Growing up, Mattison always had coaches who demanded toughness and toughness didn't simply translate into physical toughness. They wanted mental toughness on the field and off the field as well. He played for coaches who demanded that every player was accountable. That's the way he was taught and that's the way he has always coached. It is also the way that Urban Meyer does things. Mattison says that while Meyer is as hip as it gets when he's recruiting a 17-year-old kid, he's as old school as it gets.
"There's no question that he's an old school kind of coach," said Mattison. "There's really nothing new at all to this approach. It's what Urban Meyer was taught when he was growing up and when he began coaching. He is truly doing things the way I was brought up in coaching and when I was playing."
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Mattison spoke at the Florida Athletic Coaches Association clinic in Daytona Beach Thursday along with the rest of the Gator coaching staff. When it was his turn to talk about his approach to defense, he didn't exactly dazzle the high school coaches in attendance with brilliant new schemes or training techniques.
"The way I started out my talk on defense was to tell them I'm going to talk about my philosophy on defense and that's not a bunch of Xs and Os," he said. "Our staff believes in old school fundamentals. We're not going to give you gimmicks and tricks. We're going to be successful because we pay attention to the details and we're going to stress every day in practice the little things that have to be done to make us successful. For all the talk about new gimmicks and things like that, football really hasn't changed over the years because the teams that win are the teams that execute the fundamentals better than anyone else. It always comes down to the team that blocks and tackles best is the team that wins the games."
Mattison also told the coaches at the clinic that in everything the Gators do there is a winner and there is a loser. Players are held accountable and they are expected to be responsible on and off the field.
"In real life you're held accountable and you have to be responsible," he said. "That's our approach to football."
In the six months that this Florida staff has been together, their biggest task is to transform attitudes. By now, every Gator player understands that there is accountability in every phase of life. There are winners and there are losers whether that's in the class room, in the weight room or in practice. Players are expected to be responsible and they are held accountable by both the coaches and their teammates. The accountability doesn't end on the football field, it extends to life off the field.
"There's accountability in every phase of our program, from the way you train in the offseason in the weight room to the way you live your life away from football," Mattison said. "You have to decide what is acceptable and what isn't if you're going to be a part of this program.
"It's not acceptable if you're not willing to do your best to be a winner. This is the way we do it with academics, too. There isn't another coach anywhere who is more involved in the way players are doing in the classroom than Urban Meyer, and that extends to all the assistant coaches too."
Assistant coaches are expected to be completely involved in the lives of the players. When there is a study hall, the assistants are there making certain that the players are working and not just wasting time or day dreaming. Just as Meyer makes surprise visits to the dorm rooms and apartments where the players live, so do the assistants.
"These are 17-22-year-old kids," said Mattison. "What they're doing now shapes the rest of their lives. The discipline that they learn here will be something that pays off when they've gotten their college degrees and they've left the University of Florida. Coach Meyer puts the onus on the assistant coaches. He lets us know that he doesn't care what time of day it is, what time of the year it is or where we are, that our players are our players and we are responsible."
When players leave a classroom, it's not unusual for them to see an assistant coach sitting on a bench in the hallway or outside the building. Seeing their position coach in the middle of the day is just a reminder to the players that they are going to be held accountable, that being a Gator means going to class.
"For us as coaches to be standing in the middle of campus and see them come out of class lets them know we're very involved with them," he said. "If a player wants to develop his entire person, not just as a football player, then he needs to know that we care enough about them to keep them on the right track. I feel so strongly about Urban Meyer and this staff, that we really do want to see these kids succeed on and off the football field."
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In the first month or so after they had begun working with the players after National Signing Day back in February, Mattison said that there were quite often those looks among players, looks that said "what in the heck are these guys asking us to do?" … looks that questioned why it is that things have changed so radically?
"Things were different when we got here," he said. "Not taking anything away from the previous staff and how they did things, but we came in here with a different approach and there was a period of adjustment, not just for the kids, but for us as a coaching staff, too."
Getting the team adjusted to a new way of doing things didn't happen overnight. There were some players who bought into the new style from day one. For others, it meant learning the hard way that what Meyer and his assistant coaches said was exactly what they meant.
