The new Rutgers coach talks about his realization that playing football wasn't in his future.
CHICAGO — As a Hawkeye-loving child in Ottumwa, Chris Ash was once given a football autographed by star quarterback Chuck Long.
Ash’s arc in the sport took him to Drake, Iowa State, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Ohio State and now to his first head-coaching gig — at Rutgers, where things are about to come full circle. His first Big Ten Conference game will come Sept. 24. The visitor will be those Iowa Hawkeyes he grew up rooting for.
“A lot of people in Iowa have asked me about that. When we get to that point, I’m sure it will have a different meaning,” Ash said Monday at his first Big Ten media days. “I grew up going to Hawkeye football games and being a head coach, and being able to open with Iowa as the first Big Ten game is kind of cool.”
Ash doesn’t know what happened to his autographed football, but he later got to work for his hero as an assistant coach at San Diego State, one of six stops for the 42-year-old before he signed on at Rutgers this year. Long said he was not surprised to see his former pupil rise so far, so fast.
“You could tell he was on the cutting edge of defensive football, but when he interviewed for me, I liked how he simplified things. A lot of coaches try to dazzle you with all these things that they know and all the schemes that they know,” Long said. “I always looked to see, can the young player in this program learn from this coach or is it going to be so complicated that he’ll never understand it? His teachings were simple. I knew he was on his way to great things. He’s very disciplined, very diligent about his work, very passionate about it.”
It all started, Ash said, during his junior year playing safety at Drake, when he realized he wasn’t good enough to earn a living as a player.
“I loved to compete, and for me to stay in this game, I knew I was going to have to go coach,” Ash said.
He suffered an ACL injury during training camp of his senior season and latched on as a student assistant, hanging out in the football offices and helping the coaches draw up game plans.
Now, after stops at Iowa State and as an assistant for Bret Bielema at Wisconsin and Arkansas and two seasons as co-defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Ohio State, Ash has his shot. And a huge challenge.
Rutgers is coming off a 4-8 season that resulted in the firing of coach Kyle Flood. Ash will try to compete in a difficult Big Ten East division despite not having a starting quarterback or tailback identified, and with question marks along his offensive line and in his linebacking corps.
Defensive tackle Julian Pinnix-Odrick has been impressed with Ash’s approach, which is focusing on building team unity rather than merely installing schemes.
“You can get him wrong the first time you come across him. He’s a real stern guy, real focused guy,” Pinnix-Odrick said. “He’s focusing on the smaller processes of how we communicate coach to player, how we communicate to each other, team events, building a bond between each other. In building a culture, those are the things that really drive it.”
Ash’s hope is that he can keep enough of the talented high school football players from New Jersey at home. But he recognizes that the Scarlet Knights may never have the allure of Michigan and Ohio State.
“But there are 12 other teams in this league, and I look at Michigan State, I look at Wisconsin, I look at Iowa as good models for us to try to achieve what they have.” Ash said. “They’re not necessarily doing it with top-10 recruiting classes every year. They’re recruiting players that fit their program. They’re doing a great job of developing those players. They’re playing with a lot of fourth- and fifth-year players in their program that have played a lot of football.
“And if we can do those things, then we’ll have a chance to compete with anybody.”