It’s a damp, late-April practice day for the Rutgers football team. A chilly wind whips through High Point Solutions Stadium. Rain clouds mass overhead. Chris Ash, the team’s new head coach, stalks about the middle of the field, creating his own storm. He demands a fast tempo, focus and precision—well aware that last season, the team he has inherited lost twice as many games as it won.
“We will set high standards and hold [the players] to those standards,” Ash tells this reporter. “We want relentless strain in the effort with which our players train and practice. That’s the way we want them to compete.”
Ash and the Scarlet Knights have their work cut out for them. After an 8-5 season in 2014—the team’s first year in the highly competitive Big Ten Conference—Rutgers sank to 4-8 in 2015. To turn things around, Ash—a man who considers it fun to arrive at work at 5 am—knows he must create a culture of success.
“He wants tough players who are passionate about the game,” says senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton. “The one thing that Coach Ash always talks about is that when other teams turn on the tape of Rutgers, he wants them to see that we’re tough and don’t quit.”
In the spring, the Scarlet Knights’ meetings, workouts and practices stressed the fundamentals. You can’t win until you know how to tackle properly. But you must also show up on time for every class. Treat women with respect. Practice competitive excellence. It’s all part of what Ash calls his “laws of combat.”
Ash, 42, has 19 years of coaching experience. Rutgers is his first job as a head coach. Directing the preseason scrimmage, his style is intense—and sometimes angry. After one play, he hollers at a defensive back who was out of position. He follows another player to the sideline for immediate feedback. Ash wants nothing less than perfection.
Despite the new coach’s relentless approach, there is no guarantee of success. Rutgers football has been characterized by decades of failure. That changed during the tenure of head coach Greg Schiano from 2001 to 2011. Schiano’s success helped the Scarlet Knights earn national attention, but in the five years since his departure, the school has been a middling 27-24. It got the opportunity to join the Big Ten in 2014 more for its proximity to New York City than for its stout gridiron profile.
Some of the issues are off the field. The program has struggled to recruit New Jersey’s best players. Last year, ESPN.com’s top 21 New Jersey high school seniors committed to other schools. Add to that the academic misdeeds involving former head coach Kyle Flood, who was fired last November for myriad reasons, including improperly contacting a faculty member about a player’s academic performance. Then there were the arrests of seven RU players on various charges. What’s more, the athletic department is floating in so much red ink that HBO’s Real Sports made it exhibit A for the excesses of college sports.
“There has been a fair bit of despair at Rutgers,” admits athletic director Patrick Hobbs, who was hired last November. “Chris and I didn’t come here with that, and we have done a lot to eliminate it and move Rutgers in the right direction.”
Ash is willing to outwork everybody around him. He learned as a staff member under successful coaches like Urban Meyer and Bret Bielema how winning programs operate. When Ash talks about building a championship culture, he isn’t spouting platitudes.
“You have to lay that foundation very, very early,” says University of Houston head coach Tom Herman, who worked with Ash for two years as an assistant on Meyer’s staff at Ohio State. “You can never let it slip. Strong culture eats strategy for lunch every day.”
Aaron Henry was already a starting safety at Wisconsin when Ash took over as defensive-backs coach in 2010. But when practice began, Henry was frustrated because Ash spent two weeks running tedious tackling drills. Ash demanded the players start shimmying when they were exactly three yards away from the ballcarrier. Anyone who messed up by even half a yard was corrected immediately and emphatically.
“There was a method to his madness,” says Henry, now assistant defensive-backs coach at Rutgers. “He knows what he’s talking about.”
In 1997, Ash took his first coaching job at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, his alma mater. He then spent eight seasons at Iowa State spread over two tenures, demonstrating that he “was going to be a star,” according to Dan McCarney, the Cyclones’ head coach during seven of Ash’s seasons there. “You couldn’t give him too much work,” McCarney says.
Ash spent four seasons under Bielema, three at Wisconsin and one at Arkansas, before moving on to Ohio State in 2014—always as defensive coordinator, and always displaying the same drive for excellence. “He’s never satisfied with yesterday’s performance,” says Bielema, who is still at Arkansas. “Whether the team wins or loses, he prepares the same way going forward.” But Ash is more than just a world-class grinder. Last year, the Buckeyes ranked second nationally in fewest points allowed and ninth in yards surrendered. Among defensive coaches, says Herman, “if he’s not the best in the country, he’s in the conversation.”
The new coach has developed a sales pitch designed to entice top prospects in New Jersey and beyond. “You don’t have to leave the state anymore to play big-time football,” Ash says.
Micah Clark, a highly rated rising senior at St. John Vianney Regional High School in Holmdel, has already bought in, choosing Rutgers over offers from Michigan and North Carolina. Clark—the 29th-best offensive tackle in the nation, according to ESPN.com—likes the idea of staying home. “My whole family can watch me play,” he says, noting that his stepbrother, Jamaal Beaty, has also committed to the Rutgers football program. Clark was impressed with Ash’s emphasis on academics and preparation for life after football.
“Any coach I hire at Rutgers has to have academics at the top of the list,” Hobbs says. “[Ash] is as excited about gains the student athletes make in the classroom as he is with what they do in the weight room.”
It won’t be a soft life for the players. “My job is not to be friends with them,” says Ash. “They need to know that we care about them, but we are trying to create an environment where they reach their potential in football, academically and socially.” Meyer likens the relationship to that of a parent and a son, not two pals. “The job of a parent is to make hard decisions,” Meyer says. “It’s the same with a coach. He has to make sure the players are ready in four years.”
Recruiting 18 year olds also requires impressive facilities, which Rutgers lacks. Ash describes the team’s facilities as “less than average.” Hobbs is working to raise money for a new football building and upgrades to the Scarlet Knights’ stadium. During the first four-plus months of 2016, Rutgers received about $50 million in cash and pledges from donors, and governor Chris Christie signed legislation giving the school $25 million in tax credits under the Economic Redevelopment and Grant Growth Program.
“People need to see we are serious about being successful,” Hobbs says.
Ohio State’s Meyer, whose health suffered due to his own intensity, wants to make sure his former assistant isn’t devoured by his work. “My conversations with Chris will be about keeping balance with his family,” says Meyer. “He’s obsessive, but he’s a great guy.”
Indeed, Ash is not entirely about football. He and his wife, Doreen, have been married since June 2014 and have a 1-year-old son, Brady. Ash has two children from a previous marriage, son Tanner, 14, and daughter Jacey, 12. But he admits that he vacations reluctantly and that a lot of his free time is spent reading self-improvement books and taking copious notes from them.
That’s why others are trying to help Ash maintain equilibrium. When Ash gets too intense, Bielema says he and other friends refer to him as Angry Ash. Herman says that beneath Ash’s stern Clark Kent exterior is a lively, fun person.
“He’s going to kill me for saying this, but he comes off as a nerdy, stiff white guy, but he’s not; I promise you that,” Herman says.
Ash doesn’t mind if he seems too intense to the outside world.
“I love it when people say you have to have balance,” says Ash. “If you look at successful people in any area, tell me how many of them have true balance in their lives. If you are going to be successful, you have to have passion.”
Ash’s ardor is unquestioned. Rutgers fans hope his spirit translates into wins.
Philadelphia-based writer/broadcaster Michael Bradley is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philly and an adjunct professor at Villanova University.Click here to leave a comment