PERRYSBURG, Ohio – Chris Ash has been to Northwest Ohio before, albeit under far different circumstances.
Two decades ago, Ash was driving through the Perrysburg area on I-80 en route for Princeton and a new life when his old, beat up car broke down in a rainstorm. In the pre-cell phone days, he was forced to make a collect call to his dad back home in Iowa to save the day. On Tuesday, Ash returned to Northwest Ohio on a sun-splashed afternoon in a luxury vehicle as an Ohio State assistant – a total 180, not I-80.
But you won’t hear Ash complain or talk negatively about his car fiasco. It was all part of a young coach finding his way and charting a course that would take him from Drake to Ohio State, with some pit stops in-between.
“Don’t make excuses,” Ash told participants of the Northwest Ohio All-Star Game. “So many guys have the potential to be great, but they make excuses. Everybody has an opportunity to do something great. Success is a choice.”
In Columbus, it’s a must.
After the pass defense wilted last season, Ash was brought in to plug holes where leaks sprung. He elevated his stature among coaching colleagues at Iowa State, Wisconsin and Arkansas when his defenses improved steadily each year. Pass defense is the area where Ash proved his worth.
“Everybody has an opportunity to do something great. Success is a choice.”
At Ohio State, it adds up north of $500,000. Ash’s offensive counterpart, Tom Herman, spoke to how difficult it is to prepare for an Ash-led defense last year, telling Big Ten Network that Wisconsin’s 2012 unit was the toughest the Buckeyes faced.
Chances are not many opposing offensive coordinators said the same about Ohio State the past two seasons. Ash – and Luke Fickell – has the responsibility of returning the silver shine back to the bullets.
“I saw a talented group of players that may not necessarily have played together for whatever reason,” Ash said when asked about the 2013 Ohio State defense. “What we needed to do was become aligned on the same page. We want to become an aggressive defense, have an identity of what we are doing and a philosophy everyone believes in. We’ve been able to do that.”
Ash emphasized “we,” as in he and Fickell. Ever since Ash was hired, the specifics of his job have been debated. Would he be solely in charge of the defense? What role would Fickell have? Who will call plays?
Many of the answers remain shrouded in mystery. So far, Ash and Fickell have played the p.r. game to near perfection. They’re happy with the state of the defense, the relationship is warm and collaborating has led to new ideas.
“Coach Fickell and I are working hand in hand in building the defensive package,” Ash said. “It’s been a great relationship so far. I’m excited about what we’ve been able to do. I just want to help us be the best that we can be.”
The two-hour drive to Perrysburg was about Ash lending a helping hand to high schoolers who will embark on life’s next big journey. He delivered a rousing 15-minute speech that kept players, coaches and parents rapt with anticipation. Instead of a football coach, one would have believed he was a corporate CEO or politician.
He told the teenagers to find a passion for something, establish dreams and be willing to take risks. Combined, all three will lead to success in life. Ohio State has taught its players the importance of having a Plan B. The first goal upon entering school is the NFL, but it’s not realistic for everyone. Plan B is school and a network of jobs.
“Find a passion for something, whether its music, football, basketball, swimming cooking – it doesn’t matter. If you find something you love to do, you won’t work a day in your life,” Ash said. “When I was done with college I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to leave the game (of football). I worked my tail off to try and learn as much as I could to become a coach. It’s a passion for me.
“You’ve got to have dreams. If you don’t dream about being successful and making great things happen, they aren’t going to happen. You will never set a goal to achieve something if you don’t have dreams. I used to lie awake at night dreaming of being a college coach. Those goals will help turn into action to achieve something.”
Perhaps the most peculiar tidbit Ash passed on was to never burn bridges or allow your enemies to know there’s displeasure. Instead, you should be pleasant to them.
“Someday you’ll need a favor from someone you don’t like,” Ash said. “There have been coaches on staffs that I did not like.”
Bret Bielema? Maybe. Ohio State fans will almost certainly come to that conclusion, especially after Ash left suddenly, just one year after he followed Bielema from Wisconsin to the rugged SEC West. Speculating provides no answers, though.
“It’s about the people you’re with,” Ash said. “Coach Meyer’s been a very successful head coach at every stop. He’s assembled a great staff [at Ohio State] with great people, great coaches. They’re going to do great things, and I wanted to be a part of that. It doesn’t matter what league [I coach in].”
It’s probably a good thing, because life in the SEC is only going to get tougher for Arkansas. In moving back to the Midwest, Ash hitched his wheels to the region’s sturdiest wagon. Meyer’s won big at every program he’s guided, including the 24-2 Buckeyes, and developed a culture that’s contagious with roots that grow deep in fellow coaches.
The indoctrination of Ash didn’t take too long. Born and raised in Iowa and assisting at Wisconsin contributed to Ash’s jumping in the deep end. Sure, there’s still a feeling out period, but Ash has grown comfortable with Ohio State in a short period of time.
Whether that translates into a top-flight defense remains. But the prologue bodes well.
“The progress that we’ve made since February, I’m very happy with where we’re at,” Ash said. “We have a long way to go, we’re nowhere where we need to be. But I like the potential, and I’m happy with where we’re at.”
“I think most of the defensive backs are going to take a huge leap.”
Attention during spring practice quickly turned to the young talent at cornerback. An All-American and first-round draft pick was lost, but fear not, names like Armani Reeves, Gareon Conley and Eli Apple are set to be the future. And it’s a future fans can stand and applaud.
“I think most of the defensive backs are going to take a huge leap,” Ash said. “I know there’s a lot of concern about the DBs and talented players that left the defense. But I’ll tell you this: there are some really talented players that are going to replace those guys. These guys are poised and ready to explode onto the scene. I’m very excited about the talent, character and the intelligence we have.
“I think Buckeye fans will be pleased.”