- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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Somewhere on the roads of West Texas, between Abilene and Amarillo, Midland and Odessa, Greg Mattison would pick up the phone. Those drives are long, hours separating towns with nothing but flat land and oil rigs as visuals to pass the time.
Mobile car phones barely existed in 1989. Before texting, Twitter and Facebook, a phone call was the most direct way to reach a recruit. So on his long West Texas jaunts during his first season as an assistant coach at Texas A&M, Mattison had a mobile phone in his rental car. And he used it.
Used it so much he rang up a bill close to $1,000. Heck of a first impression.
"He didn't realize at the time just how expensive they were," former Texas A&M defensive coordinator Bob Davie said. "The business manager brought him in and they could have bought a new car with how much he spent on that mobile phone. I'll never forget that.
"That's just how he does it. He's going to work harder than anybody."
With Mattison, who former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum said "can sell anything," work ethic was never an issue.
For more than a quarter century, Michigan's defensive coordinator has been coaching defensive lines and coordinating defenses. But his name has been more associated with something else. Mattison is a guy coaches love to have. He brings enthusiasm to everything he does, recruiting included.
Urban Meyer, Mattison's former boss at Florida, has explained how Mattison was integral in the Gators landing a quarterback named Tim Tebow.
Mattison is good because he views recruiting as another competition, and there's nothing he relishes more than that.
"If I have the ability to work for a great school like Michigan, and there's a young man that qualifies character wise, academically and football wise for Michigan, then the ballgame begins," Mattison said. "That's where I get the opportunity to see what kind of ... recruiting is a lot of things, and I don't ever like to use the word salesmanship. It's like a football game. You have to know what you have to do to push the buttons to get the guy to see why this is the best place.
"And then, I love recruiting. It's a challenge and I'm a selfish guy. I want to get every great football player here."
Passion for recruiting
Mattison's love of recruiting started early, when he was a defensive line coach at woebegone Northwestern. The Wildcats were the forgotten world of college football when he worked there from 1978 to 1980, amassing a 1-31-1 record. Yet coach Rick Venturi said Mattison was convinced the program that had nothing could land any player in the country.
The offices were small, the coaching staff young, the stadium had rusty staircases. Less than two months into the job, with recruits coming to campus, Venturi and his staff bought a bunch of purple and white paint for an office and stadium makeover.
"We were just chipping in, doing it on our own. We couldn't even get the place painted," Venturi said. "We're just slapping paint on the thing. I just remember Greg, we were on the second story and he was just painting on the railing on the way down and there was [Mattison's wife] Ann, holding the light out there.
"There was no light out there and she's holding this overhead projector for this little bit of light."
It went beyond the campus. There was also a Christmas Day phone call from Mattison to Venturi -- perhaps the only day they took off in a year -- explaining how the two of them had to be in a Milwaukee suburb at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 26 to visit a prospect.
Mattison and Venturi weren't successful at Northwestern -- they were fired after three years, and Mattison admitted, "recruiting wasn't very good then" -- but the passion remained.
Recruiting, though, isn't the only reason Mattison was the first hire Davie and Meyer made as head coaches at Notre Dame and Florida, respectively. He happens to coach defense pretty well, too.
With Jack Harbaugh at Western Michigan from 1982 to '86 -- the last two years as defensive coordinator -- Mattison's philosophy began to take shape. Mattison names Harbaugh as one of three influences in his coaching style, along with former Michigan coaches Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr, for whom he coached first as a defensive line coach from 1992 to '94 and then defensive coordinator from 1995 to '96.
At both stops he worked with another young coach: Brady Hoke.
Building from the ground up
Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Anthony Weaver remembered the simple request early in his freshman year, 1998. Every defensive lineman, starters to walk-ons, needed to look the same.
Physical traits and talent levels varied. Technique could be taught, and Mattison believed correct form and discipline would help them win. And it would help any scheme the then-Irish defensive coordinator would call.
"Every time Coach Mattison told me to do something, I'd take it out to the field and it worked," said Weaver, now an assistant coach at North Texas. "That's all you want to see as a player. All you want to see as a player from a coach is, when he tells you to do something you go out there and have success doing it.
"Every time he told me to do something, I had success. I'll tell you what, I truly felt when I played for him I matched the most of my abilities."
This might be Mattison's biggest challenge yet.
Michigan's defense with Greg Robinson bottomed out a year ago. It ranked 110th nationally, allowing 450.8 yards per game. It gave up 35.2 points per game. To fix this, it'll take technique, coaching and schematics.
Mattison can pull off all three. Throughout the years, Mattison's defenses have required intensity and depth, blitzing from linebackers and consistent play from the defensive line. At Notre Dame, Weaver said Mattison liked to zone blitz and run a 4-3.
At Florida from 2005 to 2007, Mattison's defensive front was so dominant he said his defensive linemen begged him not to call blitzes. They didn't need the extra help. For the past two seasons at Michigan, Robinson's defensive line rarely put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
When Mattison left for the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, things changed. The NFL taught Mattison more about disguising blitzes and coverages and about how best to pressure the quarterback with schematics. It forced him to become more varied in his playcalling. For the first time, he didn't have to teach as much as he had to call the right scheme.
"He was a very good coach here," said safety Tom Zbikowski, who played for Mattison at Notre Dame and with the Ravens. "But with his personality and just him as a human being I think he works very, very well with young men. I think he can relate to them well and be a figure that somebody needs at that time of their life."
Mattison learned a lot. But his best friend called. He had just been hired as Michigan's head coach. Did Mattison want to come?
Back to college, back to Michigan, back to Brady Hoke he would go.
Mattison's greatest recruiting success might have been ensuring an instate quarterback would remain in Florida. Meyer and his staff had just been hired in Gainesville and there was concern that Tebow might go somewhere else.
Meyer gave Mattison, whose coverage area was Jacksonville, Fla., an assignment: Get him.
"We had all kinds of obstacles in the way and Greg kept that thing together," said Meyer, now an ESPN analyst. "Still, Tim will be the first one to tell you a big reason why he chose Florida was the relentless pursuit Greg Mattison put on him and his family. Absolutely relentless in recruiting Tim, and he did that on many, many occasions."
Mattison became one of Florida's best recruiters -- much like he had been at Notre Dame, Michigan and Texas A&M before that. The reason is his approach.
Mattison is the guy who just ... won't ... go ... away.
"It's a little bit like when you see a Rottweiler grab a hold of something and it won't let go," Meyer said. "Once he gets his mitts on ya, you can shake as hard as you can but he's not going to let go."
Mattison does the same thing at Michigan now. On the road, in homes and even with the media, he passionately explains his recruiting philosophies. That he can do it for Hoke, a longtime colleague, is even better.
"He's probably my closest friend in the world," Mattison said. "To have an opportunity to work with him and coach with him again, it was something I said 'Yeah, I'm gonna do it.'
"And I can tell you this, every day I've been here I feel like that was the greatest decision I made."
If Hoke and Mattison do what they have promised -- bring Michigan's defense and its program back to its former glory -- most around Ann Arbor would agree with that.
Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mikerothstein.
New Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison sees recruiting as a competition, and the guy just loves to compete. So do his defenses.