"Athletics ... is the window that people use to view the university." Rob Ash, MSU football coach. Mountains and Minds photo by Kelly Gorham.
The son of a Midwestern Methodist minister, Rob Ash had already accumulated an impressive win-loss record (176-99-5) when he was hired a little more than a year ago as MSU's 31st head football coach. But it was more than his prowess with X's and O's that attracted the MSU hiring committee's attention. It was also his winning ways off the field. Here Ash, who holds master's degrees in both history (Michigan) and physical education (Iowa), reflects on life and leadership and the role of athletics in the university.
Who was the most influential person in your life?
I would have to say my mother, from a personal standpoint. Besides her emphasis on academic excellence and on doing things right, she had a big heart for everybody she met. Professionally, it was one of my coaches in college, Paul Maaske, who was an assistant football coach and head basketball coach. He had such a positive outlook on coaching and about people that he inspired me to go into the field of coaching.
How do you stay in tune with the young people who play for you?
I try to do a mixture of two things. I have my younger coaches help me, and my son, who's now 24. I try to wear my shirt untucked when it's supposed to be untucked, and I have to wear my socks low instead of high because that's out of style. I try to be sensitive to what my players think the current appearance ought to be, because I think that's important and it's easy to do, so I'm not giving myself away about being an older-generation guy. I try to stay up with their language so I know the vocabulary they're using. I don't necessarily use it, but I need to understand it. There are some things I won't do. I'm not into the fancy handshakes and all the lingo. Sometimes I make them conform to me, which I think is part of the growing up process. So it's a compromise.
What qualities do you value in your assistant coaches?
I want my guys to care personally and deeply about the young men they coach, and I want them to be great teachers. Once I find those two characteristics, then I'm looking for a guy that knows football, lives football, works hard. But, if they don't have those first two characteristics, then he doesn't have a chance to be on the staff.
How does being raised by a minister affect how you've lived?
My dad always used to say everyone has a benefit in his life because of what their parents do for a living. My dad told me that if your dad is a doctor you get free medical care. If your dad's a grocer you get free groceries. If your dad's a dentist you get dental care for nothing. And if your dad's a preacher, you get to be good for nothing. As a PK (preacher's kid), it was tough growing up and adhering to that standard all the time. I did grow up in the church, and that was a social environment for me as well as a spiritual one, and my parents had great standards for how to live their lives and treat people. I was always motivated to be a tough, athletic guy because that wasn't expected from a preacher's kid.
What is your favorite type of music?
I love jazz. My daughter, Kelly, turned me on to jazz when she was a freshman in high school and got interested in it herself. Now she's a college graduate and trying to make a career as a jazz vocalist. I've discovered I really enjoy jazz, not the loud instrumental Dizzy Gillespie-Al Hirt type of jazz. I prefer piano and vocal jazz. I love the spontaneity of it and the creativity of jazz. I grew up liking classical music, and I still enjoy classical music, especially symphonies and string quartets.
What is the importance of football to a university?
I've always liked the phrase for athletics in general that it's the front porch for the university. A lot of times it is the window that people use to view the university. Maybe it's the first time someone ever hears about the university; it's the first impression some have about the university. As far as value, we can talk for days about the value of football for the school. The entertainment portion, the revenue or financial portion, just the feel-good Saturday atmosphere that football brings to a campus are all positives, not to mention the positive experience for all the young men who participate.
What is the biggest challenge faced by student-athletes today?
I think maybe the biggest challenge is that with the technology now, they are under such a microscope. They're being discussed on Web pages and Internet sites and in gossip columns and newspapers and radio. They are in such a fish bowl all the time that it is very difficult for them first of all to keep their perspective and secondly not to get themselves in trouble. Being technologically interested, they want to get themselves out there on their Facebook and MySpace pages and join in on the information exchange that goes on. It's very tough for them to always be right because they're held to a high standard and they're more visible, frankly, than other students. That's the challenge of being a student-athlete, especially in Division I.
How do you prepare young athletes for life after football?
From our first contact with a prospective player we emphasize our commitment to discipline, proper conduct and academic performance. We want individuals that are team first. We communicate our philosophy from our first contact, through our visits to the prospects' homes and during every contact thereafter. From the first day a player gets here, we spend time teaching what I call the head coach's playbook, which is the blueprint for actions that we expect our guys to use in their day-to-day lives off the field as well as on the field. We try to teach the guys that there's a carry-over from the expectations we have for them on the field and what they do off the field. We try to teach them that everything is interrelated, from athletics to what they do in the classroom to what they do in the community. We try to prepare them so when that athletic piece drops off after four years they have the framework for decision-making and actions that they've learned from athletics.