By Mike Vorkunov
When the call came, Chris Ash was ready. He had been methodically preparing for it for nearly a decade already.
It was just two days after Rutgers fired its coach, Kyle Flood, following an unsavory and drama-riddled season. Pat Hobbs, on the job as the school's athletic director for about 48 hours, was now deep into a search for Flood's replacement. A search firm had reached Ash the day before to inquire about his interest in Rutgers, but a call from Hobbs was the real first step.
On Dec. 1, as he milled about Georgia on a recruiting trip, Ash's phone rang. Then Ohio State's defensive coordinator, he had braced himself for this during his years at Wisconsin and Arkansas and in Columbus. He had spent his offseasons streamlining his thoughts and philosophies. Even as he languished thousands of miles away from home, trying to woo a teenage recruit to be the next in line to attend Ohio State, he could impress Hobbs. What was scheduled to be a half-hour talk lasted more than 90 minutes.
A week later, as Hobbs introduced Ash as the Scarlet Knights' new coach, he called the interview the best he's ever had in any job. Later on in December, by phone, Hobbs added that he wished he could have recorded that call and their subsequent in-person meeting to use as a lesson on how to prepare for an interview.
Now, as Ash takes over a program burdened by scandal and tepid results over the last few years, he believes the knowledge he has gained over his career will buoy him. In a Big Ten East Division stocked with star coaches -- Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio, Jim Harbaugh -- the 42-year-old first time head coach believes he can compete.
"From an outsider looking in, they typically probably would be scared of the conference, scared of the coaches that are in there," Ash said. "A typical guy who doesn't know the league might be intimidated by that, but I know this league. This is my third job in the Big Ten. I've got four Big Ten championships. So I know what it's going to take. .. I know how I can coach against them. So I'm not intimidated by one thing in this league because I've been here, I've won it and I've had success.
"Now the challenge is can I take that and do it and duplicate at Rutgers? We're going to find out."
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The notes will come to Piscataway too. Tucked away in three-ring binders and manila folders, they've been accrued over the last 10 years. They represent Ash's pedigree and his philosophy. He has worked for some of the best coaches in college football, learning from them all while setting out to differentiate himself too.
About a decade ago, Ash realized that if he wanted to become a head coach, he had to be ready to be one as well. The notes were his guidebook and his coaching passport. After each season, he would reflect on them during the summers.
He has worked through 20 football seasons and formulated his own plan for each part of the job. He has a binder on what recruiting structure he prefers, on offseason workouts, on summer camps, on how he wants to run training camps.
"Everybody has experiences but some people don't take the time to really evaluate those experiences and take notes on the pros and cons and how I would do it," Ash said. "Fortunately, early on in my career, I started to do it."
It began under Dan McCarney at Iowa State, accelerated under Bret Bielema at Wisconsin (where Barry Alvarez was the AD) and Arkansas, and then, finally, at Ohio State, where he "kind of went to get my doctorate degree under Urban Meyer."
It was a fast rise for a coach who had shown little inclination for the profession early on in his life.
Ash had been a high school football star in Ottumwa, Iowa. His father, Bill, didn't even know college was in his son's plans until he came home one day his senior year of high school and told him he intended to go. He had assumed his son would graduate and start working. Instead, Ash went to Drake, where he played safety until a knee injury his senior year.
That's when his coaching career began. Before that point, his father says, Ash hadn't shown any interest in coaching. As a teenager, he had a paper route and painted houses and tasseled corn to make extra money during summers when he was at Drake. But in 1996, a year after graduating, he became a volunteer in Drake's football program. Ash worked as a substitute teacher during the day -- taking his work with him to his teaching jobs, drawing up scouting reports on opponents as he minded over classrooms -- and then scooted over to the football office.
Ash left for Iowa State in 2000 and worked under McCarney for the next seven years. After Ash's stops at San Diego State and back in Ames for a year, Bielema hired him in 2010 as a defensive backs coach. He already had Dave Doeren on staff, Ash's former college roommate, but when Doeren became head coach at Northern Illinois in 2011, he hired Charlie Partridge, another former roommate, and made him and Ash co-defensive coordinators, giving Ash play-calling responsibilities.
