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Candle burns with intensity to fuel Rockets

05/15/2016, 1:28am EDT
By BY DAVE HACKENBERG BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Candle burns with intensity to fuel Rockets

University of Toledo football coach Jason Candle signals instructions during spring football practice March 15. BLADE

Jason Candle was fresh out of college in the spring and early summer of 2003 and, as many recent graduates do, was facing the next step with some trepidation.

So he was back home in Salem in northeast Ohio, mowing the fairways and shoveling sand into bunkers at Flying B Golf Course, which has been in his stepfather’s family for years.

“It’s certainly not Inverness,” Candle said with a smile, “but I grew up there and worked there pretty much all through high school and college. I had reached the point where I was either going to run a Weed Eater and rake bunkers for awhile or find a way not to be around there.”

And then the phone rang. It was Larry Kehres, the head coach at Mount Union, the premier Division III program in the nation, where Candle had recently been an all-conference receiver on two national championship teams.

“He said, ‘What are you going to do next year? I can pay you about nothing, but I have a staff opening.’ And I jumped at the opportunity,” Candle recalled.

At age 22, Candle was the rookie wide receivers coach at Mount Union. Now, at age 36, he is the head football coach at the University of Toledo. In a 20-day period after being hired last Dec. 2, Candle pieced together a staff, prepared his new team for the Boca Raton Bowl, and then led the Rockets to a 32-17 upset of No. 24 Temple to cap a 10-win season.

And it all started with that call.

“I vividly remember our first staff meeting,” Candle said. “Coach Kehres wrote on the board, ‘Coaching is teaching; teaching is the ability to inspire learning.’ And that’s pretty much the way I have always tried to approach it.”

Not to mention approaching it with a focus and intensity that might remind UT fans of some other football coaches — Frank Lauterbur, back in the day, and Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel more recently.

Those guys did little but win, and as Candle says with a chuckle, “I’m still undefeated.” In 13 years as an assistant and as offensive coordinator at both Mount and UT, the teams Candle has been involved with have a combined record of 140-35.

In addition to recruiting, much of Candle’s travel in recent days has been on the rubber-chicken circuit — meet-and-greets and speeches to UT alumni groups around Ohio and in other parts of the country.

The feedback from audience members is that Candle may not be back-slapping personable — an hour alone with him in his office might change that perception — but glows with a red-hot and infectious intensity. As one listener told me, “Candle wants to beat Northern Illinois more than I do, which is pretty badly.”

The Rockets have lost six straight to NIU and just about all of those games have determined the MAC West title and a berth in the league title game. So Candle’s interest there goes without saying.

“I’ve been a part of all of those, and it’s like a cloud over our heads, a bad taste in our mouths,” he said. “The people I care most about are the guys, past and present, in that locker room. For all the success we’ve had they haven’t quite accomplished all they want. And that responsibility falls on my shoulders now.”

Candle has not been hesitant to send another message to UT fans and alumni.

“Everybody seems excited where our program is at, but you're only as good as the weakest link,” he said. “So my message has been that this is our team in our city. We're not Ann Arbor or Columbus. We live in Toledo. This has to be our team.

“Toledo football has been good for a long time ... the tradition is rich with a lot of great players and good coaches. And that tradition deserves alumni and fan backing. As a young coach, I’m not numb to the fact that those people have to be a huge part of our success going forward.”

UT averaged 20,842 fans for six home games last season, when the Rockets went 10-2, in a 26,000-seat stadium in a metro area with a population of 500,000-plus.

“I know our players look forward to playing before big crowds and feeding off that energy,” Candle said. “I think we have a great fan base, but there’s room for improvement. We welcome all support. Ten wins isn’t easy, you know.”

And, looking at the schedule, he knows it won’t be easy in 2016.

“Let’s see,” he said. “Arkansas State, bowl team last season; BYU, bowl team; Ohio, bowl team; Central Michigan, bowl team; Akron, bowl team; Bowling Green, MAC champion and bowl team; Western Michigan, bowl team; Northern Illinois, bowl team. That’s eight, and you only get 12 games. It will be survival of the fittest to the end.”

And his intense focus is to make sure the Rockets prove to be the fittest.

He knows it starts at the top, where he ascended when his friend, Matt Campbell, left for the head coaching job at Iowa State.

“In college athletics today, if a coach isn’t intense and focused things can go badly in a hurry,” Candle said. “If you don’t wake up every day driven to be better, the chances for success are minimal. So, 365 days a year, I’ll be challenged and, through me, our guys will be challenged.

“We’ll try to build our roster with consistency without changing who we are or what we stand for. We’ll play fast and with a lot of enthusiasm. We’ll hold guys accountable to be good people who are totally involved in the community.

“We expect to win. We expect to compete hard every day. The culture is good here, has been for quite some time. But if you stand still, you’re going to get passed by.”

Jason Candle hasn’t stood still since that phone rang in the early summer of 2003. He isn’t going to start now that he’s a head coach.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.

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