Newsmakers: Campbell leads Rockets to Top 25 rankingWritten by Nate Pentecost | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Often when a college football coach leaves for greener pastures, his former team is forced to recover and rebuild in the wake of his departure. But since Tim Beckman bolted for the University of Illinois following the 2011 regular season, head coach Matt Campbell has kept the University of Toledo on track.
Appointed interim head coach for the 2011 Military Bowl, Campbell, the Rockets offensive coordinator from 2009-11 under Beckman, led the midnight blue and gold to an exhilarating 42-41 win over Air Force.
UT Athletic Director Mike O’Brien conducted a national coaching search following the bowl victory, but soon determined that the best man for the job had been in Toledo all along. Campbell, 33, became the youngest coach in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision.
While Campbell was the players’ choice to fill the position, his youth and supposed inexperience resulted in national criticism of Toledo’s hire. Such pessimism reached Campbell’s ear, but did not deter him.
“I don’t know if I ever worried about what some of the pundits out there were saying,” Campbell said. “The biggest thing for me was getting the job and bringing our program together. In previous years our offense and defense were their own entity and it wasn’t a unified team. From our players to our coaching staff, I challenged the leaders to buy into the value of a team as one unit with one goal.”
The change in philosophy paid dividends for the Rockets almost immediately. After a season-opening overtime loss at Arizona, UT racked up eight straight victories, including a 27-15 win over arch rival Bowling Green State University on Sept. 15 and an upset of then-unbeaten No. 21 Cincinnati at the Glass Bowl on Oct. 20.
“In the Arizona game, the right attitude and effort were there but we weren’t as consistent with the details of the game,” Campbell said. “The players buying into being consistent in all three phases of the game was the key [to the win streak].
Campbell stressed early on that the team’s goal was to win the Mid-American Conference, an achievement that has eluded the Rockets since 2004. In pursuit of that goal the Rockets earned something else they had not in over a decade — a spot in the Top 25.
In a strange turn of events, the Rockets entered the rankings for the first time since 2001 on a bye week after a win at Buffalo. Losses by No. 24 Oklahoma State and the No. 22 Wildcats squad who bested them in the season opener allowed UT to claim the 25th spot in the Nov. 4 Bowl Championship Series rankings.
But the Tuesday after making its way into the Top 25, Toledo played its way out of the rankings in a nationally televised loss to Ball State. The following week, Northern Illinois topped the Rockets 31-24 to clinch the MAC West division and eliminate Toledo from MAC title contention.
Some attributed the losses to the Rockets players letting their guard down upon entering the Top 25, but the battle-tested team suffered injuries to key players, including defensive tackle Danny Farr and All-MAC defensive end T.J. Fatinikun. Quarterback Terrance Owens dealt with a nagging foot injury most of the season and 1,000-yard rusher David Fluellen went down with an ankle injury in the second half against Northern Illinois.
“By the time we got to November, we had a tired team who played a lot of close games and dealt with some tough injuries,” Campbell said. “Our job as a coaching staff is to build depth. We are building that depth here and I think we were fortunate we got to play a lot of young guys in some critical situations.”
The Rockets hung tough with No. 22 Utah State for much of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Dec. 15 before Aggies running back Kerwynn Williams rushed for more than 190 yards with three scores in the fourth quarter to doom Toledo to a 41-15 defeat. UT finished the year with a 9-4 mark (6-2 in the MAC) as Campbell fronted the program’s first nine-win campaign since 2005.
A program’s depth and continued success is ensured through the recruiting process and Campbell is widely considered to be among the best recruiters in the country, hauling in some of the top classes in the MAC during his time at Toledo. The 2013 class is no exception. According to the Rivals.com recruiting service, the Rockets have the conference’s best recruits for the fourth consecutive year.
“I believe that we are on the brink of a higher level of college football and it starts with us making sure that we look at who we are and what our program goals are,” Campbell said. “Priority No. 1 is win a MAC championship. No. 2 is continuing to build this program and take it to the Top 25 level consistently. We are really close to doing that and becoming one of the really special places in college football.” O