By then, Bielema had begun to groom Ash to be a head coach. He would send him to events and keep him looped in on big-picture decisions. During meetings, he would give out a packet of information on each topic he'd talk about that day -- Ash now keeps each one in his binders -- and encourage them to take notes and challenge his assistants. "If you guys want to become head coaches, think about this," Bielema would utter. Perhaps by no coincidence, four assistant coaches from the 2010 staff are now FBS coaches.
Ash proved himself adept too. His end-of-year analyses were insightful. He impressed Bielema by questioning himself and the coaching staff after a miscue instead of blaming the players.
"He's a very intelligent person," Bielema said. "There's a lot of good football coaches, I don't know how smart they are -- you know what I mean?"
But when Meyer and Ohio State called after the 2013 season, Ash left to go back to the Big Ten. It was a finishing school of sorts. In his first season there, the Buckeyes won the national title.
"I knew he'd be a head coach," Bielema said. "Kind of surprised it took as long as it did. I knew that when they won a championship at Ohio State it was going to be a good thing."
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It took two days after his first call with Hobbs until Ash heard from Rutgers again. By then, Ash had begun to think that he was out of the running for the job. But Hobbs was intent on keeping the search tight and without leaks.
When they met again, this time in New Jersey, they were spotted at a restaurant, and a fan took a picture. Hobbs began to worry that his secrecy would be compromised and wondered if he needed to find an alternate exit from their meeting spot. As he was thinking, Ash kept pitching himself for the position, unbothered by the idea his candidacy would become public.
It was an example of his resolution to grab the job. Rutgers was not his first head coaching interview, and he was reportedly up for other positions at the same time. Bielema had told him to wait until the right opportunity because calamity as a first-time head coach could mean never getting that chance again.
But Ash locked in despite the numerous issues pockmarking the program. Rutgers went 4-8 in 2015 and just 1-7 in the Big Ten in its second year in the conference. Flood had been suspended for three games for his involvement in an academic scandal that revolved around the former coach advocating a grade change for a player.
And perhaps most daunting of all, Rutgers was in the same division as Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State. Ash recognized the hardships, telling Hobbs during the interviewing process that the outside perception of Rutgers is, to some, a disaster.
Ash had done his own research on the school. Over two years with the Buckeyes, he had grown close to Greg Schiano, the former Rutgers coach. He and Meyer were good friends, and Ash had made a habit of calling Schiano often. They had even discussed the job before Ash got it. They spoke about what it was like when Schiano took over a dormant program in 2001, followed by an 11-year tenure in which he took one of the worst teams in college football to respectability. They discussed the upside and potholes, and Ash was buoyed by the fact that Schiano remains fond of his time at the school.
He also received intel from Bielema. But with Robb Smith, Arkansas' current defensive coordinator, also up for the job, Bielema couldn't lobby Hobbs until Ash had already been hired.
By then, Hobbs had been sold. He had been wowed in person. He had read up on Ash online and watched countless YouTube videos of his press conferences and media appearances, along with the instructional videos Ash had made that helped him earn the reputation of a football wonk.
There was just one last hurdle to clear before Ash had the job. Meyer made an effort to retain his defensive coordinator, recruiting him to stay at Ohio State. Ash saw it as a sign of respect, that Meyer wouldn't be trying if Ash hadn't done well in his role.
Now, they will be foes, grappling for recruits and victories. In a twist, Schiano will replace Ash as Ohio State's defensive coordinator as Ash tries to right the program that's fluttered in the wind since Schiano left for the NFL four years ago. To do it, he'll have to use the knowledge he's taken in over the last decade to beat the coaches who helped guide him to this point.
"There are different types of people out there in the world," Hobbs said. "Some want to go into a program that has already achieved success, and it's a matter of continuing that success and maybe building on that success. Others get excited about a challenge.
"I don't think he views himself as a fireman, putting out fire. I think he views himself as there's a program that sits in an area of the country rich in recruiting, it has a terrific university. .. So he didn't see it as a disaster, he saw it as a challenge where if you have success it's a little more sweet."
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Mike Vorkunov is a freelance writer in the New York City area. He's covered the Mets' run to the World Series, Rutgers' path to the Big Ten and bowling -- once. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Vice Sports and The Star-Ledger. He can be found on Twitter at @Mike_Vorkunov and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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