Can the Buckeyes lose valued assistant coaches and keep winning national championships?
By Doug Lesmerises
Northeast Ohio Media Group
Chris Ash isn’t a guy to make a big deal of things, so his breakfast routine isn’t a swing by Starbucks or a homemade power smoothie. To explain what he eats every morning after he pulls into the Woody Hayes Athletic Center at 5:30 a.m., Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator rises from the chair in his office and pulls open the door of a skinny closet.
Out comes a half-eaten bag of wheat bread and a jar of Jif.
“If I’m lucky, I have some jelly,” Ash says, eyeing the empty mini-fridge on the floor. “But it’s been a while. It’s mostly peanut butter and bread.”
So it’s no surprise when Ash’s story about his first time meeting Urban Meyer comes with the caveat that Meyer doesn’t recall it and Ash has never bothered to remind him. The belief from the head coach is that his first conversation with Ash arose when he called to gauge his interest in joining the staff after the 2013 season.
As the Buckeyes approach the 2015 season looking for a second consecutive national title, and a run that could allow them to claim this early era of college football playoff football as their own, remember that phone call. Remember what happened in the 12 months after it. And allow that to explain why this middle-management tier of the OSU program could keep the Buckeyes in position to win, even if the faces change.
Ash is part of the proof that the “how” can define the 10 men — nine assistants and a strength coach — that Meyer trusts to implement his plan as much as the “who.”
At Florida, Meyer relied on assistants he already trusted. At Ohio State, he’s been rolling with guys he barely knew, or didn’t know at all, until he hired them.
Can Meyer handle a TITLE this time?
“I think he’s learned how to adjust to that and deal with that coming here,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, Meyer’s long-time friend and former Florida assistant, who saw the problems when Meyer lost assistants with the Gators.
That has to change here. The Buckeyes lost two coaches after the 2013 season and two after 2014, and Meyer said he expects two departures a year from now. When Nick Saban won this third title in four years at Alabama in 2012, he did it with only three of nine assistants who had been there for the first championship in 2009.
Ash won a national title in his first year in Columbus. If the Buckeyes win a second this season, he may not be around for a shot at a third. And that might be OK.
When you win, you lose
“I hate when I lose really good coaches,” Meyer said Saturday as the Buckeyes finished their most difficult part of preseason camp. “But I also love the fact that Tom Herman is leading a program.”
Former Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Tom Herman is now the head coach at Houston. He’s one of four assistants Urban Meyer has lost after three seasons at Ohio State.Associated Press
Herman is the Buckeyes’ former offensive coordinator who is now the head coach at Houston after three years at Ohio State.
As Meyer lists more of his assistants who have moved on to head jobs – Mullen, Steve Addazio (Boston College), Doc Holliday (Marshall), Dan McCarney (North Texas) – he knows what his program has become: A training ground.
Ash listed a chance to be a head coach as a primary factor in his move to Columbus.
“I guess that’s kind of why guys come here now, because they know if things work out, they’ll get that (chance to be a head coach),” Meyer said. “I hate losing great coaches, like I hate when a junior declares early (for the NFL Draft). But I also love it for them. That’s why we do it.”
MEYER’S COACHING TREE
Meyer loves to talk about the great state of Ohio, and in his first season he hyped the Ohio ties of eight of his nine assistants. Ash was born and raised in Iowa, had no Ohio connections and knew only Herman, his former colleague and neighbor at Iowa State, when Meyer called.
Roots only go so far. Coaching goes farther.
Ash’s hiring came from nowhere after safeties coach Everett Withers departed an OSU secondary that clearly needed revamping after the 2013 season.
“I had a really good job,” said Ash, who was the defensive coordinator at Arkansas under Bret Bielema, the boss he’d followed from Wisconsin. “(But) I’ve never been one to shy away from taking a risk.”
They’d met before when Ash was at Wisconsin and Meyer called a Badgers game during his year as an ESPN analyst in 2011. But that’s Ash’s secret. The new first meeting with Meyer at a coaching convention in Indianapolis sold him.
