Drew Mehringer had his doubts when he first flew to New Jersey to interview for the vacant Rutgers offensive coordinator position. And why wouldn’t he?
Mehringer would be risking a career setback on a first-time head coach and first-time athletic director both trying to reroute a team and department with serious public perception problems while battling in one of college football’s toughest divisions. He would be leaving a good situation as Houston’s wide receivers coach and his mentor Tom Herman, the hottest up-and-coming star in the profession. There was no need for the 28-year-old who had previously served one year as a coordinator at the FCS level to rush into a bad spot for a better job title.
“I was skeptical walking into the interview and had talked to a lot of people about being in that division and what they thought of that professionally,” Mehringer said. “When I walked out of it I felt really good. I asked him one question which was, ‘Why do you think you could win here?’ When he talked about the plan, I believed in it. I really did.”
The plan, which includes recruiting their backyard better and introducing the culture that he and head coach Chris Ash both saw in action at Ohio State, started with a bit of an intentional delay. In one of their first conversations as co-workers Ash encouraged his new offensive coordinator to spend his first few weeks on the job by preparing his old team for a bowl game with Florida State (which Houston won to complete 13-1 season) rather than dedicating all of his time to recruiting for Rutgers.
Ash stayed with Ohio State through their trip to the Fiesta Bowl as well. Part of their reasoning was wanting a chance to say goodbye to players with whom they had built strong relationships. But part of it was sending a message to their new players waiting in Piscataway: We’re going to finish everything we start.
Mehringer hasn’t worked with Ash in the past. They barely missed each other at former stops at Iowa State and Ohio State. The decision to stick around through bowl season made a strong first impression.
“If you preach day after day that you need to finish what you start -- this rep, this drill, this play or this semester -- it would have been hard emotionally to snap your fingers and disappear,” he said. “You lose credibility if you’re saying one thing and doing another ... It doesn’t jibe with me or Coach Ash at all.”
That meant working double duty during December and playing catch-up on the recruiting trail in January. Mehringer has had very little chance to evaluate or interact with the players already on Rutgers’ roster. He went to the team’s first 5 a.m. winter workout last week and ate breakfast with his quarterbacks afterward, but has been on the road since then.
There are coaches on staff he has yet to meet in person. He has an apartment somewhere in New Jersey, but he hasn’t seen the inside of it yet. He said he knows that when recruiting season ends the work it will take to compete with the top half of the Big Ten is just beginning.
Mehringer said he plans to install the basic philosophy of the power-spread offense he learned at Ohio State and Houston and then adjust it to fit the Scarlet Knights’ strengths. He acknowledged that they’ll have to get creative to compete with the league’s more talent-laden programs.
“If we’re going to line up with Michigan State and Ohio State and go punch for punch right now do I think that’s the best avenue for success? Probably not,” he said. “I say that a little bit out of ignorance not ever seeing these guys play in person, but yeah, I think we’ve got to do something a little bit different. I think we’ve got to create an edge or an advantage for our guys that’s different from what’s done in the Big Ten traditionally.”
Expecting the same immediate results at Rutgers that Mehringer and Herman had at Houston (conference champs, the nation’s No. 10 scoring offense) isn’t realistic, the coach says. The programs are at different stages and in very different divisions.
Despite the uphill battle they face, Ash convinced Mehringer during their interview this winter to take a chance and buy in to Rutgers’ potential. Now the two coaches have to get to work on building a culture and convincing Rutgers to buy in to theirs.