ISU football brings in former NFL special teams coach John Bonamego – Des Moines Register

IOWA FALLS — The hiring basically went unannounced, Matt Campbell finally getting that special teams coach fans have been crowing for. Iowa State’s head coach mentioned it to me almost in passing, while signing autographs and posing for pictures at a Cyclones Tailgate Tour function last week at Okoboji.
But the addition of John Bonamego isn’t anything ho-hum. He’s in charge of turning what has been problematic special teams play into (finally) something special.
And get this:
He has immediate coaching cred.
“Bono,” as Campbell calls him, coached special teams last season for the Super Bowl champ Los Angeles Rams. He’s been the special teams coordinator at the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins.
If it’s happened, he’s likely seen it during 16 NFL coaching seasons.
“If you’re a player, and you see a guy like coach Bono stand up there talking, you better perk up and listen,” said graduate Rory Walling, who is working with the staff through at least the 2022 season. “He’s been there. A majority of the guys in that (special teams) room have aspirations to be there someday, too. He’s coached in the NFL. If you have questions, probably the No. 1 qualified guy would be coach Bono. That heightens the level of respect that he deserves.”
Officially, Bonamego is a special teams analyst. He’ll work from the press box during games next season, and that’s all right. With his credentials, and given the inconsistent state of some phases of Iowa State special teams, he can work from the Sukup End Zone Club if he wants.
“Special teams play is such a huge piece of our program,” Campbell said last week. “The toughness, the mentality it takes to play on special teams is what we’ve asked of any guy that’s had a great career on both offense and defense. Those guys, other than quarterbacks, have played on special teams for us.”
More: Central Michigan coach John Bonamego tells of his battle with cancer
Toughness? That’s coach Bono. Not long after becoming the Central Michigan head coach in 2015, he was diagnosed with a form of cancer that spread from a tonsil to a lymph node.
Not wanting anything to get in the way of coaching at his alma mater, Bonamego traveled almost daily from campus in Mount Pleasant, Michigan to Ann Arbor (250 miles round trip) for almost daily treatments. He did that for four months. He did it before practice, never missing a workout during a season that ended with selection to the Quick Lane Bowl.
“A lot of people were depending on me,” Bono told me. “It was something I had to do.”
Campbell, coaching at Toledo at the time, was impressed with Bonamego’s teams. He went to his memory bank when Bono, 58, and the Rams split after last season.
“Our relationship really went back to being in the MAC,” said Campbell, referring to the Mid-American Conference. “We forged a great relationship at that time. I was extremely young, and coach Bono was really great to me. We stayed in touch.
“There was an opportunity this off-season. We talked. I asked would he be interested in coming here?”
It’s no secret Iowa State special teams weren’t always the best, before placekicker extraordinaire Andrew Mevis came onto the scene. There were long touchdown returns for touchdowns. Rarely, it seems, were kickoffs unreturnable. Once, or maybe twice, kickoffs were done by drop-kicking.
“When you look at us, we’ve yet to be complete in the special teams game,” Campbell said last week. “We’ve been really good in a lot of phases. We continue to want to be better in the punt game — the consistency, and then the schemes in the punt game — to make sure our net punt is what we’d like it to be. We made huge strides in the kickoff game with (now gone) Andrew.
“We’re finally getting to the place where we’re confident in who those specialists are — to build schemes around those guys.”
The person with the most diverse background of anyone walking around the Iowa State football coaching offices, that’s for sure. Where do you start?
Besides being a cancer survivor and a Super Bowl champion, Bono has given the commencement speech at his college alma mater. A son of military parents, he’s lived in Africa, Germany, Italy, Kansas, Georgia and Texas.
“There’s nothing Bono hasn’t done,” Campbell said.
I spoke with Bonamego on Tuesday. I told him I’d only take 15 minutes or so. We hung up after 45 minutes, maybe an hour. The man is that interesting. Nothing was off-limits. I asked about surviving cancer, while also coaching football.
“It was a good distraction for me,” he said of daily long-distance back-and-forths for cancer treatment. “When we get into the season, we might as well be sailors on a submarine. You go to training camp in late July, and you really don’t come up for air until everything is done. You’re really shut off from the outside world. You grind through it.”
How he ended up at Iowa State was either coincidental or a stroke of luck.
“Matt’s last year at Toledo as head coach was my first year at Central Michigan,” he said. “You know, you go into those league meetings, and I guess it because my last name starts with ‘B,’ and his name starts with ‘C’ that we ended up sitting next to each other. Toledo was doing a great job. I had a very high degree of respect for him the first time I met him.
“We’ve stayed in touch, and I had actually reached out to him about another coaching situation. He said, ‘It’s crazy you called, that I have a position. Would you be interested in coming to Iowa State?’
“It happened organically.”
And his first phone call? That was to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who as the Maine head coach gave Bono his first opportunity.
More: Matt Campbell has ‘confidence’ in kicking game after Iowa State’s recent struggles
“He hired me to my first full-time job,” Bonamego said. “I know, and I respect the (Cy-Hawk) rivalry. Kirk’s done so much for me over the years; he’s been a mentor. I felt like I had to make that call. I texted him. I let him know. Coach was very gracious. A job is a job.”
As an analyst, he can’t work directly on-field with players. Therefore, he coaches the coaches.
“I stay outside the lines,” he said. “It’s so important to work with the staff. First and foremost, we’re all teachers. What I know doesn’t matter, unless we can teach it to players in such a way that they can go out and execute it.”
More: Peterson: At Iowa State, NIL limitations are a challenge. Can ISU compete in this new world?
In a perfect world, special teams players will play on special teams, but that’s rarely the case at even the highest levels of college football.
“My philosophy has always been as many of your best players on every unit, but at the same time, roles are important,” he said. “Roles aren’t finite, either. We’re always coaching football. We’re coaching fundamentals not just to help players on special teams, but to make them better players on offense and defense as well.
“If we can’t trust you to play on special teams, how can we trust you to play on offense and defense?
“That’s one of the challenges that make coaching exciting – watching a player work at something, and watching him have success.”
Iowa State columnist Randy Peterson embarked on his 50th year of writing sports for the Des Moines Register in December 2021. Reach him at, 515-284-8132, and on Twitter at @RandyPete.


Leave a Comment