DETROIT, Mich. -- There’s a saying in the NBA that players make their biggest jumps entering their third year in the league. The same can often be said about college football coaches. They’ve recruited their guys, their program is firmly in place and they’ve had the second year to make adjustments or recognize what works and what needs to be scrapped.
Despite the lure of other jobs and the (sometimes) unfair burden of being the hot, young name, Toledo’s Matt Campbell heads into his third full year at the helm of a Rockets team expected to make a jump and challenge for the MAC championship.
“I think it is rewarding to be going into your third year and having a core understanding of who we are, what we are and where we are as a program,” Campbell said.
Toledo was picked first in the MAC's West division in the preseason poll, ahead of four-time defending West champs Northern Illinois. Campbell -- for whom the word “process” is its own personal Hare Krishna -- doesn’t seem phased. That should be no surprise for a guy who became a Division I head coach just days after his 32nd birthday and won a bowl game in his coaching debut. (Toledo beat Air Force, 42-41, in the 2011 Military Bowl.)
Campbell is still fielding questions about his age, but they’re fewer and farther between at this point.
“Every year you’re a head coach, it’s like dog years,” Campbell said. “Sitting now going on three years, I think that’s plus 21 [years], so I think I’m in really good shape. When I got the job, I said really age is just a number, life is -- and certainly coaching is -- about experience. Going into year three within our program, I think that’s something I’m really excited not to have to talk about anymore.”
Campbell’s process has taken him from winning three Division III titles as a player at Mount Union to an assistant at Bowling Green, back to Mount Union where he was part of two more national championship teams and returning again to Bowling Green for two seasons before he was hired to be Toledo’s offensive coordinator in 2009. Under Campbell and then-coach Tim Beckman’s explosive style, the offense bloomed.
That success led Beckman to take the vacant job at Illinois at the end of the 2011 regular season. The decision to turn the program over to the youthful Campbell was easier than it looked on the surface. All he’d done was win everywhere he’d gone, and his reputation as a recruiter had the administration convinced those winning ways would continue.
The Rockets won nine games in Campbell’s debut season as permanent head coach, falling 41-15 to Utah State (in Gary Andersen’s last game before taking the Wisconsin job) in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Toledo followed that with a 7-5 record a year ago (and was surprisingly left out of the bowl lineup).
After a five-game winning streak that stretched across October and the middle of November and included victories over Navy, MAC champion Bowling Green and a stout Buffalo team featuring top-five NFL draft pick Khalil Mack, the whispers about Campbell as a candidate for bigger programs started again. But whether any shiny new offers were truly on the table or not, Campbell stuck around.
“This is not only a great MAC job, this is a great job in general. This is an awesome place to be,” Campbell said. “What’s exciting is we have great administration, great people, and our campus and our own city loves football. To be in a football town and in a state where football is so important means a lot to me.”
Campbell says he emulates his former coach at Mount Union, Larry Kehres, who won 11 national titles with the Purple Raiders and retired from coaching in 2013 but remained the school’s athletic director. Campbell and his staff, like most MAC programs, are always looking for new wrinkles, and some of that innovation comes from borrowing.
With so much parity in the league -- as Akron coach Terry Bowden pointed out at media day, nobody grossly outspends anybody else, and there’s a level playing field -- if you’re not improving, you’re falling behind.
"We’re probably the biggest stealers of anybody,” Campbell said. “We work really hard and really study the game of football. We try to see what the best teams in the country are doing and we try to research them. What are they doing? How are they doing it? How can they help us? I think that’s what always made us different. Every year we’ve got a new twist or a new take on who we are or what we are.”
Toledo will need that flexibility and for leaders to emerge if a special season is truly in the cards. The Rockets lose their leading rusher, David Fluellen, and leading receiver Bernard Reedy, who combined for 2,198 yards and 18 touchdowns a year ago. They’re also breaking in a new quarterback, and Campbell isn’t close to naming a starter.
at Western Michigan
at Iowa State
at Kent State
at Northern Illinois
at Eastern Michigan
The Rockets have home games against the teeth of the conference schedule (Toledo stays at the Glass Bowl against Ball State, Central Michigan and Bowling Green) and multiple chances to make a nonconference statement, with a home game against Missouri on Sept. 6 as well as road tilts against Cincinnati and Iowa State.
The opportunity is there to elevate Toledo on the national stage, but a team known so long for its offense is going to have to make a jump on the defensive side of the ball. The Rockets were extremely young a year ago in that unit, but Campbell feels that trial by fire has them ready in 2014. The potential is there for senior linebacker Junior Sylvestre to have an even better campaign than last year, when he had 118 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and five sacks, if the rest of the defense comes together.
“What gets me excited is the guys who have been in those battles,” Campbell said. “They understand what it takes. Even though maybe we had to go through some growing pains last year, we grew, and we’ll continue to grow.”
The foundation is in place, the growth is noticeable and the process is well on its way. Now it's time for Toledo to take the next step.