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Larry Kehres, the ultra successful University of Mount Union football coach, was stopped the other day by someone inquiring about the University of Toledo pullover jacket he was wearing.
“When it’s free, you wear what you’ve got. Plus, it’s kind of cold,” Kehres responded.
Freebie or not, a deeper explanation exists for why Kehres was donning midnight blue and gold garb at his team’s facility.
Three hours to the west, four UT football coaches, all in the ballpark of 30 years old, are passing along the instructions they took from Kehres to 100 or so players in spring practice.
Matt Campbell, Jason Candle, Tom Manning, and Stan Watson played for Kehres and coached for Kehres before leaving the nest and ultimately reassembling at UT under first-year head coach Campbell.
“I get a kick out of it,” Kehres said by phone. “I’m very proud of that, to know how much fun they’re having and how engaging it would be for them to work together.”
On display inside Mount Union’s football building are the words: Faith, Family, Football.
“It’s something we talk about with our kids all the time,” Campbell said. “That value has never left that program.”
Winning has been a constant too. In 26 years, Kehres has suffered 25 losses. He’s captured 10 NCAA Division III national championships and is the architect of 19 undefeated regular seasons.
Overall, he has posted a record of 317-25-3; in the Ohio Athletic Conference he is 219-8-3.
“In my opinion, the best football coach in the country,” Manning, the offensive line coach, said.
Manning, the baby of the Mount Union imports at age 28, captured national titles in 2002 and 2005. Candle was 28-0 in his two seasons, winning championships in 2000 and 2001 after transferring from Geneva College. Watson collected four titles in five years before graduating in 2002, and Campbell was a three-time champion from 2000-02.
“I could tell you a little about the games,” said Campbell, who lost just one of them. “It was more about the values and the lessons we learned.”
Watson, Candle and Campbell were first team All-OAC in 2001 when the Purple Raiders went 13-0, won the national title, and outscored opponents 582-152.
Aside from scoring 60 points with regularity, raising championship banners, and occasionally sending players to the NFL, Kehres has a penchant for something else — retaining his players as assistants.
Campbell was the first to migrate to UT, agreeing to be offensive coordinator on Tim Beckman’s initial staff in 2009. With Beckman’s blessing, Campbell soon plucked Candle from Mount Union to be his receivers coach and enticed Manning from Emory & Henry College in Virginia with a graduate assistant opportunity, effectively making him the pseudo offensive line coach.
Many coaches will tell you there are inherent risks in hiring friends as assistants. Can you objectively measure their talents? Will your friendship inhibit you from dismissing them? Will they be anything more than a yes-man?
For Campbell, the appeal of compiling a staff of like-minded individuals with similar upbringings in the profession outweighed any negatives. After all, Kehres has no qualms about hiring former players.
“In this business, you’re hiring a football coach and a leader of young men first,” Campbell said. “That’s how I evaluated it.”
Campbell, 32, was elevated to head coach in December when Beckman left for Illinois. His first hire was Manning, who had left UT after one season to be Mount Union’s co-offensive coordinator.
“I hated to lose Tom, but I loved to lose Tom,” Kehres said. “I understand what they’re striving for.”
Campbell promoted Candle to offensive coordinator, and in a move that stirred emotion on both ends of the I-75 rivalry, he plucked Watson from Bowling Green to be special teams coach.
Campbell too coached at BG, but the circumstances in his accepting of a job at UT called for compassion. The staff at BG had been dismissed, and Campbell was in career limbo. He has a family. He needed a job.
BG wasn’t as forgiving of Watson when he resigned to take a job with the enemy. However in his mind, he was joining a friend — his college roommate and teammate. Watson was the best man in Campbell’s wedding, and Campbell in his.
“I had an opportunity to coach for Matt and with a bunch of guys I spent some great times with and accomplished a lot of things,” Watson said. “When that opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it.”
Candle’s precise routes, instincts, and soft hands inspired Kehres to offer him a coaching position after he graduated.
Candle remembers the first meeting. Kehres pulled out a marker and scratched the following on a dry erase board:
“Coaching is teaching. Teaching is the ability to inspire learning.”
“That always stuck with me,” Candle said. “Every day we come out here we have to be excited, we have to be great teachers.”
Added Manning: “I think the one thing we learned at Mount Union is how to work intelligently so the players could get the most out of our coaching. We’ve taken a little bit of a Division III mentality, in a sense, to Toledo.”
Kehres is scheduled to visit UT next week. He might view a practice, perhaps exchange pleasantries with 86-year-old former UT coach and Mount Union alumnus Frank Lauterbur, and of course, catch up with his four pals.
If the weather turns chilly, Kehres might throw on his UT jacket.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @RyanAutullo.