ALLIANCE, Ohio — On a late July day in 1999, Matt Campbell drove along U.S. Route 62, unsure of his next football destination.
He knew he couldn’t go back to Pitt for another season. The football program there had turned toxic. So Campbell packed up and left. He wasn’t far from his home near Canton when he first saw them by chance: about 60 young men, crossing the four-lane highway that flanks the campus of the University of Mount Union, headed for a workout at the stadium.
“It was a fascinating moment,” Campbell said. “Here’s where there are no scholarships, there is no money, there is no flash, but these guys love football.”
Campbell wanted in. He transferred to Mount Union and became an All-American defensive lineman. Then he entered coaching.
“It saved my life,” said Campbell, who is entering his third season as Iowa State’s coach. “That’s how passionate I am about my Mount Union experience and coach [Larry] Kehres. My life probably goes a whole different way if not for finding that place.”
Campbell is among a growing group who found Mount Union as players and, after graduating, launched coaching careers. Mount Union claims two FBS head coaches in Campbell and Toledo’s Jason Candle, coordinators such as Ohio State’s Alex Grinch and Wake Forest’s Jay Sawvel, position coaches such as Michigan’s Ed Warinner, an NFL coordinator in the Indianapolis Colts’ Nick Sirianni and many others leading small-college and high school teams.
The school has long produced accomplished coaches — including former Carolina Panthers coach and longtime NFL assistant Dom Capers (class of 1971) and Ron Lynn, another longtime NFL assistant (class of 1966) — but the number has spiked in the past 15 years. Campbell and Candle, both 38, are among the 10 youngest FBS coaches. Grinch, 37, is one of the nation’s top coordinators. Sirianni just turned 37.
How did a private, liberal arts school with an undergraduate enrollment of only 2,095 become football’s newest coaching cradle? It took a College Football Hall of Fame program patriarch too afraid to leave, 200-man rosters filled with “player-coaches” and a campus located in the garden spot for coaching.
And winning. Lots and lots of winning.
On a snowy morning in March, Kehres sat in his office at the McPherson Academic and Athletic Complex, stumped by the first question: Why does Mount Union — or Mount, as it’s usually called — produce so many coaches?
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s the honest answer.”
The honest answer is, in fact, Kehres. He coached Mount Union from 1986 to 2012 and now serves as the school’s athletic director. He won 11 NCAA titles and 23 conference titles, posted 21 undefeated regular seasons, collected eight national coach of the year awards and has the highest win percentage (.929) in college football history. He’ll never say it, but his former players turned coaches are unanimous.
None of this happens without Kehres.
“He’s the reason,” said Washington & Jefferson coach Mike Sirianni, a former Mount Union wide receiver. “He’s the reason this all started.”
These days, the top coaching buzzword is culture. Anyone who listens to coaches speak has heard it many times.
Culture isn’t a Kehres term. “It is a more contemporary word,” he said. “It wasn’t used. What I always said is we’re going to grind out good days.” But Kehres created a culture at Mount. He just didn’t flaunt it.
Only one sign hangs in the locker room, containing three words in descending order: GOD, FAMILY, FOOTBALL. Below are the program’s four core principles — work, commitment, loyalty, hope — which Kehres intentionally made broad. Team rules were similar: wide-ranging but with wiggle room and, when needed, forgiveness.
The way he motivated, though, was distinctly personalized. Kehres, who pursued a doctorate in sports psychology at Ohio State, knew whose buttons to push, when and how.
“We called it Jedi mind tricks,” said Vince Kehres, who played defensive end at Mount Union and spent 13 years as an assistant before succeeding his father as head coach after the 2012 season. “There was some subtle way that he would motivate you, whether he’d get under your skin or he’d chew your ass or he’d just whisper something to you or praise. That was my dad’s strongest suit.”
Former Mount Union coach Larry Kehres had simple priorities for his team. Adam Rittenberg / ESPN
Kehres was similar with his staff, which increasingly featured recent graduates pursuing coaching to stay in the game. He taught them to be specific with both praise and criticism. He taught them to study behavior and to listen. He cautioned those who coached elsewhere not to thrust the Mount Union way on others.
“It was like a modern-day think tank,” Campbell said. “Every day, he challenged you as a recruiter, he challenged you as a coach, and along the way, he was guiding you. That’s really the reason why so many of us have had success in coaching. You almost went back and got your doctorate in management and coaching and how to lead a program.”
