CHICAGO – Wisconsin. Arkansas. Ohio State. Rutgers. That’s the path to being a Division I head coach that Chris Ash has taken.
As the new man in charge for the Scarlet Knights, Ash is taking over in Piscataway, N.J., after a deluge of egregious mistakes and gaffes, not just from former head coach Kyle Flood, but also from former Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann.
What could have been a program-melting and tumultuous offseason was saved by the hiring of Ash, one of the game’s brightest rising stars. To bring the Knights back from the ashes – pardon the pun – he’s taking the opportunity to make the program his and run with it.
He’s run with it by running away from the embarrassment the program has seen in the last handful of years – 27-24 since the final year of Greg Schiano – and run toward the lessons he learned working under Bret Bielema and Urban Meyer. To change the results, Ash knew he needed to regain the culture that’s been lost at college football’s oldest program. As a new head coach, Ash had no choice but to look back to his previous stops, specifically the opportunity to learn from established, successful head coaches like Meyer and Bielema.
“I talk to Urban (Meyer) quite a bit,” Ash said during a public interview session Monday at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. “We’ve remained in close contact. I’ve to talked to several members on the (Ohio State) staff since I’ve been here. It’s a place you left and invested so much into, you have strong relationships with people.”
The first step to creating a culture at Rutgers similar to what Meyer and Bielema have established in their programs was to identify that the journey you take isn’t as important as the ultimate destination. You’d have to look far and wide to find two coaches that appeared – outwardly – to be as different as the last two Ash has worked for.
“People would look at Bret and Urban and think they’re completely different,” Ash said. “They’re not. It may look different with the way they are personally, one is a pro-style offense, one runs a spread offense, but at the end of the day what they want in that program is the same. They want discipline, they want accountability, they want structure. They want a physical team at the line of scrimmage with the offensive and defensive lines, they want to be able to run the football. They recruit the same type of player, you know, in terms of their character and their commitment and their sacrifice, their competitive spirit. All those things are common. Both of those guys run that type of a program and both of them have had a huge impact on me and have influenced what we’re doing at Rutgers.”
Those things are common at any program where winning is the standard. That’s not been the case Rutgers. To turn the Scarlet Knights into a top-tier Big Ten program like the one Meyer has at Ohio State and like the one Bielema, now the head coach at Arkansas, had at Wisconsin meant a severe and immediate change. Ash feels he and his coaching staff have begun to take those necessary steps. Since taking over in January, Ash sees that the program today is moving in the direction that he wants it to be going.
“It’s really about the foundation that we’ve laid,” the first-year head coach, Rutgers 26th, said. “(We’re) very excited (about) the culture and environment that we created in our building so far. Our players come to the building to work and get coached and get pushed to be the best that they can be every single day. They know they’re going to get coached extremely hard. We’ve got a lot of accountability. We’ve got structure. We’ve got discipline. But we’re having a tremendous amount of fun with these players, too. If we’re not having fun in our building as we work and push and try to be the best that we can be, we’re screwing this thing up.”
“I’ve really been pleased with the foundation, the culture and the environment, the behavior and the performance that our players have given us in a short amount of time.”
To really turn a program around though? That can’t be accomplished without the help of the guys in the locker room. These are the guys that have to buy into the new vision or risk being left behind by a head coach that’s not going to slow down or accept the mediocrity that’s infected the Scarlet Knights since 2011.
“It started in our own locker room,” Ash said. “We wanted to create a culture in our locker room that our players bought into, believed in. We wanted to be able to develop our players in all areas again so they know they’re having a great experience, they’re part of a first-class program.”
It appears, least according to Rutgers senior defensive lineman Darius Hamilton, the work is paying off. The 6-foot-3, 283-pound Hamilton said he’s noticed the shift, a shift toward something bigger, something better.
“Things we talk about every day,” Hamilton said. “Competing every day. We talk about competitive excellence. We talk about a brotherhood of trust. Just things you’ve got to build to be a better team. We go out and compete every day, whether it’s workouts – even when we have good workouts – I don’t know if you’ve seen the clips, but we do things like before meetings we play basketball, we have shootouts, we do a little bit of arm wrestling. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a chance to go and compete against one another. When your number is called, will you make that play? It builds a lot of excitement around the team. Just the brotherhood of trust, doing what’s right – all the time – not just for the sake of the program but for the guy playing to your left and to your right.”
Coming from programs that win and win big, Ash knows what it takes to get there. He’s not naive, either. He knows that right now, Rutgers isn’t where it needs to be in order to be in those conversations. Not yet.
Right now, with weeks before he runs his first team onto the field at Washington on Sept. 3, he sees where things can go and he’s optimistic about what is in store for the Scarlet Knights.
“We have some areas that are very strong, both personnel-wise and facilities-wise and support-wise,” Ash added. “We have areas that we need to improve upon. As a team that’s new to the Big Ten, that’s not to be unexpected. I think we have all the key ingredients needed to build upon a great foundation to build upon this season and future seasons to be one of those better Big Ten teams that people don’t want to play each Saturday.”
“I’m excited about what we have and looking forward to what we can build on this fall.”