Just seven coaches in history have forsaken the hallowed dividing lines and traded in their blue for red or vice versa.
Two of them hold positions on Ohio State’s staff this season.
Ann Arbor, Michigan, figured an unlikely location for head coach Ryan Day’s defensive coaching staff overhaul, but now on the other side of the rivalry, the work of Greg Mattison and Al Washington has been instrumental in turning Ohio State’s worst-ever defense into the nation’s best.
“Kind of a funny thing, [former players] will be like, ‘Hey coach, I never thought I’d see you in red,’” Mattison said. “Well it’s funny because my wife says I look really, really good in red.”
Rewind a year.
Mattison and Washington are coaching defensive line and linebackers on college football’s top-rated defense at Michigan. The Wolverines are not only favored to beat Ohio State in Columbus –– something that hasn’t happened since 2000 –– but they’re in the driver’s seat for their first-ever trip to the College Football Playoff.
Talk of “revenge tours” gave Michigan the air of confidence it desperately needed to revitalize its standing in the rivalry, but its balloon was quickly popped by the razor sharp offense of Urban Meyer, Dwayne Haskins and Day.
The Buckeye offense hung 62 on Michigan, eight more than it allowed to its previous five opponents combined, so it wouldn’t come as a shock if Mattison and Washington didn’t feel like picking up a phone call from Day the following month.
If you weren’t familiar with their history, that is.
Day was hired as a graduate assistant at Florida in 2005, the same year Mattison began his three-year tenure as co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach at the program.
“Ryan Day was a great young coach then, and I remember him,” Mattison said. “When you coach, there’s guys that you come across that are younger coaches that you’re not with a long time –– he’s a guy that right away, you knew. I said, ‘This guy’s good now.’”
Washington, a Columbus, Ohio, native, played at Boston College while Day was a coach, and went on to coach with him from 2013 to ’14 as Boston College’s running backs coach, while Day served as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Despite their personal history, Day reached out to Harbaugh first, in what he said was their first real interaction, to get permission to address the coaches.
Both Mattison and Washington had different reasons to be receptive to Day’s offer. For Washington, it was the chance to return home and to the school at which his father, Al Sr., played linebacker from 1977 to ’80.
“I’ve known coach Day, know the program tradition, but Mom and Dad are 20 minutes away,” Washington said. “Three-year-old, 1-year-old, my wife went here. A lot of who I am is from 614 and Columbus, father playing here… So I think those things were definitely major contributors to coming –– that unique blend of everything.”
A $150,000 raise didn’t hurt either, and the money would seem even more of a factor for Mattison, who was seeking a promotion to a position he had already held for 19 of the past 24 years.
“Coach Harbaugh was great,” Mattison said. “He understood that I wanted to coordinate, and it was an opportunity to be a coordinator, and that was what I wanted to do and not much you’re gonna do about that. The hardest thing, probably, was calling the players.”
Salary-wise, the Ohio State defensive coordinator post afforded Mattison a bump up from $525,000 to $1.1 million, and it was a job that Mattison didn’t have to do alone.
Mattison said the opportunity to be a co-coordinator alongside Jeff Hafley was appealing, given that the last time he co-manned a defense, he won a national championship at Florida under Urban Meyer.
Overseeing a defense that gave up a program-worst 404.3 yards per game a season ago to a college football low 217.4 through 11 games, another national championship appearance for Mattison is far from unlikely.
Still, Day said he didn’t completely gloss over the fact that Mattison is a 13-year Michigan man during the hiring process.
“It was in consideration, yeah,” Day said with a grin in February. “Knowing him, whether I was here or anywhere else, I would’ve tried to hire Greg Mattison. And it all comes down [to]: Who are the best coaches for our players?”
With essentially the same rotation at linebacker from a year ago, junior Baron Browning already has three more sacks, eight more tackles and five more tackles for loss than in 2018. He credited some of his improvement to the added level of comfort he feels with Washington as his position coach.
It remains to be seen just how comfortable Mattison and Washington will be upon their return to the Big House Saturday, but with the holiday season approaching, they won’t be getting any gifts from Harbaugh and the Wolverines.
“We’re not going to be sending each other Christmas cards based on where [Mattison] went,” Harbaugh told the media in March. “That’s how I feel and understand it. Still a good man. Still have a ton of respect for him, and we’ll be friends again some day when we’re done coaching.”