Mattison driven by family, desire to return Michigan defense to glory
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Everyone, it seemed, knew the phone call would come.
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh knew. That's why he popped into defensive coordinator Greg Mattison's office that day in January and told Mattison he couldn't leave. Things were too good in Baltimore.
Mattison's daughter, Lisa Roberts, knew. Eight months pregnant with her first child -- Mattison's first grandchild -- she begged her dad to take the job offer the phone call would bring. Lisa and her husband had settled in Tecumseh, Mich., and taking the defensive coordinator job at Michigan would put Mattison minutes from his soon-to-be-born granddaughter.
Mattison himself knew that within days or even hours, Brady Hoke -- no longer that round-faced kid Mattison used to bump into on the recruiting trail -- would call and ask him to come back to Ann Arbor, where Mattison ran the defense in 1995 and 1996. Hoke had just been hired as Michigan's head coach, and it only made sense that he would call the guy who got him his first Division I job to help him try to bring the Wolverines back to the top of the Big Ten. But Mattison had a great job. He had a great boss in Harbaugh. He got to coach Ray Lewis and Ed Reed every day. He simply couldn't say yes.
That's what he told Lisa on the phone, and the little girl who never talked back blew her stack in the way only an eight-months-pregnant woman can. "She just started crying," Mattison remembers. "Oh, boy, did I lose it," Lisa says. Lisa reminded her father that she had spent her childhood packing and unpacking her life as Mattison ping-ponged from one coaching job to another. With Lisa's baby and another grandchild on the way -- Mattison's son, Bryan, and his wife also were expecting -- Lisa wanted her father to be a fixture in his grandchildren's lives. "I had never pulled any sort of card," Lisa says. "It mattered to me that my daughter would grow up with her grandfather. He was such a great influence on my life. I wanted him to have that kind of influence on her life."
Lisa also wanted her father and her mother nearby to help her family through the ordeal on the horizon. On an ultrasound, doctors had discovered a hole in the unborn child's heart. The hole could be mended, but that would require open-heart surgery at four months of age. Lisa's plea shook Mattison, but he still didn't know how he could leave the Ravens.
Harbaugh made the decision easier. A day after he told Mattison he couldn't leave, he gave Mattison his blessing to take the Michigan job. "That," Mattison said, "doesn't happen."
By the time little Mattie was born, Mattison was back in maize and blue. Mattison knew he would enjoy coaching college players again after three seasons in the NFL. He knew he would love working with Hoke. But he didn't realize how serendipitous his new situation was until a conversation with Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon in late January. Brandon mentioned he had heard about Mattie's situation. He told Mattison he would call back "in about seven minutes," Mattison remembers. Brandon called back quickly, and with good news. Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital had a surgeon who had pioneered the technique for the exact surgery Mattie needed. He had agreed to take on Mattie as a patient. "All because of Michigan," Mattison says.
As Mattie grew strong enough to have the surgery that would allow her to live a normal life, Mattison went to work on Michigan's defense during spring practice. He had inherited a group that finished the 2010 season 108th nationally in scoring defense (35.2 points per game) and 110th in total defense (450.8 yards per game). He scrapped the 3-3-5 defense coordinator Greg Robinson ran in Rich Rodriguez's final season and replaced it with the same base 4-3 he ran while working with Charlie Strong at Florida. That defense held Ohio State to 82 yards in the BCS title game that gave the Gators the 2006 national championship, and any defense that stuffs Buckeyes is welcome in Ann Arbor.
But before he installed the defense, Mattison told his players he would have to go back to the drawing board if he couldn't find a nose tackle, a three-technique tackle and two ends capable of doing what he demanded. He meant it, too. He would challenge his defenders mentally and physically all spring to ensure the Wolverines were capable of running the defense he preferred. "Coach puts us in stressful situations during practice," says Mike Martin, who showed Mattison almost immediately that he had a nose tackle he could trust. "He gets us really tired, to where we have to focus on our assignments in times of adversity."
Mattison didn't try too hard to diagnose what went wrong in 2010. When he watched video of last year, it was to evaluate the capabilities of his personnel. "I didn't want to judge," he says. At the same time, Mattison tried to instill in his players an understanding of what it meant to play defense at Michigan. Mattison learned that while working for Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr and while coaching the likes of William Carr and Charles Woodson. "I know what the bar is for Michigan football, and I know especially what it is for the Michigan defense," Mattison says. "If we're not up for that, then we have to do whatever we can to get up to that bar."
Mattison also learned plenty while coaching several of the NFL's best defenders in Baltimore. He has tried to pass on some of the tricks he gleaned in the pros. Shortly after taking the job, Mattison showed some video of a Ravens player to safety Jordan Kovacs. "This is where you're going to be, Kovacs," Mattison told the former walk-on. Kovacs' eyes bulged as he watched the player in black and purple on the screen. "It's Ed Reed," Kovacs says, laughing. "He makes it look really good." But Mattison demands the same degree of dedication from the current Wolverines that he did from Reed or Lewis. "The guy knows how to win," Martin says. "He eats and he breathes excellence."