“I liked the way he did business. I liked his vision for the program,” Ash said. “I liked that he was talking about national championships, though at the time he thought 2014 was good but 2015 might be the year. I felt like the pieces of the puzzle were in place. And I liked a lot about what he said he wanted to do on defense. If I didn’t like what he wanted to do on defense, I wouldn’t have done it. But the stars kind of aligned with what he wanted and what I believed in.”
As co-defensive coordinators, Ash and OSU veteran Luke Fickell, now entering year 14 as a coach with the Buckeyes, revamped a defense that dominated during the College Football Playoff run. So has Ash now sold Meyer on a guy he’d only known through the coaching grapevine?
“To this day, does he completely, fully trust me? I don’t know, I hope so,” Ash said. “Probably it happened when the season was over. At the end of the day, let’s be honest, we can all like each other, but you’ve got to trust someone to do it. But it wasn’t going to be just walk in the door and that trust would be built. Building trust with a player and coach takes a long time, and building trust with a coach and head coach takes a long time.”
Ash wants to run a program. Ed Warinner, the offensive line coach who is taking more play-calling responsibilities this season with Herman’s departure, wants to run a program. They won’t jump for bad jobs, because when a team like Ohio State wins consistently, opportunities aren’t fleeting. They will be there.
Chris Ash won a national title is his first year as an Ohio State assistant and if the Buckeyes win another on this season, he could be gone for a head coaching job before he has a chance to try for three.Marvin Fong, The Plain Dealer
But eventually, they will go. And Ohio State will have to go on, trading continuity for fresh ideas, like it or not.
“Continuity is great if the people there are continually trying to improve themselves and each other. If continuity breeds complacency and you become stale, continuity is no good, in my opinion,” Ash said.
He thinks the same of constant turnover, of staffs working in multiple new guys if they are always talking about how they did it at their last stop.
“I do want to be on a staff that is continually trying to be creative but has a real guiding light or map on how we’re going to do business,” Ash said.
Herman has said what he learned most from Meyer was the way he kept a program aligned, with everyone on the coaching staff and roster pulling the same direction in the same way. Ash has mentioned that as well, and it’s that alignment that could create consistency in the midst of turnover. It’s an ability to change that could keep talent interested in working in Columbus.
“As an assistant coach, I know I can bring him a new idea,” Ash said. “If you can prove to him this will benefit our coaches or players or program, he’ll do it. Some coaches who have been doing it a long time and have been successful say, ‘It’s my way and that’s it.’”
The principal and the teachers
Meyer clearly has his way, his talk of leadership more prevalent now than his talk of his spread offense. The staff connects it all. Ash estimates Meyer spends 10 percent of the time with each player that a position coach does.
“We want him to be able to come in our meeting room and congratulate guys and keep that going rather than going in and blowing it up because an assistant coach is not doing his job,” Ash said. “Coach does a great job spending time with kids, but it’s our job to keep them out of the principal’s office.”
Principal Meyer has found his teachers in various ways.
He’s hired three assistants straight from Notre Dame (first-year running backs coach Tony Alford, tight ends coach Tim Hinton and Warinner), a school at which he coached for five years; two former Ohio high school coaches (Hinton and corners coach Kerry Coombs); a lifelong Buckeye he didn’t know at all previously (linebackers coach Fickell); the grandson of his mentor Earle Bruce (receivers coach Zach Smith); a veteran he plucked from Penn State the moment that coach left State College (defensive line coach Larry Johnson); and a guy who previously coached with Warinner (first-year quarterbacks coach Tim Beck).
Marotti, Meyer and the couch
The one guy Meyer knows won’t leave him is strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti, his right-hand man and one of his best friends who followed him from Florida.
And then there’s Ash.
His alarm goes off at 4:30 each morning, because he gets antsy and out of sorts if he doesn’t hit the office by 5:30. It’s there he partakes in the “solitude time,” that Meyer encourages for each assistant. Ash watches film and cuts up NFL clips for his safeties, which they love. He clears his head, organizes his schedule and makes sure he’s not seeing film in full staff meetings for the first time.
In its own way, it’s Ash’s favorite time of the day.
“Some people need that morning coffee, I need that morning time,” Ash said. “It gets me going.”
Maybe going toward another national title. Maybe toward a job that will take him away from Ohio State. That mission may be one in the same.
To win, Ohio State must be ready to lose.