Greg Mattison left Michigan to come to Ohio State to be a defensive coordinator again.
It’s a title he says he takes quite literally.
“When you’re a coordinator, that’s what the word coordinator means: It means coordinate great people’s ideas,” he said Friday.
The 69-year-old Mattison has spent 17 of his 48 seasons coaching football as a defensive coordinator, but the last time he had that title was 2014 at Michigan.
He remained with the Wolverines the past four seasons under head coach Jim Harbaugh as defensive line coach before finding the lure of being a coordinator again too strong to resist when Ohio State coach Ryan Day offered him a job (and a raise) in January.
Now he is in his first spring in Columbus, where he is putting together strategies for the front seven while co-coordinator Jeff Hafley handles the secondary.
The 40-year-old Hafley is new to Ohio State, too, along with Matt Barnes and Al Washington. They join holdover Larry Johnson, who has been the defensive line coach of the Buckeyes since 2014.
“I’m gonna tell you this: I’m a very fortunate person because I have the ability to work with a great staff,” Mattison said.
“I mean when you walk in the door every day and you’ve got one of if not the best defensive line coach in football coaching the guys you need him to coach, Larry Johnson.
“You’ve got Jeff Hafley, who’s got tremendous experience in back end, and then you’ve got Al Washington, who is a really, really intelligent, great young coach. And then you’ve got Matt Barnes, who has been a coordinator at another Big Ten school (Maryland), so we’ve got a great staff.”
When Day went about putting together a defensive staff, he wanted some experience, and he got that in Mattison, whose coaching career began at Riverdale High School in Wisconsin in 1971.
Along the way, Mattison helped put together a national championship defense at Florida in 2006 (at the expense of Ohio State) and delivered nearly instant results upon returning to Michigan in 2011, where he turned one of the country’s worst defenses into one of the best in one year.
The two come from different generations (Day was born in ’79), but they have some shared history.
Both were members of Urban Meyer’s staff at Florida in 2005, at which time the youngster impressed the veteran almost immediately.
“When you’ve coached as long as I have, you get a lot who come through the door,” Mattison said. “Some of them you look at and you go, ‘Oh, really?’ But I remember the first day I thought, ‘Where is this kid from?’ He was so mature, so way ahead of his time.”
Day, in turn, looked at Mattison as a mentor, and he likes what he has seen so far from a defense trying to bounce back from a 2018 season that was statistically worse than any other in Ohio State history.
“Greg added a ton with the front with the run game and the front seven,” Day said. "Jeff pieced it together on the back end with the coverages. There has been a lot of give and take there. Jeff had to make a few adjustments going from the NFL hashes to the college hashes (which are wider). They are flying around right now and the guys on defense feel like they are getting better.”
Mattison has the chops to demand his way or the highway, but he said that is not his intention.
“A coordinator to me has never been a guy that comes in and says, ‘You’re gonna do this, this, this and this. Listen to me and let’s do it,’” he said. “I mean a coordinator is a guy that coordinates other people’s ideas and other people’s ways of doing things, and being a co-coordinator with Jeff, that’s what we do.”
How is life down south?
Meanwhile, Mattison said he has had little trouble adjusting to life on the other side of what is generally regarded as the greatest rivalry in sports.
"Kind of a funny thing: I might hear someone say, ‘Hey coach, I never thought I’d see you in red’ or things like that,” Washington said. “And I said, ‘Well it’s funny because my wife says she thinks I look really, really good in red.' But that’s about it.”
As far as recruiting, he said his message hasn’t changed much, either.
“All I know is when I recruit somebody, I always talk about the positives,” said Mattison, who was a main recruiter on several Ohio prospects who signed with Michigan over the past few years. “I talk about coaching the young man. I talk about other coaches on the staff that would be coaching him. About the education at the university. All of those kinds of things. I never bring up the many other places I was at."