Rockets coach knows offense, winning
TOLEDO, Ohio - Stacked on Matt Campbell's desk are notes, binders and an ever-growing list of things to tackle and accomplish. Hanging in the corner of his plush office are enough clothes to suggest both all-nighters and overnighters are possible, and that any foray into another part of the University of Toledo campus or the community probably comes without the luxury of having a minute to stop at home.
Pre-practice position meetings afford Campbell his first chance in hours to sit, but only for a couple of minutes. He has future days and meetings to plan, game plans to build and issues to address. He calls it "the greatest job," but it's a demanding one. And if there's any time left for Campbell to spend a second thinking about being the youngest head coach in Division I FBS college football, Campbell would probably like to know about it.
"That title, youngest coach in America or however you want to say it, it really doesn't mean anything," Campbell said. "What it means is that it has been a dream and goal of mine to be a head football coach, and that's a tremendous accomplishment for me. It's been a goal of mine. But at the end of the day, it just means I'm grateful for all the experiences and all the mentors I've had in getting here."
Campbell, 32, served the last three years on Tim Beckman's staff at Toledo, the last two as offensive coordinator. When Beckman left last December to become the coach at Illinois, Campbell moved over an office, up in salary and stature and gave a talented returning team a familiar face at the front of the meeting room.
"That's the guy we wanted -- no questions asked," said Terrence Owens, one of two quarterbacks Campbell played last year and plans to play again this season. "He's been the coordinator. He's recruited a bunch of us. It's never easy to go through that kind of transition because so much is up in the air, but the best thing to do was to putt Matt in charge and let us go forward.
"I think everybody wanted that. I didn't even have to bring it up. I heard it everywhere."
The Toledo administration got the message. Just three days after Campbell was named interim head coach, the interim tag was removed. A little over two weeks later, Campbell became the nation's youngest coach after helping the Rockets clos a nine-win season by beating Air Force in the Military Bowl, giving Campbell a 1-0 record as head coach.
Campbell knows winning, he knows offense -- the Rockets were one of the nation's highest-scoring teams last season -- and he even thinks he knows what he's getting into. Campbell has spent his entire adult life preparing for this, and he sprints around the Glass Bowl during practice like he could still put on the pads.
"It's a thrill for me to see Matt in this position, and it's something he's earned," said longtime Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres, under whom Campbell played and coached (2004-05). "I don't think Matt needs any help with anything relative to football. He understands relationships. He understands players. He's going to encounter some unknowns, but he knows this game and knows he's found what he wants to do."
Campbell starred at Massillon Perry High School in the late 1990's and played one year at Pitt before transferring to Division III powerhouse Mount Union, about a 25-minute drive from where he grew up. He played four years there as a defensive end, winning three national championships, before landing as a graduate assistant coach at Bowling Green. He then served two years as Mount Union's offensive coordinator before going back to Bowling Green for three years as offensive line coach, then joined Beckman's first staff at Toledo in 2009.
Now, Campbell half-seriously refers to Bowling Green, Toledo's neighborhood rival, as "that School Down South." He also knows it's the school that gave him his start at college football's highest level and, later, another job that allowed him to sit where he's sitting -- albeit briefly -- today.
"I grew up with football, and I'm not sure I can ever give it up," Campbell said. "But to look back and say I wondered about the where-when-how of my break would come or that it wouldn't, I don't know. I tried to fully throw myself into whatever job I was doing at the time.
"From being a grad assistant at Bowling Green and then going back to Mount Union, I thought I'd never leave Mount Union, honestly. I thought I had the greatest job in the world. And if I never would have left, I would have loved it to death.
"The Bowling Green opportunity, at the time that it came (2006), it was a little bit of a crapshoot. Bowling Green was coming off a down year and Mount was coming off two national championships. My wife and I decided we'd give it a try. We took the risk. I took it as another opportunity to learn and grow."
Both processes have continued, putting Campbell on a track faster than he says he could have imagined. But those who have known Campbell the longest say they could see this coming.
"As a player, Matt was in the front of every line," said Toledo receivers coach and Campbell's former Mount Union teammate Jason Candle. "He was the guy making sure other guys weren't slacking off. He was a captain. He defined what a captain of a football team should be."
Said Kehres: "As a player, Matt was a leader and the kind of example of excellence that trickles down to younger players and allows your program the opportunity to have sustained success. As a young coach, he impressed me with his organization and his passion.
"Each new job that he's had, he's tackled it with class and quickly fit in well. There's nothing I know of that would suggest anything will be different as he tries head coaching for the first time."
Campbell said he declined to speak to other schools about jobs before the 2011 season not because he thought a big year might lead Beckman to a BCS job, but because he felt "a loyalty to these kids." He said the thought of being a head coach lived only in the back of his mind.
Now, it's very real.
With the big office comes the big chair, a spot in front of the cameras and big responsibility. Campbell admits a lot of what he's doing is new -- Division III defensive ends and MAC graduate assistants maintain a certain level of anonymity -- but he doesn't seem overwhelmed or intimidated.
"With the new title, yes, there's more ownership involved and I do feel a sense of responsibility -- I'm not the guy who's in charge of one part of it," Campbell said. "It's my job to get the entire team to buy into one goal, one vision. That's what's unique about head coaching; you need to lead everybody that touches your program. That's a tough thing but it's an exciting thing, too."
One day recently, Campbell found himself addressing Toledo's entire incoming freshman class on move-in day, then overseeing book reports that came from a summer reading project he'd assigned to all his players in a team meeting before an evening practice. He's the guy speaking for the program, charting each second of training camp and signing off on everything that involves Toledo football.
"The first year, all that outside stuff probably challenges all of us (coaches)," Beckman said at Big Ten Media Day in July. "But Matt Campbell will do a great job. It's natural for him to get along with people.
"I know Matt will shake a lot of hands and shake the right ones."
Candle, who came from Mount Union to Toledo as part of Beckman's first staff, said Campbell "was never afraid to talk about what lied ahead. Coaching, that's what he wanted to do. I'd talk to him when he was a grad assistant, just getting a taste, and I kind of just heard it in him. Pandora's Box had opened. It was on after that."
It's officially on for Campbell's Rockets on Sept. 1 at Arizona. A trip to Wyoming follows, then his first home game as head coach comes, fittingly, against Bowling Green.
Campbell insists he's still just coaching, but admits he knows that he's now on the verge of getting a whole bunch of praise when Toledo wins and a whole bunch of scorn if things go the other way.
"Let's get it in big print that I'm undefeated," Campbell joked. "There might come a time that I need to remember that."
For now, he feels like he could use a couple more hours in his day. He doesn't, however, feel like he needs a nap.
Those are for old guys.
Matt Campbell is just getting started.