Kehres’ protégés learned how to run practices — really large practices. Because Division III has no scholarships, Mount Union often began seasons with rosters of 200, including 100 freshmen. Kehres would run split-squad, two-a-day practices, logging two-hour blocks from 8 a.m. to noon and again from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
When Campbell became an FBS head coach, Kehres saw him divide the smaller, scholarship-restricted rosters similarly for practices.
“That culture is with you forever,” said Candle, who succeeded Campbell at Toledo in December 2015. “Unintentionally, there’s something every day that comes either out of my mouth or some type of action I learned there. It was a very impressionable age for me and probably a perfect time to go through there and gravitate toward somebody who I ultimately wanted to be like someday.”
Kehres also showed the future coaches about adaptability. His schematic philosophy started with players and moved to formations and, eventually, plays. Year to year, he welcomed change.
In January 2005, Kehres brought Campbell back to install the spread offense, which Campbell had learned as a graduate assistant at Bowling Green. “I was afraid I was getting a little stale,” Kehres said. “We had lost a game or two.”
Campbell remembers Vince Kehres being dispatched to Wisconsin to learn the 4-2-5 defensive alignment. Mount Union switched from a 4-3 to a 4-2-5 and then a 3-3 stack.
The team’s performance didn’t trigger the tinkering. Between 1996 and the 2003 national title game, Mount Union won 109 of 110 games with six championships.
“Larry was always looking to grow,” said Capers, who roomed with Kehres when they played together at Mount. “If there was something new or on the cutting edge, Larry wanted to learn about it. He would have been successful no matter what level he would have been in.”
On that last point, all of Kehres’ apprentices agree. Some jokingly lament that the Cleveland Browns never called him.
“Larry Kehres set up a system there that works at all levels,” said Warinner, a former offensive coordinator at Ohio State and Kansas who now coaches Michigan’s offensive line. “It’s no different than what we do.”
There were opportunities to leave — Princeton, UMass, Kent State. Men with similar profiles had left for bigger jobs, including Kehres’ friend, Jim Tressel, who coached both Youngstown State and Ohio State to national championships.
But Kehres, who grew up just north of campus in Diamond, Ohio, played quarterback for Mount Union, graduated in 1971 and joined the coaching staff in 1974, stayed put.
“I was probably fearful of failing if I had left,” he admitted. “What are the other coaches going to spot? What’s our weakness? I lacked a little bit of the confidence that might cause you to spring forward and take on a bigger challenge.”
Kehres probably would have won elsewhere. By staying, he solidified a unique legacy, which includes his coaching tree.
“If he would have left, it would have been different,” Mike Sirianni said. “There’s a lot of people owing him for staying at Mount Union his whole career.”
Mount Union is a football fishbowl, a year-round sleep-away camp for the football obsessed. If you walk into the Hoover-Price Campus Center and see a group of male students eating lunch, the math says some play football.
The demographics of the roster — between 150 and 200 non-scholarship players — created a unique competitiveness and interest in the game. If you aren’t all-in, you have little reason to be here.
“When I was there, we had 150, 160 players on the team, and we had 1,300 students,” said Sawvel, who played linebacker at Mount Union from 1989 to 1993. “So more than 10 percent of your campus played football. Obviously, there was a love for football. The whole place was that way.”
Most of Mount Union’s coaching alumni didn’t arrive as players thinking they would become coaches, but it was a natural step. Kehres went to great lengths to recruit “young achievers working hard to avoid anyone being disappointed in them.”
Almost none could play football beyond the Division III level, but many wanted to stay involved. So they coached.
Vince Kehres played at Mount Union and was an assistant for his father for 13 years before getting the head-coaching job. Courtesy of Mount Union
“They were almost player-coaches as student-athletes,” Vince Kehres said. “They were diving into as much film study as they could. They’re always around the office. They don’t just show up and go to practice and then you don’t see them anymore. They’re inquisitive.”
Mount Union football players didn’t hold big-man-on-campus status, even after the team started winning national championships. They practiced at 5 a.m. because that’s when the stadium was available. They packed into cheap, off-campus apartments. They didn’t eat in a special dining hall or get priority access to classes.
“Here’s a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, and you do the work,” Vince Kehres said. “It’s not like going to Ohio State.”
The spartan existence helped during the transition to coaching. Around the time Campbell, Candle, Alex Grinch and others were finishing their playing careers at Mount Union, the program started hiring intern coaches, who received some money, on-campus housing and meals in the school cafeteria.
Candle was among the first. He coached wide receivers and, because he had grown up on a golf course, also cut the grass on the school’s athletic fields. Mowing the grass remains a duty handled by a football assistant.
