Roadmap to rebuild: New Rutgers coach Chris Ash lays out his vision, what he learned from Ohio State
I look back and laugh sometimes at how much has changed here at Rutgers since we got hired in December. I remember walking into the football facility for the first time, and it felt like a prison. Dull music played. The colors were muted. The few TVs that were up around the building were in standard definition, as the facility wasn't wired for HD.
In the past seven months, we feel like we've overhauled the program in a way to begin the ascent to being competitive in the Big Ten. Obviously we're at the bottom looking up at a lot of teams right now. That's why the details are so important. It's overwhelming to consider all the changes. We've undergone a $1.65 million overhaul of the weight room, added a nutrition program and modeled our recruiting operation after Ohio State. We have new practice fields being built soon, an overhauled training room and our locker room is also slated to get re-done. We have a new athletic trainer, a new equipment staff and even the people running the facilities are new.
We not only want people to see the changes we've made, we want them to feel the changes. When you walk in the facility now, there's music blasting at all times. I don't care if it's rap music, country or our fight song. The only rule is that it has to be upbeat. There's going to be energy and juice all around the building. In the entryway to our offices, instead of feeling like you were checking into a prison you're greeted by giant TVs—HD now, of course—showing highlights from Rutgers's history. I'm big on juice, on aesthetics and energy, and our entire building is teeming with it now.
We feel like we're a completely different team physically than we were seven months ago as well. A ton of guys have completely changed their bodies, but our redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Tariq Cole could serve as the archetype of the physical changes we've made. He was about 345 pounds with 24% body fat when we got here. Simply put, he was completely out of shape. Seven months later, he's down to 313 pounds and dropped his body fat to 17%. Not surprisingly, his hard work has earned him the nod as our starting left tackle. We're excited to see what he can do this year and for the next three years. In the spring, the offensive line was a liability. But in just seven months and with a lot of hard work, that's turned into one of our stronger units.
We've asked a lot of our guys, and in return we've done everything possible to make sure they have a first-class experience. We want them to leave here knowing that they had a staff that really cared about them, developed them and helped prepare them to be successful for life after football. Our athletic director, Pat Hobbs, has been extremely understanding and supportive of this plan.
It starts with Kenny Parker, our strength coach, who has done an unbelievable job connecting with and motivating our guys this off-season. To complement him, I pushed to implement and upgrade the nutrition program. We hired Allison Kreimeier from the University of Houston, as we really felt like nutrition and conditioning were areas that needed huge upgrades here. If a player is trying to gain weight, there's a high-calorie shake waiting for him at training table. If he is trying to cut weight, there's a low calorie shake. In terms of supplements, every player has their own supply each day tailored to their specific needs. You can see the difference in how our team looks. We'll show before-and-after pictures of guys in team meetings, and in just a few months since we got here you can hear an audible gasp.
When you walk around our facility, a lot of the program feels like Ohio State. That's where I came from last, serving two years as defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer before taking the Rutgers job. And while a lot of our structure, attitude and approach comes from my experience there, we don't have the same facilities and resources as Ohio State. So in recruiting, especially, I've had to go back more to my other experiences as an assistant coach at places like Arkansas, Wisconsin and Iowa State. Urban Meyer's philosophy was that we wouldn't recruit a player unless he had the potential to be a first-round NFL draft pick. We're not there yet here at Rutgers. But what I learned at my other stops is that you need to find players that fit your culture and will develop into what you want a few years down the road.
We feel really good about how we've started in recruiting with the 2017 class. (Editor's Note: Rutgers's class is ranked No. 27 on Scout.com, which would be its highest-ranked class since Scout began compiling rankings in 2002). We started with a great plan, that included three junior days—one for New Jersey kids, Pennsylvania kids and then Northeast kids—before our first spring practice. That meant we had more than 350 prospects on our campus, and our staff has been really well received.
I'm from Iowa, so a lot of people asked me about building relationships in New Jersey. So far, our best recruiters in the state have been our own players. We've certainly worked hard to build relationships with high school coaches. All of them have a standing invitation to come watch us practice and visit our facility. But the best response we've gotten has come from the coaches of the players that we currently have. We feel like recruiting starts in our own locker room and building a culture in our program. Word has started to spread as the players talk to their high school coaches and they talk to the recruits that they played with in high school. That was the approach: How do we improve our recruiting, our relationships? Take care of our locker room and help them become our biggest fans and our biggest supporters, and word will spread.
Every coach you talk to says they want to build a tough, accountable and disciplined football team. But how many train to actually make it happen? It's not just when you go to spring ball or fall training camp. It has to happen year-round. We're big on competitive situations to make them learn to compete. We took Urban's mat drills from Ohio State, which are high intensity quickness and agility drills done on mats. We also grade players on everything—attitude, effort and even hydration. We had a player this winter strain his hamstring. It turned out his hydration levels were off the day before. He got called out for letting his unit down for not being properly hydrated.
We're big into the philosophy of shared suffering, as it's a key to changing behavior and making it sustainable. We had a player who was struggling to gain weight this winter and stuffed a bean bag in his pants to help him gain an extra two or three pounds. Coach Parker found out about it, and we threw the entire unit out of the locker room. If a player is missing class or not performing well academically, his entire unit has to go on what we call, "The Night Shift." That's a study hall on Friday nights from 10 p.m. until midnight. If that doesn't get the message across and players still mess up, we work them out at 5 a.m. That happened to our wide receiver group this off-season. And what I can tell you is that since then, it has worked very effectively.
One of the significant changes we've made is keeping the team at a hotel for three weeks of training camp this summer. It makes them feel better. They are in a clean room with clean towels and air conditioning. And the security is better. There's no way that they're getting out after curfew. If you look at this football team last year, when did the wheels start to fall off? In training camp. We're not going to let that happen, and the players have embraced that.
I'm going to be honest. We've asked a lot of our guys in terms of hard work, discipline and effort. At the same time, we've really focused on making sure that the program is fun. I went out to Seattle during June for OTAs to observe Pete Carroll, as he came from the defensive side of the ball like I did. It was really amazing. The fact that he's the oldest coach in the NFL and can still have an extreme amount of fun with all his players was one of my big takeaways. He's fun and high energy to be around, but at the same time there's an insane amount of discipline and organization and structure within that program.
That's what I'm envisioning here. One thing I stole from Pete is we put a basketball hoop, a Pop-A-Shot sized one, up in our team meeting room. I'll play guys one-on-one before a meeting, and they are always shooting around before we get to work. We've done other things, too, like get a hypnotist here during training camp and having different players and coaches arm wrestle each other before the start of team meetings. I want here to be like what Pete did at USC and in Seattle—guys having fun and enjoying themselves, but at the same time know when it's time to work.
We've still got a lot of work ahead of us here at Rutgers. But for now, we're ahead of schedule off the field with all the progress we made. We know that once we snap the ball it's not going to be perfect this season. Not a single one of our linebackers has taken a college snap, and the personnel in our offense wasn't recruited for our up-tempo system.
But we're thrilled where we are in terms of our discipline and the structural changes we've made throughout the program. There's a long way to go, but we can see where we're headed. There's a shared vision here of where we're headed, and I can guarantee you everyone sees the future in HD.