It Never Was About The Money With Mattison

SCOTTSDALE, AZ — For the 32 guaranteed million dollars that they’re going to pay Nick Saban over the next eight years, the fine folks at the University of Alabama expect to re-discover the promised land that they still believe is their rightful domain. If he delivers national championships, they’ll say the investment was chump change in comparison to the benefits of returning to the top.

Saban and his Star Wars contract were the Wednesday morning buzz at the press conference for the Tostitos National Championship Game and with Bama using the Brinks approach to land its Messiah, you have to figure it’s only a matter of a short time before another program with more money than national championships puts together a similar dollar package to land some other college or pro team’s coach.

The old throw enough money at it and it will produce desired results approach may be new to college football but it isn’t exactly a novel idea. You had to figure that sooner or later, some school would try what’s worked with mixed results in the world of big corporations and big government. Now that Alabama’s broken new ground, we’ll have to wait and see if the money spent at the top creates the desired trickle down effect with increased championships and revenues.

When asked for his perspective about college football’s answer to “Dialing for Dollars” Wednesday morning, Greg Mattison just smiled politely and replied, “I really don’t want to talk about that.” It was the question that just wouldn’t go away but Florida’s co-defensive coordinator was steadfast with his answer.

Mattison is a fine football coach but he’s not the big blip on somebody’s head coaching radar. What he does for Florida’s defense has plenty to do with the fact the Gators are in the place where Alabama expects Nick Saban and his new coaching staff to lead the Crimson Tide, but Mattison doesn’t expect anyone to call with a break the bank offer.

If you listed all the reasons that Mattison coaches football, being a head coach at a high profile program like Alabama and making the kind of money that Nick Saban is about to make wouldn’t make his top ten list of priorities. Now, that’s not to say that if Coach Urban Meyer and Athletic Director Jeremy Foley offer Mattison a well-deserved raise that he won’t take it, but the dollars are a benefit and not the reason he does what he does.

Mattison coaches because it’s a satisfying job. He coaches because he likes impacting the lives of young people. He coaches because he loves to transform a group of individuals into a functioning, successful team.

“This [Tostitos National Championship Game] is what you dream of as a football coach and I think you could do this for nothing,” he said while talking to the media during Florida’s morning press conference. They could pay you nothing and you would come out here and say ‘I love to coach in this football game.’

“It doesn’t matter to me what anybody makes. It’s about these guys and it’s about our football team.”

Mattison’s first coaching gig was Riverdale High School in Wisconsin. He was straight out of the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse, so ready and so eager to coach football that he took a job at a place that was a graveyard for coaches.

“I was a head high school coach and 22 years old and we had 23 players out for football,” Mattison recalled. “Their record … they had won three games in eight years. The worst part of it, there were four ex-head coaches on that staff and every one of them said to me, ‘you can’t win here, you can’t win here.’

“I think we won four games the first year and they were going to build a statue.”

For that effort, Mattison was paid the princely sum of $7,000.

“I was pretty happy to have that,” he said.

He made his way quickly into the college coaching ranks where he’s been at the top of the heap (Florida, Michigan, Notre Dame) and at the bottom. He’ll tell you the coaching part is a bit over-rated, that it’s a game of players.

“I coached hard when I was at Northwestern,” he said. “Our record back then was 1-30-1. All of a sudden now, what happened? I became a great coach? Why” He’s sitting right over there (pointing at Ray McDonald). There’s a bunch of them [players].”

It’s the players that he lives for. It’s the players that he coaches for. He loves the interaction with his guys. He loves to teach them. He loves to motivate them. The satisfaction that he gets from doing his job well more than compensates.

“You never go into coaching to see how much money you can make,” he said. “The greatest feeling in the world is when that kid comes up to you after his fifth year and just earned the right to possibly play in pro football or just got his degree and he looks at you and says thanks. That’s why you coach.”

The two guys that were with him Wednesday morning, McDonald and Joe Cohen, both have their college diplomas now and both will get a shot at playing in the professional ranks. Mattison thinks McDonald has star potential and he thinks Cohen is vastly underrated because of the way Florida plays its defense.

“Joe is in there playing a three technique when he’s always getting double teamed,” Mattison said. “He may come out of a game with two tackles. The bottom line is that he grades out champion because he does what we’re asking him to do and there’s a reason why Siler and Earl Everett are making a lot of tackles.”

Another example of what Mattison brings to the Florida table is seen in Steven Harris, who started at the position where Cohen is playing now. Harris moved to nose tackle after Marcus Thomas was suspended and Javier Estopinan blew out his knee against LSU. It was a good fit and Harris is now a big part of Florida’s game plan to stop the run against Ohio State.

“The first guy that we put in there is a guy that I think is going to be a heckuva player is Javier Estopinan and then he blew his knee out in the LSU game,” said Mattison. “You always have to have a backup ready. We put Joe in there and he did a good job. Then we put Steve in there and we said this might be a natural position for Steve. A guy has to want to do it. Joe wanted to but Steve said, ‘Coach I can do that.’”

Not only did Harris do that and open the eyes of NFL scouts, but he’s got a college diploma, too. It’s no secret that Mattison has had a hand in the development of these guys.

He’s an assistant coach and what he makes for his entire coaching career may not equal one or two years what Alabama is going to pay Nick Saban. Having the big bucks would be nice. His wife, Ann, could probably think of a few things to do with it, but it’s not a necessity. They’re happy and they have what they need.

He’s happy because he gets to pass along what he’s learned in football and life to the kids that play for him.

“You learned and became a football coach because people shared with you,” he said. “You didn’t invent football. Somebody had to help you at some time.”

Now he’s helping others and there aren’t enough Alabama-like contracts to give him the satisfaction he has at this point in his career. More power to Nick Saban for landing that kind of contract but thank heaven for the Greg Mattisons of the world that prove money isn’t everything.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.