ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Life can be funny sometimes.
Just ask Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison.
Decades before the 65-year-old became one of the top defensive minds in all of football–not just at the collegiate level–and long before he returned the Wolverines defense to the national spotlight, Mattison was playing at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse with aspirations of reaching the NFL.
Back then, coaching wasn’t even a blip on his radar.
“I knew I wanted to be a coach when I got cut by the (Washington) Redskins,” Mattison said with a laugh during this past Thursday’s media event. “I came home and said: ‘I’m not going to be one of these guys that went from team to team.’ I said, ‘OK, if I can’t make it, then I’m going to coach.'”
As with any profession, Mattison had to pay his dues by starting from the lower rungs of the ladder, and the lessons and strategies he learned 40 years ago at Riverdale High School in Muscoda, Wisconsin continue to fuel his passion to this very day.
Coincidentally, he wasn’t even completely sure whether or not he’d be good at coaching. And here he is today, firmly in command of an increasingly dominant front four in Ann Arbor–one that’s helped the Wolverines finish with the No. 7- and No. 13-ranked total defenses during the past two seasons.
Again, life can be kind of funny–especially when you’re doing something you never thought possible.
“My first coaching job, I took over a high school that had 23 kids out for football, they had won three games in eight years,” Mattison said. “That (first) year we had won five games–so I knew I wanted to be a coach from that time on. I never really thought about being a college coach.
My wife’s the one who said it, and she teased me about how I was spending all my time with football and not teaching the classroom. She said ‘You should go be a college coach.’ So I became a college coach and then all of the sudden, someone said ‘You should be a pro football coach.’
I said, ‘Well, I might as well try that. I had never had that.’ It’s always been ‘coaching has been coaching.’ The first job I ever had, I had the same feelings that I want these guys to be as good as they can be. This job, I want them to be as good as they can be–that’s all that’s ever motivated me.”
Motivation has never been an issue for Mattison, who is known for his youthful energy. His resume with the Baltimore Ravens and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, among others, says everything that needs to be said. There are no shortcuts in Greg Mattison’s world.
And there never have been.
“If you’re a coach, when you put your name on that position, that’s you–that’s your product, and it’s your job now to be able to get them to be as good as they can be,” he said.
Well, he’s done that.
And there isn’t one person involved with the Wolverines football program–or anywhere else, really– who’d argue against that fact. Greg Mattison is a football coach in every sense of the word. Excluding Jim Harbaugh, the figurehead of it all, Mattison is also the team’s most valuable. His experience with Michigan during the 1990s reminds him of what was and of what could be.
He’s proud of what the Wolverines have done during the past two years, but he wants much more for them.
“I always want whatever my name is on to be as good as it can be,” said Mattison, who rejoined Michigan in 2011. “That’s the competitiveness in me, you know. I think, from when I coached in high school way back when until other places I’ve been, I mean–what you see out on the field is me.
There isn’t an ‘Oh, he didn’t play good.’ (It’s) ‘Well, then maybe I better coach better.’ You know, I just think about that. You want to get your players to be–and I talk to them about this: What is the other team thinking, what do they say in their meeting room when they watch you? You know, I’ve sat in meeting rooms, saying, and pointed out guys, ‘Look at this guy, this guy’s really good.’ Well, I want other teams to say that same thing about our guys.”
Coaches don’t earn reputations overnight; it takes years of ups and downs to mold them into invaluable program assets. Now that he’s exclusively on the D-line, Michigan may be getting the best version of Mattison to date–the well-seasoned, extremely wise version who maintains the energy of a 30-something assistant.
Mattison’s players know that, and that’s why they admire his passion and listen to his direction.
“Oh, that was big for all of us–he’s a familiar face, so that’s always nice,” redshirt junior Matt Godin said of Mattison’s return. “He coached us two years ago, too–the D-ends and all that, so we’re really familiar with him. And obviously he was our D-coordinator, too, and all that. We’re excited.”
You know what else is exciting? The possibilities that could come from playing for Mattison. While with the Baltimore Ravens from 2008 to 2010, he helped mold Haloti Ngata, the No. 12 pick of the 2006 draft (Oregon), into an eventual two-time NFL All-Pro and five-time Pro-Bowler. That type of pedigree carries heavy influence.
“He’s coached at the highest level of football, so he knows everything we need to about the defensive line,” said Taco Charlton, a 6’6,” 273-pound junior. “He’s coached some great defensive linemen in the NFL–and that’s some place that we aspire to be and dream of going to. He can tell us what we need to get better every day, and he knows what it takes. We love him.”
