Football: UT focused on next game, not championshipsWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When former Toledo head football coach and current Illinois head coach Tim Beckman was leading the Rockets the past two seasons, he would talk about how, with each Mid-American Conference victory, his team was one step closer to its goal of appearing in the MAC Championship at Ford Field.
Dubbed “Operation Ford Field” by Beckman and his staff during the 2010 season, UT players even wore wristbands bearing that slogan as a constant reminder of what they were striving for on a week-to-week basis.
This year, under the direction of former Beckman assistant Matt Campbell, the Rockets (5-1, 3-0 MAC) have a much different approach to their season.
Instead of thinking ahead to the MAC Championship, with each conference win representing a gain of nine miles in Toledo’s 54-mile march to Ford Field, Campbell has strived to get his players to focus on one thing: the week ahead.
“I don’t think I worry about our record. I don’t,” Campbell said at UT’s media day Oct. 8 in response to if the Rockets are where he expected them to be at this point in the season. “I don’t really worry about winning and losing, and I don’t really worry about our record. I worry about the process, and I worry about how we practice, our attention to details, what our attitude and effort is. And from those things, I couldn’t be prouder.”
That strategy has resulted in a Toledo squad that’s off to its best start since 2005. Even so, both Campbell and his players have maintained each week that the upcoming game is all they’re focused on.
“For us, I don’t even know if we even know who we play the week after this anyway right now, quite honestly,” Campbell said in response to a question about whether facing winless Eastern Michigan this Saturday is scary given that UT hosts No. 20 Cincinnati at home the following week. “I think if you asked our kids, they’d tell you the same thing.”
Senior linebacker Dan Molls agreed.
“Not really,” Molls said when asked if it’s tough to not overlook the Eagles (0-5, 0-2 MAC) with the Bearcats looming. “They’re a great football team, and every year since I’ve been here they’ve played us tough. This conference is crazy.
“There’s still a lot that can happen. They have six games left. So if they want, they can choose to try to be bowl eligible and that’s something they’re going to have to decide. But we have to worry about what we can control, and that’s getting a win against Eastern Michigan this week.”
Based on Toledo’s record midway through the year and comments from multiple players, Campbell’s philosophy is not only working, but something the team both enjoys and prefers.
“I feel like the team is more upbeat this year,” junior center Zac Kerin said on the difference between playing under Campbell and Beckman prior to facing Coastal Carolina. “A lot of the pressure last year was, you know, ‘We’ve got to get to that MAC Championship.’
“This year, it’s a lot of emphasis just on the next game, taking the next step, and I think that keeps the players focused on the task at hand and not worried about [what happens] in the long run.”
That same week, senior strong safety Jermaine Robinson also championed Campbell’s coaching style.
“We might be doing safety drills, and he comes out of nowhere and jumps in the drills,” Robinson said of Campbell, who is the youngest head football coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision. “He’s a little bit more involved. I mean, he lets our defensive coaches do their thing, you know?
“He really doesn’t bother with the defense as much, but he’s more like a motivator. [He’ll] just come over to the sideline and tell us, like, ‘We’re going to stop them; write your story,’ and stuff like that. I mean, he’s a great guy. He’s young; he’s enthusiastic. I mean, he’s fun to play with.”
That level of respect for Campbell has been evident since Beckman left for Illinois in December, when several UT players expressed their desire for the university to remove Campbell’s interim tag and officially name him the program’s next head coach. One of those players was Molls, who, like many current Rockets, had been recruited to Toledo by Campbell.
“Me and Coach Campbell have an unbelievable relationship,” said Molls, who ranks fourth in the NCAA with 11.83 tackles per game. “He’s pretty much what got me here to Toledo. He recruited me, and from that day forward to this point it’s just been an outstanding experience being here, and I couldn’t be more honored to have him as my head football coach in my final season at Toledo.”
Though Campbell stated prior to the season starting that the Rockets’ ultimate goals were to be the best they possibly could be in the MAC, give themselves an opportunity to win a MAC Championship and get to a bowl game, focusing on those goals have not been the emphasis as they were under Beckman.
“To me, I think if you focus on those goals, man, it just makes it tough,” Campbell said. “You’re dealing with 18- to 22-year-old kids. To me, it’s got to be that precision of worrying about the next week, and that’s kind of where we are right now.”
Campbell added that a lot of that week-to-week philosophy comes from his time at Mount Union, where he was a member of five national championship teams as a coach and a player under the direction of longtime Purple Raiders head coach Larry Kehres.
“The bull’s-eye was on our back 24 hours a day, seven days a week there,” Campbell said. “I think one of the things we always had the ability to do and I think was generated from [Kehres] was the ability to take things one day at a time. At the end of the day, I think it’s worked pretty well for him and something that I think [I] even learned a lot when I went back there as a coach.
“And it’s certainly something I’ve always taken away from there was why they were successful was never because they had the best players, but it was because of their ability of how to approach the game of football and how to work.”
And for the Rockets, there still is much work to do with six games left in the season, including a Nov. 14 matchup at Northern Illinois that could ultimately decide their MAC Championship game fate as it did in the final two years of Beckman’s tenure at Toledo.
Then again, looking ahead is not this team’s style. This week Campbell and Co. are focused on one thing: beating Eastern Michigan.
Kickoff to the Toledo-Eastern Michigan game is 1 p.m. Oct. 13 at Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti.