A lot on the line as former Wolverines coaches help prepare Buckeyes

Bill Rabinowitz
Former Michigan coaches Greg Mattison, left in black, and Al Washington, right, are now Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, respectively. This time last year, they were on the Michigan sidelines as the Buckeyes shredded the Wolverines’ defense. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

Pete Werner knows what Saturday’s Michigan game means to Greg Mattison and Al Washington.

“Oh, yeah, I can already tell,” the Ohio State linebacker said Tuesday. “This is the game that they’ve had checked on their calendar (since) the time they’ve been here. And they have something to prove.”

Mattison was Michigan’s defensive line coach and Washington its linebackers coach last year when Ohio State torched the Wolverines’ top-ranked defense in a 62-39 rout.

Ryan Day hired both coaches after he was promoted to succeed Urban Meyer. Those were bombshell moves, in part because it showed Day’s fearlessness in poaching from an archrival.

Michigan didn’t take kindly to it, and some hard feelings remain in Ann Arbor, particularly toward Mattison. Washington is a Columbus native and his dad played for the Buckeyes, so his decision to come home wasn’t a kick to the gut.

But Mattison, 70, had been at Michigan for 13 years over two stints and was thought to be closer to retirement than leaving for another job, let alone one at Ohio State. Day lured him with a paycheck that more than doubled his salary, to $1.1 million, and the opportunity to share coordinator duties with Jeff Hafley.

Day’s decision to hire them as a major revamp of the defensive staff has paid off. Ohio State has been dominant on that side of the ball this season.

Werner has worked closely with both coaches. Mattison doesn’t have a formal position group, but he works with the strong-side linebackers, Werner’s position.

“I’ve learned so much from them,” he said. “(They’re) some of the best coaches I've ever been around.”

Werner said that improved communication between coaches and players is the biggest impact the new assistants have made.

“They talk to you more in the game,” Werner said. “They let you know what keys you’re seeing based off the opponent throughout the game. Years past, we didn’t really have that communication.”

Werner specifically praised Washington for his passion.

“He’s a guy that motivates you super well,” he said, “and you’re always on the edge of your seat in meetings with him.”

Day said he didn’t hire Mattison and Washington with the Michigan game in mind and downplayed the significance of any tips they might provide.

He said he hired them for their expertise and familiarity with him. Day was a graduate assistant under Mattison and Meyer at Florida. Day was an assistant at Boston College when Washington was a player, and they later coached together there.

Day said that as a first-time head coach he wanted to be able to trust his coaching staff in case of adversity.

“That was it,” Day said. “It just so happened (they’re from the) school up north. I know sometimes that’s hard to swallow, but that’s just the way it was.”

But Day also understands what this week is like for Mattison and Washington.

“I’m sure there’s a range of emotions,” he said. “Certainly when we get on the bus and head up there, there will be even more. It’s just one of those things that’s part of the job. You work through it.

“They’ll be really professional about it. They know there’s a lot riding on this game. They want to do great for their players and family.”