“As Division III guys, you’ve got no entitlement,” Grinch said. “You’ll find an answer, you’ll fix it if something’s wrong. Not just at Mount Union, but a lot of times with coaches who have come from lower levels of football, there’s probably a little chip on your shoulder. You’re willing to take that job that somebody else wouldn’t. You’ve never had anything.”
The least surprising thing about Mount Union’s coaching pipeline is the school’s location. Ohio, and especially northeast Ohio, spits out football coaches like rubber and tires.
Of the 11 college coaches to win national titles since 2000, four are from northeast Ohio: Urban Meyer (Ashtabula), Jim Tressel (Berea), Les Miles (Elyria) and Bob Stoops (Youngstown). Nick Saban (six titles since 2003) isn’t from Ohio but played at Kent State and began his coaching career there. Mount Union’s league, the Ohio Athletic Conference, features several schools with strong coaching traditions, from John Carroll University (Don Shula, Josh McDaniels, Greg Roman) to Baldwin Wallace (Lee Tressel, Jim Tressel, Norb Hecker).
“It starts with how they feel about high school football around there, and then that carries over,” said Capers, who grew up in Buffalo, Ohio. “Friday nights, people are at high school games. Saturday, they’re involved in college, and Sunday, the NFL. It gets into your bloodlines a little bit.”
Mount Union drew players from decorated high school programs. Some came from coaching families. Campbell’s father, Rick, was a longtime high school coach who played at Mount. Grinch’s uncle is Gary Pinkel, the former Missouri and Toledo coach.
When the upper-level colleges passed on them, they flocked to play for Larry Kehres at Mount.
“It’s not a soft, cake-eater school,” Sawvel said. “There were a lot of Youngstown kids, a lot of Cleveland and Akron and Canton. All these people grew up in places where football was king. We’re all middle-class kids, we work hard, our families worked hard. It was great.”
They might have been blue-collar kids from little schools in the Rust Belt, but Mount Union’s players began their coaching job searches with unique credentials.
Grinch and Campbell went 54-1 as Mount players with three national championships. Candle, who transferred to Mount for his final two seasons, never lost a game there. All three finished their careers during Mount’s NCAA-record 55-game win streak. The one loss Grinch and Campbell endured, which ended the 1999 season, snapped a 54-game win streak that had broken the previous NCAA record, which had stood since 1957. Nick Sirianni played during the entire 55-game surge, which ended in his final game.
“The desire to hire Mount Union graduates became very prevalent because of the success,” said Toledo offensive line coach Mike Hallett, who captained Mount’s first national title team in 1993 and was a two-time All-America selection.
Erik Raeburn “became, like, the most popular guy ever” after playing for Mount and spending six years as an assistant there. Coaches wanted to know Larry Kehres’ secret. Raeburn, now head coach at Savannah State, couldn’t pinpoint one thing.
Division III Mount Union’s weight room doesn’t compare to the flashy facilities in the FBS. But the titles listed on the wall prove that it gets the job done. Adam Rittenberg / ESPN
From planning for games to recruiting to meetings to travel plans, Kehres addressed everything with championship-level detail.
“He does everything better than you do it,” Raeburn said. “They do the laundry better than you do the laundry.”
Campbell insists that the championship rings he won at Mount Union didn’t prepare him for coaching as much as embracing the daily tasks that generate success did. It’s the same thing that drew him there 19 years ago on his drive home from Pitt.
“We don’t get lost,” Campbell said. “From Alex Grinch to Jason to the other guys, nobody’s gotten lost in the ego of this profession, whether it’s what you’re getting paid to what stadium or what brand is representing your school.”
Added Warinner: “It doesn’t matter where you’re coaching. We’re all Division III guys from Mount Union.”
Although Kehres never left Mount, he encouraged and assisted his former players who wanted to move up. He made calls on their behalf. “As the wins piled up, the phone call meant more,” he said.
When Campbell left Toledo for Iowa State, Candle went to join him as offensive coordinator. But Kehres encouraged Candle to tell Toledo athletic director Mike O’Brien that he wanted the school’s head-coaching job. A few days later, Candle landed the gig.
Campbell credits Kehres for challenging his former players to reach their coaching goals. The face of Mount Union’s legion of rising-star coaches adds, “It’s really his legacy that we’re all living.”
It’s a legacy that made Mount Union not only a Division III dynasty but also a coaching incubator.
“It’s almost overwhelming,” Kehres said. “They had what it took. They got nurtured a little bit here, but as men, they went their own route. We share this commonality. And a lot of pride.”
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