Iowa State Cyclones

Matt Campbell, Alex Grinch and the coaching tree of Mount Union legend Larry Kehres

Iowa State coach and Oklahoma defensive coordinator were teammates at D-III powerhouse

Larry Kehres owns  the highest winning percentage in college football history — at any level. He coached at Division III Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, for 27 seasons and amassed a ridiculous record of 332-24-3 — a .929 winning percentage. One of his pupils was Iowa State Coach Matt Campbell. (USA Today Sports)
Larry Kehres owns the highest winning percentage in college football history — at any level. He coached at Division III Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, for 27 seasons and amassed a ridiculous record of 332-24-3 — a .929 winning percentage. One of his pupils was Iowa State Coach Matt Campbell. (USA Today Sports)
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AMES — Legendary football coach Larry Kehres knew when one of his football players would go on to become a coach after their playing days.

Kehres has the highest winning percentage in college football history — at any level. He coached at Division III Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, for 27 seasons and amassed a ridiculous record of 332-24-3 — a .929 winning percentage.

When Iowa State Coach Matt Campbell and Oklahoma defensive coordinator Alex Grinch came through Mount Union, Kehres knew almost instantly the two were destined for coaching.

On Saturday in Norman, Okla., the two former teammates’ teams will face off when Oklahoma hosts Iowa State at 7 p.m.

“When people came to Mount Union, they’re passionate about being successful at football,” Kehres said. “You’re talking about Coach Campbell, coach Grinch and (Iowa State offensive coordinator) coach (Tom) Manning — it’s not surprising that they wanted to stick with football once their careers ended as players.”

Campbell and Grinch grew up around coaches. Campbell’s dad was a high school coach and Grinch’s uncle is former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who is the winningest coach in Missouri history.

“Matt’s dad was his coach in high school, and Matt’s dad is one of the all-time great coaches, so the fact that he wanted to coach was apparent early on,” Kehres said. “The fact he would be a great coach really started to show as he played for me.”

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Campbell was a defensive end in college. He started his career at Pittsburgh, but he didn’t like the culture there at the time. During his freshman season, as he was driving home to Massillon, Ohio, he drove by Mount Union and saw one of their practices.

He fell in love. He didn’t care that it was a Division III school, he wanted to play where people cared about football.

“Coach Kehres, just look at his program where success was sustainable for a long period of time — and they’re even having success today,” Campbell said. “The one common denominator that I’ve always believed is you have to love football. You have to love going every day and getting better at the sport of football.

“The one common thread that Coach Kehres was able to get in recruiting was young men that loved the sport of football. To be able to nurture that when they were players and then so many of those players wanting to go into coaching is a testament to Coach Kehres.”

Beyond the love of football, Kehres always looked for three things when he was recruiting defensive players.

“I always wanted defensive players to be tough, quick and smart, which (Campbell) was, but smart went up to the top with him,” Kehres said. “He was a very intelligent young man playing his position, he was very smart about how we wanted to play defense and then he was a great leader. He had all the attributes you want as a player, and those things show up in how he coaches.”

One play always sticks out to Kehres when it comes to Campbell.

Kehres was worried about a particularly good screen that one of Mount Union’s playoff opponents would run at critical times. Campbell studied the play and at what points and situations in the game it was called religiously.

“When they threw it, he picked it off,” Kehres said. “He knew their plays as well as they did. What we were worried about, he alleviated that worry by preparing for it. And that’s Matt — prepare. Take worry out of the scenario because you know you’ve prepared.”

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Campbell studied opposing offenses so much that, when it came time to coach, it was more natural for him to coach on the offensive side of the ball. He was Mount Union’s offensive coordinator in 2005 and 2006.

Later, at Toledo, he was the offensive coordinator before he took over as the head coach. Last season at Iowa State, while Manning was coaching tight ends for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, Campbell took over play-calling duties for the offense.

Grinch, who was a safety at Mount Union and is a year older than Campbell, stayed on the defensive side of the ball when it was time for him to coach.

“I really enjoyed our time together because Alex approached football in a very similar way that I approached football,” Campbell said. “He was really serious, it was really important to him, he was a great leader in the program and he was a guy who really studied the nuances of football. Did I see Alex becoming a coach somewhere down the road? Absolutely.”

Grinch has completely turned Oklahoma’s defense around.

The Sooners had the worst scoring defense and the worst defense in terms of yards given up in the Big 12 last season. Oklahoma gave up 33.3 points and 454 yards per game last season.

This season, the Sooners are in the top half of the Big 12 defensively. Oklahoma is allowing 10 fewer points per game and 115 fewer yards thanks in part to Grinch and his defense.

“I think the world of Alex,” Campbell said. “He’s one of the great football coaches out there right now and I think you’re seeing proof of that in how this Oklahoma team is playing great defense.”

Kehres’ coaching tree is as impressive as his record. He has coaches in the NFL, at the collegiate level and at the high school level.

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“To be honest, some of the best coaches from his tree are the high school coaches that decided to forgo coaching collegiately or at the professional rank,” Campbell said. “Some of those guys are the best coaches of his tree and they’re having incredible careers whether it’s in the state of Ohio, Michigan or Pennsylvania. They’re doing unbelievable things.

“It’s a huge credit to coach Kehres and I think we would all say we wouldn’t be here without him and his discipline and his detail and pushing us and guiding us through it all. He’s a really special person.”

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