Ash is emphasizing building the right culture. Says culture will beat strategy. #rfootball— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) December 7, 2015
Rutgers football coach Chris Ash said during his introductory press conference that he wanted to build a culture of winning. He said the key was having coaches in the program that have had winning experiences. Now that Ash has filled two of the three coordinator positions, we are seeing his plan go into motion. It's exciting to watch Ash establish a new culture for the program, something that has been sorely needed.
For Ash's first hire, he went with Vince Okruch, the quality control coach for the kicking game and defense at Ohio State. Okruch is a 15 year veteran of the Big Ten with stops at Minnesota, Northwestern and Illinois, before working for the Buckeyes. He also coached at Colorado. He has worked under head coaches Lou Holtz, Gary Barnett and Urban Meyer. He has won Big Ten titles on multiple staffs and of course, was part of the national championship with Ohio State. He brings a wealth of knowledge, experience and a winning track record. Okruch will be a great asset for Ash to have on the staff, not only with running special teams, but also being a trusted voice in the coaches room and with team meetings.
For Ash's second hire, he went in the complete opposite direction of Okruch. By hiring Drew Mehringer, Ash hired a 28 year old rising star that is a protege of offensive pioneer Tom Herman. With only one year as a co-offensive coordinator, and this past year as wide receivers coach under Herman, Mehringer is far less established. But he has learned under Herman for a long time. First he was a quarterback at Rice under Herman. Once injuries ended his career, Mehringer followed Herman after being a student assistant at Rice for him, with stops at Ohio State and Iowa State as a graduate assistant, before leaving to be the co-offensive coordinator at FCS school James Madison. In his one season in that role, JMU's quarterback Vad Lee broke single-season school records for passing attempts and completions, passing yards, touchdowns and total offense. He then went back to work under Herman, this time helping to lead Houston to a 12-1 season and AAC Championship.
Ash has a vision for how to build a winning program, and it starts with having winning coaches leading the players. His first two hires are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of experience. However, their key similarity is that they come from winning backgrounds. Ash can market his two coordinators as winners and with Mehringer, a direct link to the offensive mind of Tom Herman.
Mehringer also brings a reputation as a strong recruiter, and at his age he can relate to the players in a way that most coaches are unable to. Mehringer served as recruiting coordinator at Houston this season and their current class is ranked 29th by rivals. This class was ranked 90th before Herman and staff took over. He brings excitement and a fast paced, high scoring offensive mentality. That is something top high school players want to be a part of.
Another part of a winning culture is earning the right to play and not being handed that right because of a ranking or reputation. Ash is telling recruits that every player must contribute on special teams before they get on the field to play their position on offense and defense. It's a not a revolutionary idea, as Leonte Carroo played his entire freshman year on special teams. What I do like is that Ash is using it on the recruiting trail. It's not a popular thing to tell certain star players, and by doing so Ash is making sure he finds the right players to join his program. He is setting the expectation before they even join the program that everything they achieve will be earned. There is no special treatment, no free rides. Everyone has an opportunity and they must make the most of it. Privilege is not part of a winning culture.
Ash may be a first time head coach, but he is off to a great start in building a first class program. By hiring Okruch and Mehringer as special teams and offensive coordinators, he is hiring two coaches that come from winning traditions. Unlike Maryland, Ash has not surrounded himself with head coaching retreads, like new coach D.J. Durkin has with his hires. Durkin hired former Virginia head coach Mike London and former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer for his defensive staff. It's not to say they aren't good coaches, but both were fired at the end of this season. It also appears he is keeping Mike Locksley on staff, the former interim coach this past season who has a career head coaching record of 3-31. It just highlights the difference in the philosophy in building a coaching staff, and how Ash is approaching his own.
Ash will likely use his approach as a selling point, and it will completely counter that of Big Ten East rival Maryland. The Rutgers football program has a long way to go in restoring it's reputation after this past season, but Ash is implementing his plan to do just that. Time will tell if the Ash Era will be a positive one, but so far it is clear that a winning culture, fostered by successful coaches, is his a key in his vision. And for that, we should all be excited for the future!