Toledo’s Campbell rockets up coaching ranks
TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Before Toledo coach Matt Campbell meets with the media on Monday, he first faces about 175 Toledo fans, most old enough to be his father or grandfather. And they have questions.
At the weekly luncheon held in the lobby of the basketball arena, Campbell gets grilled about the Rockets’ recent 51-35 victory against Massachusetts.
Coach, why so many penalties?
Coach, why are the kickoffs so short?
Coach, why do we use only one running back at a time?
Those multimillion dollar coaches in the Power Five don’t have to run this gauntlet every week. But Campbell, the 35-year-old fourth-year Toledo coach, doesn’t miss a beat.
Campbell gives detailed answers that seem to satisfy the questioners. And why not? He’s had all the answers this season for the 20th-ranked Rockets (7-0), who play Mid-American Conference rival Northern Illinois at home on Tuesday night.
The Ohio native isn’t climbing the career ladder as much as he is bounding up the stairs to success. He caught the New England Patriots’ attention as a 23-year-old graduate assistant. Urban Meyer tried to hire Campbell before he had ever met him.
Instead of rushing toward the big time, Campbell stayed close to his roots and still he is on the verge of becoming one of the most wanted coaches in college football when the hiring season starts in about a month.
Campbell grew up in Massillon, the son of a coach. Rick Campbell chose not to coach his son, though, instead working at rival high school Jackson. Matt Campbell played at Perry High School for coach Keith Wakefield, an Ohio high school Hall of Famer.
The lessons Campbell took from his father and Wakefield made him a young coach with an old football soul.
“Really learned the value of a very old-school, principled coach. Attitude and effort. The ability to come every day with a purpose. I still use a lot of that today when I coach our teams,” Campbell said.
Campbell won three conference championships as a player in high school and played on three national championship teams at Division III Mount Union.
In between, Campbell got a taste of what it was like to be part of losing team. He went to Pittsburgh out of high school and was part of a fractured team in 1998 that went 2-9.
Campbell did not see the attitude and effort he was accustomed to seeing in high school. If this was Division I football, it was not for him.
“I draw so much today on that nine months at Pitt that I never want a kid in our program to feel or to touch what I really feel like now, as I look back, didn’t look right or feel right,” he said.
On the drive home from Pitt the following July, he stopped off at Mount Union, the Division III powerhouse and his father’s alma mater.
“There’s 60, 70 Division III football players and they’re all working out. I’m thinking, this is amazing,” said Campbell, who transferred to Mount Union and played for two national championship teams.
He immediately jumped into coaching after he was done playing as a graduate assistant with Bowling Green. The former defensive lineman immersed himself in the spread offense that Meyer had left behind after his brief stay at the school.
During a scouting visit to Bowling Green by then New England Patriots director of player personnel Scott Pioli, Campbell was assigned to make sure the VIP had everything he needed. Pioli came away impressed enough to offer Campbell the opportunity to interview for a job with the most successful team in the NFL.
Campbell passed. He instead returned to Mount Union with boxes of VHS tapes to help transition the Purple Raiders to a spread offense.
“Matt really jumped in and did the pre-planning. And he would come to each staff meeting with an agenda and ideas,” said former Mount Union coach Larry Kehres, who is now the school’s athletic director. “He showed me that he wanted to be the offensive coordinator and perhaps the playcaller, but I didn’t just say, ‘Do that.’ He showed that he wanted to and then he showed that he could.”
Campbell was part of two more Mount Union championships as a coach. Then it was back to Bowling Green and eventually to Toledo, where coach Tim Beckman made him a 30-year-old offensive coordinator in 2010.
“As an assistant coach, you could tell this is going to be a guy who’s going to move,” Toledo athletic director Mike O’Brien said.
The big move came after the 2011 regular season. Beckman was hired by Illinois and O’Brien turned to Campbell to be at first the interim head coach as Toledo prepared for a bowl game, and then the permanent replacement.
“Went to the first practice not to check up on Matt, just to check the temperature in the room,” O’Brien said. “We had not missed a beat.” Toledo beat Air Force in the Military Bowl and at 32 years old Campbell was the youngest head in major college football.
“He was born, in my view, to be a head football coach,” O’Brien said.
Before Campbell said yes to O’Brien, he had to say no to Meyer. Campbell popped up on his radar after he got the Ohio State job.
“Someone recommended him to me and I started asking my friends who were high school coaches in the state and to a man they loved the guy,” Meyer said. “Then I started doing my homework on his football acumen and it all came back plusses.”
Now in his third full season at Toledo, Campbell has the Rockets rolling and that Mount Union culture of player ownership in place.
There will soon be opportunities for Campbell to leave Toledo, which launched the careers of Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel. Power Five schools will call, looking to quadruple (or more) the $495,000 salary he made last year, according to USA Today’s coaches’ salary data base.
That’s for later. For now, Toledo has not won a MAC title since 2004 and his job is to change that.
“My dad, he said ’Matt, football’s a funny thing. If you just work really hard and do what you’re asked to do, then everything always takes care of itself. You don’t have to worry about those things,” Campbell said. “And I don’t.”
AP College Football: www.collegefootball.ap.org