IOWA CITY, Ia. — Rutgers has fielded a football team for 150 years, but has never before played in Iowa City.
That history changes Saturday, when the Scarlet Knights (1-0) will spill into Kinnick Stadium for an 11 a.m. kickoff against No. 19 Iowa (1-0) in the teams' Big Ten Conference opener.
There is a more personal significance to this moment for Rutgers coach Chris Ash, although he was the last person to want to acknowledge as much this week. The Ottumwa native, who grew up a Hawkeye fan, will be making his first appearance in his home state as a head coach.
In New Jersey on Monday, a reporter asked Ash if he had “any sentimental feelings” about returning to Iowa.
“No,” Ash said.
But those who know Ash well say it’s not that simple. The 45-year-old has always been an up-at-the-crack-of-dawn grinder, rising through the coaching ranks based on hard work. And few jobs in college football are more challenging than trying to win at Rutgers, which is evident in the 8-29 record Ash carries into the first conference game in his fourth season.
So it’s understandable that his primary focus is on trying to pick up what would be a signature win for his beleaguered Scarlet Knights.
Ash’s friends have no doubt that there is a deeper nostalgia running beneath his terse exterior.
“I know it’s in-season and he’s not going to be sitting around getting really emotional about coming back to Iowa City. He’s so locked in on trying to win a football game and bring respect and pride and success back to Rutgers,” said Dan McCarney, who gave Ash his initial break in coaching by bringing him onto his staff at Iowa State in 2000 and remains a close confidant.
“I know he’s proud of his roots. He’s proud of growing up in Ottumwa, Iowa. He’s proud of playing at Drake. He’s proud of the time we spent together at Iowa State.”
Embracing hard work while growing up in Ottumwa
Ash was born on Christmas Eve 1973 in a blue-collar family and quickly got to work.
John Burgett, a friend since childhood, remembers Ash always having jobs. Delivering newspapers. Bagging groceries. Detasseling corn. Painting houses.
“Chris has earned everything he’s got,” Burgett said.
In between jobs, Ash developed into a fair athlete. He played baseball and ran track. But football was his best sport.
He was a standout defensive back and punt returner at Ottumwa High School.
“His success wasn’t because of great athletic ability. It was because of determination and work ethic,” said Dave Clement, a former Hawkeye player who was then Ottumwa’s defensive coordinator. “He was a great student of the game, always inquisitive and wanted to know why we were doing certain things.”
Tom Kopatich arrived in town in time for Ash’s sophomore season. What he found was “a typical Ottumwa kid. He was tough. He was ornery.”
Kopatich needed to discipline Ash during his junior season. He won’t say what the infraction was, but it was severe enough to warrant a brief suspension. There was even an instant when Kopatich thought he’d have to kick Ash off of the team.
But Ash got the message.
“He started doing things different. He started hanging with different people,” Kopatich said. “He matured. He figured things out. It looked for a while like he might just be working at the meat-packing plant.”
Instead, Ash found his way to Drake University, where he played defensive back for Rob Ash (no relation).
A coaching career that stretches from Drake to Ohio State
Chris Ash tore an ACL at Drake and discovered a passion for coaching during his recuperation from surgery. He absorbed all the knowledge he could from the Bulldogs’ staff and stayed on after graduation in 1996 as an assistant coach.
A half-hour north, McCarney took notice of Ash when he helped out at a Cyclones summer camp for high school players. He hired the young coach as a graduate assistant for two years and then found a full-fledged spot for him in 2002.
McCarney said he sensed early on that Ash would eventually be a head coach. He just had “it.”
“There wasn’t one thing I ever gave to Chris Ash that he wouldn’t do and do it right,” McCarney said. “And then he’d want more. You could never overload Chris Ash with too much work. … Chris was one of those guys that could make you feel better prepared than your opponent.”
Ash later worked for one of his childhood heroes, former Hawkeye quarterback Chuck Long, at San Diego State for two seasons. Growing up, Ash recalled having a football signed by Long.
Then it was back to Iowa State for one season, Wisconsin for three and Arkansas for one more.
That’s when Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was looking for someone to help transform his defense. McCarney had been on Meyer’s staff at Florida, and his old boss called to inquire whether Ash might be the answer.
“He said, ‘I don’t need just a guy. I need someone real special to run this thing. We’ve got to get better,’” McCarney recalled of that conversation with Meyer.
Ash got the job. The Buckeyes won the national championship.
McCarney attended one of the team’s practice sessions before that title-game victory over Oregon. Meyer brought Ash over to chat with him, both wearing big grins.
“You know I would have kicked your ass if you’d tried to lie to me about this guy,” Meyer said to McCarney. “But everything you said came true. He’s the real deal. He’s a hell of a coach.”
On to Rutgers, where Ash keeps old Iowa friends close
The success at Ohio State helped Ash land the Rutgers job in 2016. He brought McCarney along to watch a few days’ worth of practices early on, looking for an experienced set of eyes to evaluate how he was running things.
That’s a common refrain for Ash. He never forgets old friends. Kopatich and Clement have been guests at many football games Ash has coached over the years. They both will be in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.
“He takes good care of me,” Kopatich said. “I’m sure he’ll have a lot of family and friends there. He’ll probably say it’s no big deal. But it is.”
Burgett goes to one Rutgers game each season. This year, it will be at Michigan. Last year, it was at Wisconsin, where he got to accompany the Scarlet Knights during their walk-through leading up to the contest against the Badgers.
“It’s fun to see Chris in his element. He’s a teacher. He’s very hands-on with his kids,” Burgett said.
Clement will have mixed emotions Saturday. He’ll be at the game celebrating the 50th anniversary of his 1969 Hawkeye team while also trying to find time to catch up with a former player who hit the big time.
“I think everybody in Ottumwa has great pride in the fact that one of ours has risen to that level and has got a job with that stature,” Clement said of Ash.
“I’m sure this is a special trip for him. It would have to be.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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