Back in January, former Florida defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin was hired for the same position on Harbaugh’s staff. Instead of accepting a job in the NFL, Mattison–who has a deep loyalty to Michigan–opted to stay aboard as the Wolverines D-line coach.
Mattison didn’t consider it as a demotion at all. In fact, he looked at it as returning to his comfort zone. During spring availability, he always made sure to remind the media that Durkin was the man in charge of running the show, and that he was perfectly fine with coaching the tackles and ends.
“Greg’s one of my closest friends. You know… just… I’ve learned a ton about football from him throughout my career,” Durkin said. “The amount of professionalism that he has, and the way he worded that to you is exactly how he’s done it, lived it.
There’s probably not another guy in the country that would have handled it the same way. He’s not only one of the best coaches in the country, he’s one of the best people you can meet. He absolutely has the respect of everyone in that (defensive team) room–coaches, players alike…”
Mattison is a binding force during meetings, says Durkin, who remembers first meeting Mattison while coaching at Notre Dame in 2003. Then an assistant, Durkin often sought advice from Mattison, who was more than willing to share thoughts.
“He was great right from the get-go; it worked out really well,” Durkin said. “I worked hand-in-hand with him and it was invaluable to my career. Like I said, I learned a lot of football from him. I learned not just about the game, but really how to handle things, how to recruit, how to be a good person, (how to be) a good coach and have a family. There’s so many things that go into this profession, and he’s been a great example there for me.”
There are parallels between Durkin and Mattison, maybe too many to count. They’re not identical in every way, but they live by many of the same principles and fundamentals. Like Mattison, Durkin has created a reputation for crafting bullish defenses complemented by relentless lines.
As a matter of fact, he just had one while with the Gators in Gainesville; in 2013, they had the No. 5-ranked total defense, followed by the No. 15-ranked defense this past season. Crossing paths with Mattison may have been by chance, but the intersecting of the two has also been quite natural.
“Having Greg here has made that transition really smooth,” Durkin said. “And they have been a well-coached unit on defense–which is a good thing, you know. So we’ve been able to probably do things a little faster–as far as implementing our scheme that we want to get done–because you’re dealing with guys that have been coached well and understand football.
You’re not spending time, maybe, just learning the basics where probably with other positions, that wouldn’t be the same.”
The Hard Way
Football has taken Mattison for a wildly successful and sometimes unpredictable ride. He’s coached in the biggest of games for the most prominent teams; he’s done enough to fill two careers. Looking back, he’s enjoyed every minute of the journey.
Again, life can be funny. Coaching came on a whim for Mattison, and the way he landed on the D-line all those years ago couldn’t fit his unlikely tale any better. It was a story that wrote its own twists.
“As a matter of fact, I was always an offensive lineman–that’s what I played,” said Mattison. “When I went to the University of Illinois as a graduate assistant (in 1976), after coaching in high school for five years, I got there and there was a very successful coach by the name of Joe Novak, who (later became) the head coach at Northern Illinois and he had done some great things.”
Because of Novak’s celebrity, Mattison couldn’t wait to learn more about the game. He just didn’t know which part he’d be learning.
“Well, he was a really, really well-known defensive line coach,” Mattison said. “And when I got there, he said ‘You played offensive line, therefore I want you to be a defensive line coach–because you know what the offensive line does.’
And I said, ‘OK, great.’ So, I was going to be his graduate assistant. Well, one day, I asked him, I said, ‘Well, what am I coaching?’ Oh no, I asked him a question about the noses (nose tackles), and he said, ‘You have them, they’re yours. Don’t ask me.’ You know, from that time on, I was a defensive line coach.”
Trial by fire–that’s all the coach in Mattison has ever known. He lives by that mantra, and his eager anticipation for 2015 could be felt as soon as he sat down during media day. He’s proud of his team’s progress on defense, but he’s far from complacent.
“Well, I mean, we’ll find out what this defensive line is all about this season, you know,” he said when asked about the construction of the group. “There’s a lot of young men that have played a lot of football. And a lot of them probably played before they should have had to–so there’s growing pains with that.
I have a lot of pride in those guys because they fought through it, they took real hard coaching, and they wanted to be the best that they could be. Well, this is the next step. Now they’re all of the sudden, two years, three years older, and they’ve played a lot of football. Now is the time to see how good they can be.”
Follow Adam Biggers of Today’s U on Twitter @AdamBiggers81