Al Washington and Greg Mattison both traded in their maize-and-blue polos for a scarlet-and-gray wardrobe last month, but each assistant coach left Michigan for Ohio State with different reasoning explaining their respective moves.
Greg Mattison got a late-career promotion. Al Washington effectively came home. Both ended up in Columbus.
Ryan Day admitted he thought about whether or not to snag a couple coaches from Ann Arbor, Michigan, before making the move, saying “it was in consideration, yeah,” with a smile. A Michigan-to-Ohio State move – and vice versa – isn’t entirely new. Jim Harbaugh hired Ed Warinner as the Wolverines offensive line coach after he had a one-year stop at Minnesota following his stint with the Buckeyes.
It can be an awkward transition, though.
Day, Mattison and Washington each tried to downplay the strangeness, and Day said he ultimately thought the two new hires from up north were simply the best fits for their respective positions.
“I got a lot of respect for the rivalry,” Day said on Wednesday. “That had nothing to do with anything other than trying to find the best guys. Al Washington's dad played here, he's from here. I was a coach when he played. He coached with me. These are guys that I've known. It wasn't like I was going to try to cherry pick off of somebody's staff. But I felt like those were the best guys for us.”
Mattison spent 13 years at Michigan. He has barely spent a month at Ohio State.
Until January, Mattison was as “Michigan Man” as a “Michigan Man” could be. He served as a defensive line coach under Gary Moeller from 1992 to 1994, then was Lloyd Carr’s defensive coordinator in 1995 and 1996. After years at Notre Dame, Florida and the Baltimore Ravens, he returned to the Wolverines as defensive coordinator under Brady Hoke from 2011 to 2014. Harbaugh retained Mattison, who worked as defensive line coach from 2015 until 2018.
But after coaching defensive linemen rather than an entire defense for the past four years, he wanted to become a defensive coordinator once again. Mattison was first hired as a defensive coordinator by Western Michigan in 1985 and has nearly a decade of experience in the role. The opportunity to once again coordinate a defense was enough to get him to cross the border and become a Buckeye for the first time.
“I'm very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work at two of the greatest programs in the country and in all of college football,” said Mattison, referencing Ohio State and Michigan. “Luckily you add Notre Dame in there, I kind of say, wow, I've had a pretty good run. The big thing, leaving Michigan was a very tough decision. I spent 13 years there. But I also have spent 19 out of the last 24 years coordinating, and to have the opportunity to have a co-coordinator at a great university like Ohio State was something that – an opportunity that I really wanted to pursue, and that was the biggest thing.”
Mattison said Harbaugh was “great” about understanding why he wanted to leave, even for the team’s rival.
“He understood that I wanted to coordinate, and it was an opportunity to be a coordinator, and that was what I wanted to do, and not much you're going to do about that,” Mattison said.
Speaking publicly on Wednesday for the first time since taking the Ohio State job, Mattison said he didn’t know whether becoming a Buckeye after coaching for a long stretch in Ann Arbor was any different. He compared it to when he left Notre Dame for Florida, even though that’s not a rivalry, saying “everywhere” he’s ever left has been difficult.
Mattison doesn’t have much of an ability to chance the mind of any Buckeye fans skeptical of his move, but he assured them he’d do his absolute best to coach Ohio State well.
“Well, I can't control what the Ohio State fans do,” Mattison said. “The only thing I'm going to tell you that they will see in watching me coach is they're going to see me give everything I can to this program. They're going to see that I will always try to coach the players the best they can possibly be coached, and how they perceive it and what they do, that's up to them. As far as the rivalry and as far as that, it's always hard. When you leave people you've been with for 13 years, when you leave people that – any job.”
Washington’s transition from Michigan to Ohio State came about more naturally.
Unlike Mattison, who spent over a decade at Michigan and only coached with Day for one year when he was a graduate assistant at Florida in 2005, Washington has natural connections to both Day and the Buckeyes and only was a Wolverine for one year.
Washington grew up in the Columbus area and attended Bishop Watterson High School before graduating in 2002. His connections stem to Ohio State stem from before he was even born, though. His father, Al Washington Sr., played linebacker for the Buckeyes from 1977 until 1981 and is the eighth-leading tackler in program history.
Washington’s connection with Day began when he played defensive end at Boston College in the early 2000s, and Day was a graduate assistant for two years with him on the team. They reunited at Boston College in 2013 and 2014 when Day was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach while Washington was running backs coach.
Even though Washington spent 2018 on Harbaugh’s staff, his move back to Ohio was only natural. He said “a lot” of reasons made him accept Day’s offer to move to the other side of the rivalry, noting all of his connections.
“You know, I think Ohio State, I've known coach Day and know the program and tradition, but mom and dad are 20 minutes away,” Washington said. “I've got a 3-year old, a 1-year old. My wife went here. A lot of who I am is from obviously the 614 and Columbus and my father playing here. You all are pretty versed in that narrative. I think those things definitely were major contributors to coming, that unique blend of everything.”
Washington called the decision to leave Michigan “really tough” because he didn’t view it as a “stepping-stone place.” But he didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to get back to the powerhouse university down the road from where he grew up.
“Like you think about where you are, this is home for me,” Washington said. “This is an unbelievable situation and program. You're excited in the same breath. It's not – I wouldn't put it in the easy category, but fortunate in the same breath. But when you respect where you come from, when you respect the situation you were in, it's always a little more difficult.”