As soon as Ryan Day hired Al Washington as Ohio State linebackers coach, Washington hit the road recruiting.
In the solitude of his hotel room, as he laid out his clothes for the next day, the change from his previous employer to his new one really hit him.
“You do a double-take,” Washington said. “A couple months ago, it was a different logo. It’s like, ‘Woah.’ ”
After all, switching from Michigan to Ohio State is a tad bigger than just a change from an “M” to a “Block O,” especially for a Columbus native with the Buckeyes in his blood.
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Washington’s father, Al Sr., was a standout linebacker for Ohio State from 1977 to ’80. The younger Washington’s wife, Melissa, is an Ohio State alum.
Yet despite his Buckeyes roots, Washington, 34, said he wasn’t consumed with the dream of coaching at Ohio State. He was so immersed in the day-to-day demands of coaching that plotting a path back home just seemed far-fetched.
After graduating from Watterson, Washington played defensive end for Boston College, which had Day on its staff as a graduate assistant. They were fellow assistant offensive coaches for the Eagles in 2013 and ’14.
Shortly after Day took over for Urban Meyer following the Rose Bowl, he surprised Washington by calling him about the linebackers job.
“It was a hard decision,” he said. “When you’re in a place, wherever you are, you try to be all-in, right? (Michigan) is not like a steppingstone place. Not only are you involved, your family is involved. You know, it's really tough. But … this is home for me. This is an unbelievable situation and program.”
His father’s reaction was predictable. The younger Washington described last year’s spring game in Ann Arbor when his dad consented to wearing a Michigan hat, while having an Ohio State jersey underneath his jacket.
“He was fired up,” Washington said. “He was excited that I’ll be at his school because he’s so proud of it. And also he’s able to be around his grandkids.”
He and Melissa have two young children, Michael and Audrey. When Washington watched Michael run around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center last week, it brought back memories of when he did the same thing as a boy.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith described Washington as a “phenomenal” hire.
“It makes perfect sense,” Smith said. “He’s a big Ohio guy, a big Columbus guy, and a good teacher and relationship guy who’ll connect with our players. This is where he should be.”
Washington oversees a unit that struggled for much of the 2018 season. Though starters Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner return, plenty of competition is expected for those spots.
Washington said it would be premature for him to speculate about that yet, given that he has been busy recruiting and spring practice won’t start for a month.
Washington will be working with defensive co-coordinator Greg Mattison, who spent 13 years at Michigan before his surprising hire by Day. Washington said neither coach knew that Day was pursuing the other one.
“When he told me, I literally said to him three times, ‘Man, stop joking,’ ” Washington said. “I thought he was busting my chops because it was all over the place that I was leaving. I said, ‘You’re trying to be facetious.’ That’s what he does. He’s a joker.”
As for the fact that Michigan fans might view him as a traitor, well, that comes with the territory.
“I understand it,” he said. “But we’re all human and we all have those decisions to make. I know fans look at it as a game, but this is (our) life. You have to look at it that way. At the end of the day, they can think what they want.”
Even if it wasn’t part of a master strategy, Washington is thrilled to be back home.
“To say it was a lifelong dream, I wouldn’t say it was,” he said, “but when it came up, I was like, ‘Wow, maybe it should have been a dream, because it was so unique.’ ”