Chris Ash isn’t sure how he’s going to spend Saturday afternoon.
Until he was fired Sept. 29, Ash expected to spend this week coaching Rutgers against the program he helped win the 2014 national championship.
Now, Ash isn’t even sure he’s even going to watch the Scarlet Knights play Ohio State.
“I don’t know,” he told The Dispatch on Sunday in his first interview since his dismissal. “I don’t know what Saturday holds yet.”
Ash was let go the day after a 52-0 loss to Michigan dropped the Scarlet Knights to 1-3 this year and 8-32 in his four seasons.
“It was a tough first couple of weeks,” Ash said of the period after his firing. “When you put so much time and energy into something and it doesn't work out or it ends early, it's tough.”
Ash is hardly alone in finding success elusive at Rutgers. Only Greg Schiano has done so, and it’s been widely reported that negotiations are underway that could result in his return.
Ash was defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes’ College Football Playoff championship team five years ago. Working with Luke Fickell, Ash earned credit for transforming the Ohio State defense.
Ash knew the challenges he would face at Rutgers. In addition to the history of losing, Rutgers is plagued by financial problems, administrative dysfunction and long-standing difficulty keeping New Jersey’s best prospects from playing elsewhere.
Rutgers did make infrastructure investments during Ash's tenure on a new weight room, locker room and practice complex that totaled more than $14 million. The school also spent $140 million on an athletic performance center for basketball, wrestling and gymnastics and an academic center.
The football program remains in the red, and the school has borrowed against future disbursements from the Big Ten. As far as recruiting within New Jersey, Ash couldn’t crack that code well enough.
“New Jersey has got outstanding high school football — coaches and players alike,” he said. “It's not a lot different than a lot of other states. Not all the prospects are going to go to the state school.
“It's a small state. A lot of times these kids grow up and they want to get a different experience and go away for college. And that's a challenge that Rutgers is faced with.”
Despite the lack of winning, Ash believes he left the program better than he found it.
“As I go back and reflect on a lot of stuff, I feel strongly that I was still able to do that, and I can hold my head high because of that,” he said. “If I looked back and I just had a whole long list of mistakes that I made or things that I didn't do, I'd have regret. But I feel looking for in programs — it's in a much better place.”
That’s one reason Ash believes that Rutgers isn’t the hopeless program that many consider it to be.
“There are a lot of positives at Rutgers,” he said. “There are good people. It's a good academic institution. It's in a great area. It just needs to build.
“Going into the Big Ten from the American (Athletic) Conference was a big jump up, and it's just going to take time to build facilities and take time to continue to build a competitive, deep roster.”
Ash does not regret taking the Rutgers job. He wanted to be a head coach, and it was a Big Ten job.
“Right now, I can say after my time here that I'm the best coach that I have been, and that's after what I just went through,” he said. “I got better. I learned a lot. I improved a lot as a coach. As long as I could do that, then that wasn't a mistake.”
Ash has spent the past six weeks with his wife, Doreen, and four children. He has traveled to different programs to observe how they run. One of them was Texas and fellow former Ohio State assistant Tom Herman, but contrary to reports, Ash isn’t working for the Longhorns.
Ash is financially secure, but he is eager to get back into coaching. He hopes to get a defensive coordinator job for next season in college football. If not, he’ll pursue an NFL job.
Ash recalls his time at Ohio State fondly, and he remains in touch with several Buckeyes coaches. As for a return to the program someday, Ash is open to the idea.
“My wife and I have talked about that,” he said. “You always reflect back on your stops along your career, and you're always like: There's a few places that we say we’d go back to, and definitely that's one of them.”
Even if he’s unsure whether he’ll watch his two most recent teams play on Saturday.