself getting the starting spot over Tiller or a walk-on getting a starting spot. I didn’t know if I had the passion to do that for three more years. I was at the gym, and I was like, ‘I just want to go hoop for a little bit.’”
WHILE PLAYING BASKETBALL with a friend from his church, Chris Reif, McBeth rediscovered his passion for basketball, the sport he had given up to pursue football at Iowa Western and Iowa State.
“I was tired of football, and basketball was so much fun,” McBeth said. “I like football, but basketball is where my passion is.”
Reif, a class checker for the Iowa State men’s basketball team, encouraged McBeth to try to get a spot on the Cyclones’ roster. Iowa State, in its first season under former star player Fred Hoiberg, was short on players. Still, McBeth wasn’t quite convinced he should make such a drastic move.
“I’m talking about quitting one team and joining another one, so this isn’t anything to take lightly,” he said.
But just before the Chirstmas break, McBeth sought out Hoiberg in Iowa State’s Sukup Basketball Complex.
“I go in and find Hoiberg and said, ‘Hey, this is random, but I noticed you’re short a couple of players and need a couple of walk-ons,’” McBeth said. “He gave me a really politically correct answer and said, ‘Hey, I appreciate it, but we’re good right now.’”
MCBETH WAS DISAPPOINTED, but he felt that God was pushing him in the direction of the Iowa State men’s basketball team. So he kept working out. And he contacted Iowa State’s Director of Basketball Operations, Jeff Rutter, who was an assistant coach under former Cyclone coach Greg McDermott and who had seen McBeth play at Iowa State’s Point Guard Academy in the past. McBeth felt that Rutter could be a liason between himself and Hoiberg.
He spoke with Rutter a couple of times, including after guard Scott Christopherson injured his elbow in a win at Virginia on Dec. 30. But every time, McBeth was told there wasn’t a spot for him on the Cyclones’ roster.
“I hang up the phone, and I’m just dejected,” McBeth said. “I felt like everything that had happened had been signs that I was doing the right thing. At this point, I was so invested with trying to be on the basketball team that I was not going back to football. But if I don’t play basketball, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t even like being at Iowa State in the first place. So I’m frustrated.”
McBeth decided to take out his frustrations on the basketball court. He called up friend Alex Vogel, and they went to the Washington Community Y to play a pickup game. While playing on Jan. 2, he came to a realization.
“We go up to Washington and we’re playing pickup,” McBeth recalled. “I’m having a lot of fun, I’m scoring a ton, and my game’s going really well. I was like, ‘This game is so much fun to play.’ I’d spent so much time the last week doubting God and trying to get on the team that I didn’t appreciate my love for the game or that God gave me the talent to play the game. I’m like, ‘You know what, God, I’m giving you my talent. If I get to play at Iowa State, or if I don’t, I’m letting the joy of this game be for you so that I can glorify you and give praise to you. I’m just going to be happy and content with that.’ That was one of the most fun nights of playing I’ve ever had.”
WHEN MCBETH RETURNED HOME, he got a call from Rutter, asking him to drive to Ames the next morning and try out for the team.
“I was like, ‘I can be there tonight if you want me to,’” McBeth said. “I don’t think I slept for two minutes that night.”
The next morning, McBeth and another Iowa State football player, tight end Drew Mitchell, auditioned for a spot on the Iowa State men’s basketball team. Both were asked to join the squad, and were told the team had a shootaround at 3 p.m. and a game that night.
“I was like, ‘Seriously? We have a game tonight? Can I just enjoy this for a second without having to be in front of 20,000 people?’” McBeth said.
Later that night, McBeth, a 6-foot-1 guard, played a few seconds at the end of the Cyclones’ 72-63 win over Northern Illinois. His collegiate basketball career had begun.
“I played 28 seconds after being on the team for less than 24 hours,” McBeth said. “It was the craziest 24 hours of my entire life. There is no way that you can hear that story without thinking, ‘God did that.’ He has a plan and a purpose for all of us. If we follow that, he’s going to allow us to have the desires of our heart. There’s no way that’s a coincidence. There’s no way you call five times and they say, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’ and then all of a sudden they say, ‘Yes.’”
MCBETH’S PLAYING CAREER at Iowa State is a bit of an oxymoron. He hasn’t played much for the men’s basketball team, as he’s seen action in 19 games over three seasons and played a total of 31 minutes. He’s never scored a single point for the Cyclones. But he has realized what he wants to do with his life.
“I’m almost somewhat of a coach [on the bench],” he said. “After being on this team, I’ve found out what my passion is when I get done playing. I want to be a basketball coach, and I want to coach at the Division I level. God didn’t put me on the Iowa State men’s basketball team to play. I’ve gotten to do that, and it’s been so much fun when I’ve been able to do that, but he put me on the team to find out that what I truly desire and what I’m truly meant to be is a basketball coach. I’ve had an opportunity the last three years to learn a lot about the game. I’ve learned what it takes to be good and I’ve learned what it takes to succeed.”
He’s also, in his own way, helped the Cyclones be successful.
“Austin’s such an engaging personality that it rubs off on the team,” Hoiberg said. “He gets along very well with his teammates and he’s a natural leader who will be successful in life.”
Sometime soon, McBeth’s college career will come to an end. The Cyclones will face seventh-seeded Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Friday in Dayton, Ohio. Whenever the 10th-seeded Cyclones lose, McBeth will begin to prepare for life after college. He graduated from Iowa State with a degree in psychology last May.
“Right now, I’m very much in the same boat I have been in my whole college career — I’m unsure,” he said. “I know what I want to do. And that’s to be a graduate assistant here at Iowa State.”
MCBETH’S COLLEGE CAREER has been a winding journey. But he’s learned a lot about himself along the way.
“It’s been all over the place,” he said. “It’s been a mess. It’s been a blessing. I’ve found out who I am. Who Austin McBeth is. I had my faith put in the fire, to see if I can withstand it. There are times I’ve come out pretty hot, and there are times I have withstood it pretty well.”
In the end, God put McBeth right where he needed to be all along.
“I wasn’t good enough [to play college basketball] coming out of high school,” McBeth said. “[God] took me to three different schools and put me through a lot of stuff, and now I’m living my dream three years later.”