Mattison's defense has gotten better as the season has progressed. After giving up 513 yards in a Week 2 thriller against Notre Dame, Michigan has clamped down against lesser competition. In the past three games, the Wolverines have allowed 10 total points and an average of 263 yards. Granted, that was against Eastern Michigan, San Diego State and Minnesota -- and every win came at home -- but the Wolverines looked better on defense than they did last year. Not once did they appear to be playing flag football instead of tackle football. Even in their wins last year, that complaint was common. This week, Michigan goes on the road to face Northwestern, and Mattison knows his defense will get tested. "This will be our biggest challenge by far," Mattison says.
Taking on Michigan's defense after such a miserable year may have been Mattison's toughest professional challenge, but he relishes the chance to work for Hoke. Mattison remembers 1983, when he worked at Western Michigan and Hoke coached at Grand Valley State. Since they worked at different levels and didn't compete against each other for recruits, Mattison and Hoke would share notes on players when they bumped into one another at various high schools. After they wrapped their school visits, they might meet up for a sandwich and more discussion. If Mattison had seen a player who didn't seem quite good enough to earn a scholarship at Western Michigan, he tipped off Hoke. If Hoke had seen a player he considered to be at Western Michigan's level, he tipped off Mattison. Mattison also invited Hoke to help work the Western Michigan camp. While watching Hoke work with players, Mattison knew the youngster had a future in coaching.
So when a job came open at Western Michigan, Mattison recommended Hoke. Head coach Jack Harbaugh, the father of John and Jim, interviewed Hoke and hired him as a graduate assistant. Mattison remembers it took Hoke about two weeks as a GA to earn a full-time staff position.
When that Western Michigan staff was fired following the 1986 season, Mattison and Hoke went their separate ways. Mattison went to Navy, then Texas A&M, then Michigan. Hoke went to Toledo and then Oregon State. When a job opened on the Michigan staff, Mattison told Moeller about Hoke. "One of the best I've ever worked with -- and I'll swear by him -- is this guy named Brady Hoke," Mattison remembers telling his boss. Moeller wasn't initially impressed. "I'm not hiring any friends," Mattison remembers Moeller saying. Just put Hoke on the dry erase board, Mattison told his boss. Moeller relented, and he soon grilled Hoke for five hours on every aspect of defensive football. Hoke left with a job offer and joined the Michigan staff before the 1995 season.
All that time, Hoke and Mattison grew closer. It was Hoke who used to plant Mattison's son, Bryan, in a swing to keep him from bawling. Hoke coined the nickname "Cryin' Bryan," and he uses it to this day even though Cryin' Bryan now is a 315-pound Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman.
So Hoke understood Mattison's desire to be closer to his daughter and her family. After all, Hoke knew Lisa as the girl who would stand in front of her garage and beg her father to hit ground balls harder. "C'mon old man," Lisa remembers saying. "Is that all you've got?" And Hoke knew about the Friday morning breakfasts Mattison and his daughter shared while she was an undergraduate softball player at Notre Dame and he was an assistant coach.
Hoke also knew he had signed on a man who would treat each recruit the same way he treated his daughter and son. That fact might be lost in the praise of Mattison's skill at running a defense; as good as he is with Xs and Os, he might be even better at signing Jimmies and Joes. How good? Just ask Urban Meyer, who made Mattison his first call when he was hired from Utah to take over at Florida.
One of Mattison's first assignments when he came to Gainesville in December 2004 was a quarterback from Jacksonville who wouldn't sign until 2006. Meyer considered the quarterback the perfect triggerman for his spread offense, but the Gators had a problem. The kid and his family valued relationships above all else, and the trust with Florida -- the school where the kid's parents had met -- had been shattered when the previous staff was fired. "We were way behind to Alabama," Meyer says. So Meyer sent Mattison to help rebuild that trust. Though Meyer helped close the deal, it was Mattison who laid the foundation for Tim Tebow to sign with Florida. "He was the guy who kept Tebow in the mix," Meyer says.
No matter what walk of life Mattison's players come from, most wind up loving him. How a 61-year-old man can relate so well to players a third his age -- from wildly different backgrounds -- is a mystery until someone spends even five minutes with Mattison. He is a man utterly devoid of pretense, and players notice that immediately. "Kids, all they want you to do is be real," Meyer says. "He's all real." Mattison's philosophy when dealing with recruits is simple. "If you try to recruit just to see how many numbers you can get or to say 'Hey, I got this kid,' that's not right," Mattison says. "You want to feel unbelievably good about the fact that you know when he chose here, he's going to be a better person when he's done."
That's why, when he was with the Ravens, so many former players -- from Marcus Thomas to Jarvis Moss to Jermaine Cunningham to Reggie Nelson -- wound up hugging Mattison after games. Now, Mattison's biggest hugs are reserved for Mattie, who handled her June heart surgery like a champ. "If she smiles," Mattison says, "any bad alignment, any bad play by the defense -- it doesn't matter."
When Mattie is older, Grampy Greg plans to start a new tradition of Friday breakfasts with his first grandchild. And if, like her mom, Mattie wants him to hit grounders to her, Mattison is confident his Fungo skills remain stellar. In the meantime, Mattison will continue trying to teach Michigan defenders what it means to be Michigan Men. "There are so many people that want Michigan football to be back," Mattison says. "That's our job. I want nothing more, personally, than for this defense, when the season's over with, to stick their chests out and say 'We played Michigan defense.'"