Campbell builds program and career

Updated: December 14, 2012, 11:32 AM ET
By Chantel Jennings | ESPN.com

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Most college coaches put great thought into what goes above their desks.

Toledo coach Matt Campbell chose a photo of him, Super Soaker in hand, blasting one of his players in the face during a water-balloon ambush in fall camp this year.

[+] EnlargeMatt Campbell
Chantel Jennings/ESPN.comThe photo above Matt Campbell's desk epitomizes his football philosophy.

It's no facade, no designer's choice. The photograph is a constant reminder to Campbell and his staff -- this is fun, work is fun, football is fun.

His sometimes unorthodox ways have produced on-field results in his first full season, giving Toledo a nine-win season (its first since 2005). On Saturday, the Rockets take the field against No. 22 Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

The staff jokes that he's young enough, at 33, to not need sleep but wise enough to have old-school values. And at the base of him as a coach is a simple message: Football is fun.

Because for Campbell, it wasn't always.

He attended Pitt as a freshman D-lineman. The decision had been made, more or less, on a whim, just wishing his recruitment would be over.

At Pitt there was animosity between the coaches and players, distrust among the team. Players had bad attitudes, but what surprised Campbell more was that no one tried to change them.

His father had coached high school football for years in Massillon, Ohio, a high school football hotbed. He had been raised on the idea that football taught life lessons, so if this was what Division I football looked like, he wanted no part.

"If you had said, 'Hey, you're going to be a Division I head football coach someday,' after that experience, I would've said, 'Geez, I really don't think so,'" Campbell said. "But if I hadn't had that experience, there's no way I would've been here now."

In the spring, on a ride home from Pittsburgh to Canton, Ohio, Campbell and his father drove straight through Division III Mount Union's campus. On that June day, 90 of Mount Union's players were on the field, running through conditioning drills.

"At Pitt we couldn't get 90 guys on full scholarship to be out there working out like that," Campbell said.

He decided to transfer, giving up his scholarship and any glory that came with that level of football, trading it in for the lifestyle he saw coach Larry Kehres teaching his players.

Kehres was and still is an anomaly among college coaches. As a coach, Kehres has gone 331-24-3. But he won't talk about opportunities he has had elsewhere, phone calls he has gotten from big-time athletic directors, staying at the Division III level because it's "real and genuine."

Campbell began to understand the record as he watched Kehres preach consistency on a daily basis, not just Saturdays. Consistency on the field but also in the classroom and as a person. Kehres told players to find joy in the process, to learn something every day, to laugh at themselves.

And he led by example.

So when Campbell became a coach after college, he followed Kehres' words.

As a graduate assistant at Bowling Green, he learned to coach offense. When Kehres brought him back to Mount Union to implement Bowling Green's spread into Kehres' pro-style, he learned to modify, create and execute game plans. And when he reached Toledo in 2009 with Tim Beckman, he learned to build from the ground up.

"It was the first time in my life that I had come into a program that was [at] rock bottom," Campbell said. "The image, the type of character and how we build our program, we got to do it firsthand."

Last season Campbell was named head coach two weeks before the Rockets' bowl game.

Immediately, he reverted back to the idea of what a program should look like. He gave players ownership, creating leadership among the team. He started a makeover instantly.

[+] EnlargeMatt Campbell
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsCampbell is 10-3 in his young career at Toledo.

Kehres had said that late in games is when the true colors of a team come out. And throughout the 2011 season, Toledo had been in games but failed to finish, its identity, weak. A close loss to then-No. 15 Ohio State, an overtime loss to Syracuse and a three-point defeat to Northern Illinois in a 123-point scoring game hung over the players' heads.

But in the Military Bowl versus Air Force, Toledo stopped a two-point conversion to give the Rockets a bowl win, something to hang their hat on.

Now, Campbell needed to build on that.

To his players, he preached keeping the end goal in mind, but realizing that each day is a small step on the ladder.

Campbell organized a staff retreat -- coaches, weight staff, nutritionists, anyone who touched the program. They stayed in a cabin in Michigan for four days. In the mornings, they discussed team values and goals, not X's and O's. They would win with tactics, but character would come first. And like always, there was fun. The afternoons held poker, music and corn hole.

"I think there's a gap between what a coach is supposed to look like -- Bear Bryant with the hat pulled down, the Junction Boys, and then a loose-run program, where the inmates run the asylum," offensive coordinator and receivers coach Jason Candle said. "I think what Matt has done a good job of is finding a happy medium between the two."

For Campbell, that happy medium is somewhere between sleep deprived and old school.

Young enough to make jokes about the single coaches on his staff, but old enough to forget where he put his car keys. Young enough to drink Diet Coke at 10 a.m., but old enough to tell his players not to. Young enough to know he has a future in this profession, but old enough to know he won't have that future unless he focuses on today.

Young enough to believe there's fun in this game, and never too old for a good dose of Super Soakers.

Chantel Jennings | email

Oregon/Pac-12 reporter