Carlson: OU football said no to Charlie Kolar, and now, he wants to deny Sooners another Big 12 title
Charlie Kolar could hear the football crowd roar from his house on game days in Norman.
His family lived a couple miles north of the stadium, but the din of the OU faithful still carried all the way there. It often came on the wind blowing from the south, but somehow, it always found its way there.
Not that Kolar minded.
He grew up a Sooner fan. Even called himself a diehard. Difficult not to be when you are born and bred in Norman.
But this weekend, Charlie Kolar will do everything in his power to beat the Sooners.
Now a tight end at Iowa State, he is one of the Cyclones’ top receiving threats, leading the team in touchdown receptions and ranking second in receiving yards. He had a team-high four catches in Iowa State’s win against OU earlier this season — and he’s looking for more of the same Saturday in the Big 12 title game.
“They’ve won the Big 12 the last few years in a row,” he said of the Sooners, “so if you want to win the Big 12, you’ve got to beat OU.”
On the day Kolar and Co. hope to do something no Iowa State football team has done since 1912 — win a conference crown — there might seem to be no more unlikely cog to this unlikely Cyclone surge than Charlie Kolar. The Norman native. The childhood Sooner fan.
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But his path to this point really isn’t so inexpiable.
“I believed the plan they had and the culture that they were trying to create,” he said of Iowa State. “It sounded different than other places.”
Then without breaking stride …
“Also, no one wanted me, so that made it easy.”
Even though that’s not entirely true, it’s still good for a laugh.
But seriously …
“It’s not an accident he ended up there,” his mom said.
Charlie Kolar first made the trip from Norman to Ames just after his junior year at Norman North.
He’d gotten some interest from recruiters at the military academies and the Ivy League schools, but he wasn’t sure about a career in the military. Similarly, his parents weren’t sure they could justify paying for one of their five children to get an Ivy education when he’d scored high enough to be a National Merit Scholar and get a free education almost anywhere else.
Then, Iowa State started calling. Kolar didn’t think much of the Cyclones at first — they’d finished near the bottom of the Big 12 for years — but then he started talking to their new head coach, Matt Campbell. Kolar felt a connection, a bond that only strengthened when he and his mom visited.
“The first thing on Charlie’s agenda when we visited there was to go to the engineering college,” his mom, Maria, said. “That told me that they got my kid. It’s not like, ‘Oh, he likes school. He’ll do OK. It’ll work out fine.’ No, he’s really very serious about school.”
Kolar wasn’t alone.
It turned out that several other tight ends there were engineering majors, too. The Kolars know how tough it is to be both. While Maria is a professor at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, dad, Randy, is the director of the School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science at OU, and he’s seen athletes try to balance lengthy lab sessions that are often in the afternoon.
“Right when they’re supposed to be having practice,” he said.
But at Iowa State, the football coaches vowed to make it happen, whether granting exemptions or shifting spring practices to the morning to allow labs to be taken then.
“They have a culture of really elevating and recognizing academic excellence,” Randy said.
And when Charlie saw that and more during his visit, he was sold.
Maria, who played volleyball at Notre Dame and is the self-proclaimed athletic director of the family, suspected where Charlie was leaning. She and Randy had seen it with their oldest son, John, who signed to play football with OSU only a few years earlier.
“I think he’s gonna commit,” Maria told Randy when she called home.
“What are you talking about?” he said.
“This,” she said, “is too perfect.”
Charlie Kolar didn’t commit on the spot, but a month later, he said yes to the Cyclones.
No one was more excited about that than Campbell. Kolar was part of the head coach’s first full recruiting class at Iowa State, and he knew that group would be crucial to his vision. Campbell and his staff had high hopes for turning around the program, for instilling a culture that would take the Cyclones from laughing stock, a phrase Campbell has recently used, to Big 12 contenders.
“I felt like as our program grew, continuing to get the right people in our culture, in our program was way more important than anything else,” Campbell said. “I loved that he was an athletic football player and played multiple sports and was competitive in everything he did, but the most important thing to me was who he was around his family. What kind of brother he was. What kind of son he was.
“All those things were really impressive about Charlie.”
Charlie Kolar expected to be a building block for Iowa State’s success.
Turns out, he got to be a part of the success, too.
Charlie Kolar built a replica of Iowa State’s Jack Trice Stadium during the pandemic pause earlier this year.
A few weeks ago, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in biomedical engineering.
(For the record, he finished with a 3.99 grade-point average, the perfect mark felled only by an A-minus in a biology class he didn’t even have to take for his degree.)
This guy is a builder.
Nowhere has that been more evident than on the football field. Even though Kolar was a standout in high school — he led Norman North to the 2016 Class 6A state championship game — he had been more of a receiver. He was tall but lanky, a little on the thin side to play tight end in college. He was a great pass catcher but had never really been a blocker.
Four years later, he has built himself into one of the best tight ends in college football.
He is a semifinalist again this year for the Mackey Award, the Heisman for tight ends, and Thursday, he was selected as the first-team All-Big 12 tight end.
“As competitive as he is, I think it’s confidence,” Campbell said when asked how Kolar has changed most. “Not only can I do this but I can be really good at doing this.”
Kolar has added almost 40 pounds to his 6-foot-6 frame since he arrived at Iowa State, and he has learned how to block. Put his hand on the ground. Play out of a three-point stance. He may not be where he wants to be, but already, NFL types are saying he’s a mid-round talent if he leaves early this year.
If he returns next season?
He might end up being the top tight end in the draft.
‘We talk a lot about earned confidence,” Kolar said. “You earn confidence from doing it every day in practice and making sure you know what you’re doing on film and making sure that your body is right and you prepared all you could.
“Then you can get to Saturday and … let it rip.”
That’s what he plans to do Saturday in Arlington.
Sure, it will mean a little more that the Sooners are on the other side, that the program Kolar grew up cheering will be the one standing between the Cyclones and a Big 12 title.
After Iowa State beat OU earlier this season, Kolar admitted the win was “extra special” and added he “took offense” when OU didn’t offer him a scholarship. He said he knows Sooner coach Lincoln Riley and former OU coach Bob Stoops and considers both to be outstanding men.
“But just personally as a competitor — I grew up an OU fan; that was my goal — when I didn’t get that, it was frustrating,” Kolar said.
His mom said, “OU did not recruit Charlie. Period. Not that they just didn’t offer him. They didn’t recruit Charlie.
“It was irritating.”
“We are people of faith,” Maria said, “and we really do believe that God works through circumstances.”
Randy said, “We certainly aren’t unhappy with where (Charlie’s) at by any means. It’s just been a real blessing.”
All of the Kolars — Randy and Maria along with John, Sam, Katie and Ben — will be there for the Big 12 game Saturday. They don’t know what the day will hold, but if at the end of it Charlie and the Cyclones are hoisting a trophy, it will be special in ways Team Kolar could’ve never imagined.
Beating OU would be sweet.
Seeing Charlie be part of a Big 12 championship would be beyond what they dared imagine.
“Certainly exceeded our expectations,” Randy Kolar said. “We thought it would be good.
“It’s been great.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.