Moving up, moving home among motivations for new Ohio State football assistants

The day the local media met the new Ohio State football assistants for the first time had no shortage of questions.

One that was at the top of most minds and asked of all five: Why?

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What brought Greg Mattison, Jeff Hafley, Matt Barnes, Mike Yurcich and Al Washington to Columbus to work for first-year head coach Ryan Day, who replaced the retiring Urban Meyer on Jan. 1?

Some looked forward to reuniting with Day after working with him in the past.

Others were enticed by new responsibilities, and two of the five acknowledged feeling the pull of home.

The motivation for the most-experienced member of the group was simple: the 69-year-old Mattison wanted to be a defensive coordinator again.

He had that title at four different places, including two different stints at Michigan. He returned to Ann Arbor in 2011 to run the Wolverines defense for Kettering native Brady Hoke, but he stayed on only as Jim Harbaugh’s defensive line coach when Harbaugh replaced Hoke as head coach in 2015.

“Leaving Michigan was a very tough decision,” he said. “I spent 13 years there, but I also have spent 19 out of the last 24 years coordinating, and to have the opportunity to have a co-coordinator at a great university like Ohio State was an opportunity that I really wanted to pursue, and that was the biggest thing.”

Mattison added he is looking forward to sharing coordinator duties with Hafley, noting the last time he was part of a co-coordinator system, he won a national championship.

That was 2006 when he and Charlie Strong oversaw the defense for Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators.

The opportunity to be a coordinator also played into Hafley’s decision to leave the NFL after seven seasons with three different teams.

"You get a chance to coordinate at a place where you can win a lot of games — that’s important — but there's more to it than that,” said Hafley, whose first 10 seasons in coaching were at the college level. “You get to coordinate where you can win a lot of games with the right type of people, and that's the culture here. That's where it's different.

“I didn't want to go to a place where the culture wasn't right, where you weren't around good people, and that's what I talked to Ryan about, and I know Coach Meyer has done that, and I know Ryan will continue to do that. It's the right type of player here. It's the right type of head coach here, and it's the right staff here.”

Like Mattison, who coached with Day at Florida in 2005, Hafley has also shared a staff with Day in the past. Both were members of Chip Kelly’s 49ers staff in 2016.

“So there's more to it than winning and losing,” Hafley continued. "You want to do it the right way with the right people. Those are all the things that drew me here, and I studied that, and I talked to a lot of people about that.”

Matt Barnes, who will coach special teams and help with the secondary, also called Ohio State a special place.

“Just so much tradition,” Barnes said. “A chance to compete for a championship every year, but also to be a part of, for lack of a better way to put it, doing things the right way. Developing young men, giving them an opportunity to be successful in the classroom, on the field, and then the years that they spend after they're done playing football.”

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And then there were Washington and Yurcich, two Ohio natives who confirmed the chance to return to their home state was appealing.

“There's probably about 105 good reasons right now for me to talk about, but to really cut to the chase, it was part coming home and being part of something as great as Ohio State,” Yurcich said. “I'm very humbled, and my family is very humbled to be a part of that.”

The 43-year-old Euclid, Ohio, native is viewed as an up-and-comer in the coaching profession, as is the 34-year-old Washington, whose ties are even more binding to Ohio State.

His father, Al Washington Sr., played linebacker for the Buckeyes, and Washington grew up in Columbus.

“I've known Coach Day and know the program and tradition, but mom and dad are 20 minutes away,” Washington said. “I've got a 3-year-old, a 1-year-old. My wife went here. A lot of who I am is from obviously the 614 and Columbus, and my father playing here. You all are pretty versed in that narrative. I think those things definitely were major contributors to coming, that unique blend of everything.”

He, too, was wooed away from Michigan and, like Mattison, had to think long and hard about switching sides in the rivalry.

“I don't want to get into the details of everything, but I absolutely have a ton of respect for Coach Harbaugh,” Washington said. “He's been nothing but great for me. It was a tough decision. Throughout it all, like he really respected where I was coming from. You know, that's kind of where I'll leave that.”

Mattison and Washington worked together last season, but that is not all they have in common. Both also had coached with Day in the past — Washington spent time both as a player and a coach while Day was coaching at Boston College — and Day said that was a bigger factor in his interest in hiring them.

“I got a lot of respect for the rivalry,” Day said. “That had nothing to do with anything other than trying to find the best guys. Al Washington's dad played here, he's from here. I was a coach when he played. He coached with me. These are guys that I've known. It wasn't like I was going to try to cherry pick off of somebody's staff, but I felt like those were the best guys for us.”

Of course, weakening Michigan in the process didn’t hurt.

Pressed on the subject, the usually pokerfaced coach finally allowed a brief acknowledgement punctuated with a knowing smile.

“It was a consideration, yeah.”

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