The first time Jon Heacock coached at the University of Toledo he slept in the football office, scrounged for meals, and did it for $1,200.
“I had a great experience,” he said. “I just was poor.”
He is back three decades later, this time in a slightly more glamorous capacity. Toledo’s new defensive coordinator met with the media for the first time Monday — 31 years after he cut his teeth in the profession as a just-out-of-college graduate assistant on Dan Simrell’s staff.
His resume has since expanded to show multiple coaching stops in the Midwest. His approach however is the same as it was back then.
“We’re not going to play a lot different defense than we did in 1983,” he said. “The wheel is still round.”
The allure of being in a leadership role — Heacock enters his 24th season as a college coordinator or head coach — tugged the Ohio native back to his homeland to fix a defense that slid backwards in the second half of 2013.
Heacock, the only candidate head coach Matt Campbell says he interviewed, signed a three-year contract with an annual salary of $172,000 — $28,000 less than he made last year as Purdue’s secondary coach. He’ll receive a $1,500 bonus if the Rockets appear in a bowl game and must remit the university one-third of his salary — $57,333 — if he leaves before his contract’s completion.
Only one MAC assistant, Akron defensive coordinator Chuck Amato, earned higher guaranteed pay last year ($196,000) than Heacock is due this season.
Campbell said Heacock, 53, was “an instant match” and feels he will mesh well with a staff of 30-somethings and be a positive influence on linebackers coach Stan Watson and cornerbacks coach D.K. McDonald, either of whom Campbell is confident could someday succeed Heacock as coordinator.
Campbell said he and Heacock, who will coach safeties, interviewed for two or three hours, discussing everything from defensive philosophies to red-zone strategy. They may have even reminisced about their similar upbringings, both growing up in northeast Ohio as sons of successful high school coaches.
“The day it came open, he was my first phone call,” Campbell said of Tom Matukewicz’s replacement.
Campbell, who turned 4 during Heacock’s first stint at Toledo, admired from afar the Beloit native’s career arc that took him from Youngstown State’s national championship defensive coordinator under Jim Tressel to YSU’s head coach for nine mostly successful seasons. That was followed by a two-year stint at Kent State that Heacock calls “a daggone coaching miracle.”
The Golden Flashes won 11 games in 2012, snapping a 40-year bowl drought. For reasons Heacock says he does not fully understand, coach Darrell Hazell did not offer Heacock the title of defensive coordinator when Hazell took the Purdue job. Heacock did not confirm talk that Purdue’s administration pressed Hazell to hire coordinators from the outside.
“As a coach you always keep a list of guys in the profession you have great respect for,” Campbell said. “Jon was my No. 1 guy. We worked really hard to get him here.”
Campbell introduced three other new assistants: Running backs coach Anthony Johnson, who held the same role at Sam Houston State; receivers coach Derek Sage, who did the same the last four seasons at Wyoming, and Cardinal Stritch graduate Bryan Gasser, who transitions from a noncoaching role on staff to tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator.
“Every move gives us the opportunity to be better as a program,” Campbell said.
Heacock says he’s in the process of defining schemes and that he doesn’t foresee much deviation from the past two seasons in which the Rockets mixed three and four lineman sets.
He defines quality defense by the number of points allowed and turnovers created, two areas in which Toledo struggled at the end of last year.
After an early-season streak of scoring a defensive touchdown in four straight games, the Rockets recorded just four turnovers in their final five games.
Troubling, Heacock said, was fourth-quarter letdowns, as the Rockets surrendered two or more touchdowns in half of their fourth quarters. He also will emphasize performing better in November. The Rockets went 2-3 the past two years in the final month of the regular season.
“Those are things that have nothing to do with scheme,” he said. “Those are attitude things. Those are things I learned when I was here in 1983 and they’re things I believe more now than ever. We’ll worry a lot more about those kinds of things than we will the scheme stuff.”