USA TODAY US Edition
AT TOLEDO, IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS
Under Campbell, Rockets rise doing things ‘the right way’
Every team meeting room in every college football facility in the country has graphics and posters that reflect what a coach wants his players to see every day. Some put logos of bowl games. Others have the schedule. Usually there are certain statistical benchmarks or pyramids of success.
But when Toledo coach Matt Campbell stands up in front of his team, the most prominent message his players see at the front of the room is a reminder to say please, thank you and excuse me.
“Phrases such as: Good Morning, Be Safe, How Are You and Have a Great Day are all part of who I am,” the poster reads at the bottom. “I am the Respectful Rocket!”
That message is only a small window into what is happening this season at Toledo, which vaulted into national consciousness Sept. 12 with a road win against Arkansas and has kept going, rising all the way to No. 20 in the Amway Coaches Poll. But it does reflect something about how Campbell, who got the job at age 32 and is 32-13 overall in his fourth season, has become one of the hottest coaches in America and perhaps the next great one to rise out of the Mid-American Conference.
A voracious reader who played during the championship dynasty at NCAA Division III Mount Union and walks past a picture of former Toledo coach Nick Saban every time he enters his office, Campbell believes strongly in process and a culture in which no detail — even manners — is too small.
“As much as this is about winning and losing games, we’re still teachers,” Campbell said. “With everything these guys are going through, it’s hard. We were all 18 and 19 once, but we can’t lose the fundamentals of how to do things the right way from yes sir, no sir, please and thank you to how do I carry myself the right way to do the right thing? It’s not just about football.” BORN TO BE A COACH The son of a high school coach who grew up in Massillon, Ohio, and has been around programs in the state his entire career, Campbell knows what he values and what he wants his team to look like. Even at 35, he comes across as mature and substantive, not some flashy recruiter who wants to sell an image through YouTube videos and tweets.
And that’s why, for all the attention a top-25 ranking has brought to the school, it seems unlikely the Rockets are going to fall victim to the pitfalls that come along with this level of success.
“It’s his consistency, basically,” senior cornerback Cheatham Norrils said. “He tries to figure out ways to grow, but he doesn’t change his expectation or what he wants out of the team. He always preaches about the process. If you perfect your process, you’ll be fine.”
Campbell’s steadiness is particularly impressive when you consider that he had not exactly pegged himself as an imminent head coach in the haste of Tim Beckman’s departure in 2011.
After all, he was less than a decade removed at that point from working in a cement factory after college graduation, sending his résumé to every school in Division I football and hoping to catch on as a graduate assistant.
It wasn’t that people hadn’t noticed Campbell’s rapid rise from graduate assistant to offensive line coach at Bowling Green and ultimately to offensive coordinator at Toledo, but the logical next move was to Ohio State, where Urban Meyer had targeted him to run the offense alongside Tom Herman.
Three days after being named Toledo’s interim coach for the 2011 Military Bowl, however, Campbell was hired permanently as the youngest (at the time) head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“The very first practice he had as interim, I was just going to see how the team was, how the demeanor was,” athletics director Mike O’Brien said. “And it was like we never missed a beat. That’s when I said, ‘ We have our guy.’ I didn’t want to lose one of our better employees, and sometimes it’s a gut feeling. There were some people who whispered in my ear, ‘Do you know how old he is?’ But he was born to be a head football coach.” ‘RECRUIT, RETAIN, DEVELOP’ Campbell figured the only thing he could do to get rid of the age question was beat Air Force in the bowl game, so he poured all of his energy into that for the next few weeks. But once the game ended and he got on the plane to go home, Campbell sat down next to his wife and laid out a plan for building his identity as a coach and for the program.
“I got a sheet of paper and wrote three words down,” he said. “Recruit, retain, develop.”
And the results are showing this year, largely with a group of seniors and juniors he recruited early on from a prototype he identified for what players at every position on the field should look like physically and mentally.
“We dissected it and said, ‘This is what we want,’ ” Campbell said. “And then we didn’t miss very often.”
Once he gets them, Campbell says he is brutally honest with players about where they stand and what they need to do to improve. It’s a trait he appreciated while playing under legendary Larry Kehres at Mount Union and has brought to Toledo, where one-on-one meetings with the head coach are frequent.
“You need that in this business,” said senior quarterback Phillip Ely, who transferred from Alabama after the 2012 season. “You can have players misinterpret things. A lot of coaches won’t tell you if they’re playing you or not; they’ll kind of leave you hanging. Here, they’ll tell you what’s up. They’ll tell you how it is, how you’re doing and how you can get better. They say, ‘If you want to be our guy, this is where you’ve got to be, and here’s the film for it.’ They are honest, the whole staff is, and it’s mainly because of Matt Campbell.” BIG OFFERS COMING? That approach has manifested itself largely in a defense that has given up eight touchdowns and seven field goals all season. Most notably, the Rockets held Arkansas to 12 points and staved off a potential winning drive in the final seconds.
“When we beat someone like Michigan or Arkansas, the shelf life is a long time,” O’Brien said. “Matt and the players, they don’t talk about the rankings, but it’s fun for our university. A MAC team being in the top 20 now, it is a big deal. It’s hard to do.”
And it’s historically difficult to sustain in a league in which coaches become highly sought-after once they have success. Toledo is no stranger to this phenomenon, having lost Chuck Stobart to Utah, Saban to the Cleveland Browns, Gary Pinkel to Missouri and Beckman to Illinois.
Campbell is the fifth-highestpaid coach in the MAC at $495,000, and there is little doubt some school will soon offer to triple or quadruple his salary.
But Campbell is also 35 with a wide-open window of success; he might not need to rush off, particularly with his life-long roots in Ohio.
“Matt is a very bright guy, and all I can say is he’s very committed to (Toledo), and very selfishly I think he has a really good job,” O’Brien said. “He can build something very special.”
There might not be much more to build. Though the Rockets could potentially be in line for the New Year’s Six bowl bid that goes to the highest-ranked champion in the Group of Five conferences, they are keeping the focus on winning the school’s first conference title since 2004.
Given how dominant Toledo has been, beating its three MAC opponents by an average margin of 29.3 points, that goal might not be far away. And it might be what keeps him around a little while longer.
“Last year was the first time I really felt like our football program was close to where I wanted it to be,” Campbell said. “Even though we were 9-4, we had some really tough injuries, but our team never folded its tent. Our kids never complained, never whined, never quit, they just kept coming. We’re building something special, and that’s been really exciting for me.”