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Michigan Wolverines football coach Jim Harbaugh speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Ann Arbor.
Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
COLUMBUS, Ohio — A month before solidifying his first signing class as Ohio State’s new coach, Ryan Day pulled off one of the greatest recruiting coups of his fledgling tenure.
With his predecessor, Urban Meyer, barely out the door, Day managed to flip a 70-year-old former defensive coordinator and a 35-year-old linebackers coach who had been committed assistants on Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Michigan.
One day, Greg Mattison and Al Washington were rocking maize-and-blue Jordan brand gear.
The next, they were decked out in scarlet-and-gray Nike apparel, working for the enemy
“My whole plan was that when I have an opportunity to have my first coaching staff, everyone in that room I trust to have my back when things didn’t go so well,” Day said Tuesday at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. “That was it. It just so happened to be [the] school up north. I know sometimes that’s hard to swallow, but that’s just the way it was.”
Day’s motive may have been benign, but the fallout from poaching a pair of Michigan staffers was not. It was a stunning turn of events in this age-old rivalry, adding even more combustible grains to a powder keg already packed to the brim.
In April, Michigan special teams coordinator and safeties coach Chris Partridge fumed when asked to comment on the moves of his former colleagues.
“I want to be candid,” Partridge seethed. “Those guys left and it was another shot. It wasn’t OK. That’s how I feel. I’m not speaking for anyone else. I’m ultra-motivated and I make sure my guys, whenever I get in front of them, they hear it.”
The players did — loud and clear.
Defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson went so far as to single out Mattison, likening the departure of his former position coach “a betrayal.”
Mattison, after all, had been a fixture at Michigan — having worked for four different regimes during two stints with the Wolverines.
Whereas Washington spent just a year in Ann Arbor, Mattison was ingrained in the program’s culture, helping Michigan rise in the 1990s with Lloyd Carr and then assisting in its rejuvenation under Harbaugh. It’s why Hutchinson was so irritated by Mattison’s defection.
Michigan Wolverines football offensive lineman speaks to the media on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Ann Arbor.
Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
“That kind of makes your stomach turn a little bit,” Hutchinson said back then.
Months later, the rage, at least the kind visible to the public, appears to have subsided.
The two teams will play Saturday, and no one at Michigan was interested in chasing vengeance through the media.
“Ultimately, it’s their life, it’s their decision,” said linebacker Khaleke Hudson. “I don’t hold anything against them. They decided to go to there. They had to make decisions for themselves and for their families. I’ve got nothing but the most utmost respect for both of them guys. It’s gonna be good — it’s gonna feel good playing against them. They went to Ohio State.”
More specifically, they joined up with Day, a former colleague of theirs. Both Washington and Mattison met Day when he began his long climb up the coaching ladder. When Day was a graduate assistant at Boston College in the early aughts, Washington, a Columbus native, played defensive end. After Day moved on to Florida to take a similar position on Meyer’s staff, he worked alongside Mattison, the Gators’ co-defensive coordinator.
“The major attraction was that I knew both of them very well,” Day said.
Both Washington and Mattison have since been welcomed into the Ohio State family, a feisty clan that won’t even utter the name of their rival or wear Michigan’s primary color. On Tuesday, several players expressed their appreciation for the contributions the two coaches have made in the ten months they’ve been in Columbus. Linebacker Pete Werner said Mattison, the team’s co-defensive coordinator, has improved the communication and provided expert advice. He then praised Washington for supplying added motivation.
“Their energy and their mentality,” said fellow linebacker Tuf Borland, “it’s kind of contagious.”
And it’s spread from Michigan to Ohio State in less than a year, adding a new twist to the longstanding rivalry.
“This is the game they have checked on their calendar since the time they’ve been here,” Werner said. “They have something to prove.”
After all, Day said, “They know there’s a lot riding on this game.”
Having seen it from both sides, Mattison and Washington understand that better than most.