In the pre-spring mat drills players were indoctrinated to the Urban Meyer rules of accountability. For example, if a defensive lineman slacked off on a drill or perhaps began a drill with his toes on the line and not behind the line, that player got an earful from Mattison or one of the other coaches. The player then had to repeat the drill only this time doing it the right way. If the player somehow didn't get the message and did things wrong a second time, the entire defensive line would have to pay the price for the transgression.
Coach Mattison directs his troops
Mat drills were tough on the players but so was a spring practice in which the coaches were more hands on than at any spring practice in recent memory at UF. If there was one important carryover from the mat drills it was that players were expected to give their best effort on every single play, every single drill. The greatest sin for a player was to take a play off here and there.
"Taking a play off during a game might mean the difference in winning and losing a game," said Mattison. "We believe as a staff that you play in games the way you practice, so if you take plays off in practice then you'll take plays off during the game."
Mattison is very old school in that he believes practices should be tough and physical. Game days, he believes, should be a reward for the hard work and effort extended during practice.
"The hardest part of the season will be every Tuesday's practice," he said. "Every Tuesday is going to be a war and that's the way it should be. Practice will be tough … it will be hard … but game day is going to be a reward, especially when we win."
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One by one, the players have come around. From a fragmented few they are now bonding together as a group, becoming a team in every sense. The expectations are high this offseason, whether in the classroom, the weight room, and on the field where you will find players every afternoon passing and catching the ball, doing agility drills and running wind sprints.
So far, there have been none of the off the field incidents that plagued the Gators the past three years. Yet, there is still another month or so before coaches will be able to coach again. As per NCAA rules, coaches contact is severely limited in the offseason, therefore it is a time when coaches on every campus hold their collective breaths. Mattison understands the rules about not being able to coach the players during the offseason, but he would be a bit more comfortable if coaches were allowed more contact and supervision.
"This is a testing period for our team and for every team," he said. "This is the time when we're gone because it's also the time when we as assistants take our vacation. Well, we're gone so now let's see how mature you're going to be. Let's see how focused you're going to be.
"In today's society with a young man 17-22-years-old in a setting like the University of Florida or any other campus there are distractions, especially in summer. You've got kids on their own with a lot of free time and they aren't supervised. You just have to hope that they understand what is important and what their values are. I may not like it but I understand why they have the rule about not coaching the kids in the offseason. Still, I think everyone might be better served if there was more coach supervision allowed."
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Mattison and his wife Ann have adapted well to Gainesville. They're in their new home and discovering the charms of North Central Florida. They're eagerly waiting for July when their son Bryan comes home from college and when daughter Lisa pays a visit. Bryan is a sophomore defensive end for Coach Kirk Ferentz at Iowa. Lisa made All-Big East in softball three times when she was at Notre Dame. Now she lives and works in Chicago.
"We used to pack up and spend the month of July in Colorado," Mattison said. "Lisa played on a traveling softball team and we'd just go to Colorado and spend our time there, enjoying the mountains and watching her play softball. I tell everyone how much I love baseball but I also love watching softball at Florida. As for Bryan, he doesn't like baseball too much and I think all those summers spent watching Lisa play softball has something to do with that."
Greg and Ann won't be taking any extended trips during July although they'll take a day here or there to take in a beach or discover some new place in their newly adopted home state.
"I went out to get my newspaper this morning and looked around," he said. "I came back in and told my wife, 'People spend their whole year trying to get to Florida for a few days and we live here.' We've got great weather, a great community and a great place to live. This is like a year-round vacation."
Although he'll be taking July off to recharge the batteries so that he's ready for two-a-days when practice begins in August, he's never too far away from his players.
"I'll be driving down the road and the cell phone rings," he said. "I'll answer and it's one of my players calling just to say 'Hi Coach, just wanted to see how things are going.' That tells me that we're on the right track. I've never felt so strongly about players as I do about this group even though they haven't done a thing yet or are even close to where I want them to be after the spring. There's something about them that I see in their eyes and their attitude, though, that tells me I'm going to do what you want me to do and I'll trust you to get me where I want to be.
"Good things are happening right now and it's exciting to be a part of it. There's going to be a time when there will be some soul searching with these kids, a time when they have to ask do I take the next step or revert back to what I used to do? I've got a good feeling that now that they've taken the steps they've taken, they won't want to revert back. They're moving forward and that's a good thing to see."