Toledo's Matt Campbell is the youngest head coach in Division I-A college football. Before that he was the youngest offensive coordinator in I-A football. Before that he was the youngest offensive coordinator at any level of college football, period.
If you think it took guts for Mike O'Brien, the Rockets' athletic director, to hand his school's football program to a 32-year-old coach, then consider what happened eight years earlier when Larry Kehres, the winningest coach in Ohio college history, made Campbell the offensive coordinator at Mount Union at age 24.
It didn't start out that way. Campbell, fresh off a two-year stint as a graduate assistant coach at Bowling Green, was hired by Kehres in February, 2005, to coach the offensive line at his alma mater.
Out of the blue came NCAA approval of spring football for the first time ever at the Division III level.
"All the years I'd coached, to that point, and along came an organizational task that I was really not prepared for or familiar with," said Kehres, who enters 2012, his 27th season at Mount Union, with a 317-24-3 record. "Plus, as the athletic director, I had other responsibilities, too. Matt had been through spring ball at Bowling Green. So I turned him loose to organize things and to get our offense ready."
The first half of the Purple Raiders' spring practice in '05 was set up to install aspects of BG's spread offense. The rest was spent polishing up Mount's time-tested, pro-style, two-back offense. The idea, said Campbell, was to mix and match.
Kehres sat back and watched. He attended meetings. He worked with the quarterbacks. Mostly, though, he soaked everything in.
"I watched Matt and it was educational for me," Kehres recalled. "I guess it was kind of an internship for him but at some point it struck me that I wasn't sure I could have done it as well. And, as the days went on, I realized there was no risk in making him the offensive coordinator."
Campbell served in the role for two seasons. The Raiders went 29-1 and won back-to-back D-III national championships. One might presume everything went pretty smoothly.
Campbell laughs at the notion.
"Coach said, 'Matt, I'm going to let you call the plays, but I'm still involved,' and that's how it was in our first game against Washington University," Campbell said. "I'm on the sideline; he's on the sideline. I call a play; he calls a play. We won, but it was real sloppy. It doesn't take much to get fans in Alliance shaking their heads. You'd better win and you'd better win by 30.
"The next week we've got John Carroll, our big rival. We're on the bus and he says, 'I'm not going to say anything for the first half.' That sort of put it all on the line."
Mount Union led at halftime 42-0. By the end, it was 70-0 and the Raiders had 687 yards of offense. Very rarely have Campbell or his offensive units slowed down since.
A year ago, Toledo won six of its last seven regular-season games -- with Campbell's offense averaging 529 yards per game during that stretch -- to snag a berth opposite Air Force in the Military Bowl.
Head coach Tim Beckman emerged as the favorite to take the same job at Illinois and O'Brien was asked by a luncheon companion what he would do for the bowl game if Beckman left.
"That's pretty easy," O'Brien said. "Matt Campbell becomes the interim."
And after that?
"That might be pretty easy, too," O'Brien said.
Larry Kehres knows what decision he would have made.
"If I'd been AD at Toledo, I would have made the same call Mike O'Brien did," Kehres said. "And that's why I've applauded the decision.
"Look, Matt is chronologically young; I can't argue that. But when you're ready you're ready. If he did the same thing for another five years would he have been more ready? I doubt it. Would a Big Ten offensive coordinator have been more ready? Not necessarily.
"The way the events unfolded, the young men on the team were not left in limbo, they built on the success they were having by promoting from within, it was good for team chemistry, it was good for the university. It just made sense."
For Campbell, it was another example of being in the right place at the right time. Just out of college, where he had been a defensive star as a player, Campbell said he had been rejected for every GA job he had applied. Bowling Green had a late offensive opening and, thanks to a connection with a BG booster, he stepped into an opportunity to work for new head coach Gregg Brandon before the start of 2003 season.
"I got to sit in that room and I soaked it all in," Campbell said. "Think about who was in there: Coach Brandon, who's now the offensive coordinator at Wyoming; the coordinator was Greg Studrawa, who has the same job now at LSU; Mick McCall, now the coordinator at Northwestern; Zach Azzanni, the wide receiver coach at Wisconsin, and Dennis Springer, the receivers coach at Northwestern.
"I worked directly under Studs, and there's probably not a better O-line coach in the country. The second year they pretty much put me in charge of tight ends. After that, I figured, 'Geez, I think I'm ready to do this full-time somewhere.' And then coach Kehres called."
There was at least one rocky moment after that 70-point outburst against John Carroll in 2005. A couple weeks later, Mount was playing a very good Capital team and was trailing 28-21 midway through the third quarter. Very little Campbell called was working.
"I walked down the sidelines and said, 'Coach, I'm struggling here, can you help me out?' Coach Kehres said, 'You got us in this damn mess, so you get us out of it.' But, of course, he called the next two offensive plays. And they both went for touchdowns. I knew he bailed me out, but after the game he gave me the credit.
"That's why I'm comfortable in this job and confident I'm ready for it. I don't know that my age should be an issue. It's all about experiences. And I've experienced great mentors. I learned from the best."
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.
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