COLUMBIA — Those within the program would miss his fire. Players and coaches would miss defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ desire. They would miss the way he cares. The way he pauses tape, crinkles his nose and lights up a darkened conference room during film study by screaming, “You gotta hit these guys!”
“When I was young, I attacked coaching the way I attacked playing,” said Eberflus, who starred as a linebacker at Toledo from 1988 to 1991. “I was real aggressive. I had a real attack mentality with what I did. I took that into coaching, and it was good. I still think I have that inside of me, and it leads to how your players perform.”
Eberflus might not direct Missouri’s defense much longer. He has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Toledo job that will open after eighth-year coach Tom Amstutz steps down following Friday night’s game against Bowling Green. Amstutz spent almost 33 years at the school as a player, an assistant coach and a head coach. Afterward, he will assume a position within Toledo’s alumni office.
Eberflus’ selection would represent a return home. Eberflus was raised in Toledo. In February 2004, he was inducted into the Toledo athletic Hall of Fame. In addition to his playing career, he worked as a graduate assistant (1992 to 1993), recruiting coordinator (1994 to 1995), safeties coach (1994 to 1998) and defensive backs coach (1999 to 2000) under then-Toledo coach Gary Pinkel. Eberflus joined Pinkel at Missouri before the 2001 season.
Now, some think it might be time for Eberflus to move on.
“I want to affect these men in a positive way,” he said. “Obviously, your goals are to be a head football coach at a program. When you get the opportunity, you embrace that and move forward to make it the best it can be.”
Pinkel recognizes parallels between Eberflus’ career and his own. He understands the hunger and the drive. He experienced it himself.
Pinkel played tight end under Don James from 1971 to 1973 at Kent State. Later, he spent 13 seasons as an assistant at Washington gaining knowledge from his decorated mentor. Pinkel learned the value of organization and control. He began to dream. If James could do it, why couldn't he?
Then, reality. Before the 1991 season, Pinkel accepted his first head-coaching job at Toledo. Suddenly, each problem involving the program became his own. “That’s kind of a rude awakening,” Pinkel said.
Pinkel sees pieces of himself in Eberflus. Like Pinkel, Eberflus played under his future boss (Eberflus served as a co-captain during Pinkel’s first season at Toledo). Like Pinkel, Eberflus honed his craft under an umbrella of familiarity.
“He’s done a great job,” Pinkel said. “He’s a real good coach. He’s a smart guy. He has a real good relationship with the players. He’s a great recruiter. He has a great future.”
Steady growth has characterized Eberflus’ defenses. In 2004, the Tigers’ unit ranked second in the Big 12 Conference. Last year, they led the league in total defense during conference play and surrendered 10 points or fewer four times during the season’s second half (against Nebraska, Colorado, Texas Tech and Arkansas). Eberflus became comfortable.
But Pinkel says the comfort vanishes once an assistant reaches the profession’s proverbial summit. The experience can be jarring.
“It’s a problem-solving business, and when you first get a job, I think you have to understand that,” he said. “You have to resolve problems, and you have to deal with people.”
Assistant coaches Cornell Ford (cornerbacks) and Craig Kuligowski (defensive line) recognize the opportunity’s significance. They understand head-coaching positions don’t present themselves often.
From 1988 to 1990, Kuligowski played with Eberflus as an offensive tackle. Kuligowski remembers Eberflus as a gritty teammate whose blue No. 90 jersey darted across the Glass Bowl’s artificial turf and created havoc for opposing offenses. Eberflus earned first-team All-Mid-American Conference honors during his final two years. He finished with 325 tackles, including a team-best 89 during his junior season. Eberflus became admired.
The two matured together as coaches. In 1992, Kuligowski began his career as Toledo’s recruiting coordinator. In 2001, he followed Eberflus to Missouri. Kuligowski has watched Eberflus grow.
“Trying to get the opportunity is pretty hard, so whenever you get an opportunity, you have to take a chance at it,” Kuligowski said.
“If feel like once you get the opportunity, you’re more than ready for it.”
Ford says Eberflus is ready. Ford says Eberflus has paid his dues and has scratched out defensive strategies long past countless sunsets. Ford says Eberflus’ time has come.
Eberflus has remained the same. From 1991 to 1992, Ford worked as a graduate assistant at Toledo. He remembers Eberflus as determined and focus. Ford says Eberflus would prowl the sidelines as head coach with the same intensity that made him one of Toledo’s best defensive stars.
“Are you kidding me? That would be a good fit for them,” said Ford, who holds bachelor’s (1991) and master’s (1993) degrees from Toledo. “He’s young. He has the energy for the job.
“I think it’s a perfect fit for them, and he would be a great addition to their program. Me being a Toledo alum, I would love to see him get it.”
Eberflus recognizes the task before him. He understands much remains out of his control.
He is preparing for Saturday’s game against Kansas. Junior quarterback Todd Reesing will attempt to prevent Missouri from claiming its first three-game series win streak since victories from 1986 to 1988. The Tigers have clinched the Big 12 North for the second consecutive season, but coaches insist the Border Showdown remains important.
Eberflus has enjoyed his time in mid-Missouri. He has learned to view players as sons or nephews rather than chess pieces within his defensive scheme. He has learned to cherish the pure moments, those times when he returns to his southwest Columbia home after the final snap and presents plastic coaching-booth credentials to his daughters, Grace and Giada, who stare at him with wonder.
“You grow into it, and you realize how big of a role this is,” Eberflus said. “I don’t think as a young person just starting in coaching that you realize how important your job is, the effect you have.
“It’s a gradual maturation. You mature as a coach, and you mature as a person. I think having kids is a big turning point in a man’s life, and you realize these young men have fathers and mothers and you’re an extension of that.”
Soon, Eberflus might become an extension of Missouri’s program. Players would consider his move a loss.
“We definitely don’t want to see that happen. But a man has to do what a man has to do,” said junior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, smiling. “If Toledo would be the best situation for him, then I support him.”
Will Toledo ask? Will Eberflus go?
Until another day, the questions wait.
“This is what I know. This is what I lived,” Eberflus said.
“I think you’re always ready.”