Jason Candle makes smashing debut as Toledo's head coach
BOCA RATON, Fla. — Four years ago, Toledo promoted an anonymous new coach from within, and he made his head-coaching debut in the team's bowl game. He brought a Mount Union pedigree, an offensive background and a fresh face at age 32. The Rockets outlasted Air Force in the 2011 Military Bowl that day, and Matt Campbell grew into a household name while leading them to a 35–15 record the last four seasons.
In the Boca Raton Bowl on Tuesday night, with Campbell having already departed for Iowa State, a familiar storyline played out for Toledo. An anonymous, young assistant coach (36 years old) with a fresh face and a Mount Union pedigree made another impressive debut. It's far too early to project that Jason Candle's tenure with the Rockets will go as well as Campbell's did, but it would be hard to script a better first impression. Toledo thumped No. 24 Temple 32–17 with Candle calling the plays, running the team and having just six of the Rockets nine assistants at his disposal.
"Jason is his own guy," says Toledo athletic director Mike O'Brien. "He's going to do things his way. I think this is just the beginning."
The victory wraps up the Rockets season at 10–2, with marquee victories over Arkansas, Iowa State and now the Owls. Candle celebrated on a rainy South Florida night that had done its part to leave Temple stuck in the mud. In a chaotic two weeks that included staff turnover and a frantic drive to keep a strong recruiting class, Candle made the unusual decision to coach the game from the press box instead of the sideline.
The move offered some insight into Candle's approach to the job. He favored continuity in a time of transition over the awkward optics of a head coach making his debut from six stories up in a press box. "I didn't want to rock the boat from a consistency standpoint," he said. "The ship was kind of rocking there for a couple of weeks."
Part of Candle's decision came from his faith in senior quarterback Phillip Ely, an Alabama transfer who was named the game's Most Valuable Player. Ely completed 20 of 28 passes for 285 yards on a dismal, rainy night. No play better summed up Candle's faith in Ely than a run-pass option early in the fourth quarter. Ely had to read one defender, and admitted it wasn't the most obvious time to throw, but he nevertheless drilled an 80-yard slant to Cody Thompson on a play-action fake that went for a touchdown and gave Toledo a 19–9 lead with 12:41 remaining. The pass came during a rare break in the rain, which fell in torrents for portions of the game.
"It was probably a little iffy," Ely said with a smile. "That's kind of the game. You have to take a chance here and there."
Earlier in the week, Candle joked that he and Campbell come from similar backgrounds, but that the key difference is that he's a handsome former Mount Union receiver and Campbell is a big ugly old defensive linemen. The jab was made in jest, of course. The two are great friends from their time playing and coaching at Mount Union, the Division III juggernaut that has been college football's most dominant program for the past two decades. Both played and coached for Larry Kehres, who stepped down as head coach in 2013 after winning an astonishing 11 national titles. Kehres won 93% of his games, the best winning percentage ever for a college football coach.
Any football conversation with Candle usually comes back to Kehres in one way or another, as he's spoken to him nearly every day since taking over. So while Toledo will evolve under Candle—as evidenced by a much faster tempo on offense in the bowl win—there are certain fundamental elements that are non-negotiable. "We'll tweak some things and we'll change a little bit," Candle says. "But Matt and I were raised in the same place. We played for the same guy. Our base fundamentals on how to play football, how to win and how to sustain a program, those are very consistent."
That's exactly what Toledo was under Campbell: consistent. He won nine games in three of his four seasons, and Candle will simply look to continue his friend's success with his own twist. "When you have the opportunity to take over a program as a head coach, you don't always anticipate it to be in good shape," says Candle. "We're in pretty good shape right now."
Candle's precocious debut as a head coach looked strikingly similar that of Matt Campbell. And after an impressive bowl victory over a Top 25 program, Candle's performance portends a similarly successful tenure.