Goodbyes and New Beginnings

It was the biggest day of Tim Albin’s professional career. He had just watched his mentor of 20 years just tell their current team that he was going to be the program’s next head coach. 

So why was Albin standing outside next to a dumpster just a minute later? Ohio University’s newest head football coach had an important call to make. Well, two actually.

Albin, 55, will make his debut as the Bobcats’ head coach tonight in a nationally televised home game against ‘power 5’ program Syracuse inside Peden Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. It will be his first game as a Division I head coach. 

Albin was elevated to the position on July 14, 2021 when the program’s long-time leader and the MAC’s all-time wins leader — Frank Solich — announced his retirement. Albin, who had 16 seasons as the offensive coordinator and then associate head coach, was quickly named as his successor with a four-year contract. 

On the morning of the announcement, Solich and the coaching staff addressed the team and let them know the news. After more than 30 years in the profession, Albin was officially a head coach of a major college program for the first time. Seconds later, he was outside making those calls.

The first, to his mother Wanda Merchant, went unanswered; Albin chalked it up to her vacation in Alaska. The second, to Roxy Merklin, was picked up.

“Right down there by the trash can,” Albin says, gesturing from his (now former) office on the fifth floor in Peden Stadium. “I walked out of the facility, headed to that dumpster and called. 

“I just lost it,” he says, three days after the announcement. “I had to get out of sight of everybody. I had to get away. I didn’t want anyone to see (me) right then.”

The call was an emotional one. Roxy is the wife of Tom Merklin, who coached Albin in junior high school all those years ago back home in Woodward, Okla. Albin will gladly tell you about how blessed he’s been in terms of his proximity to greatness along the way.

“Hall of Famer, Hall of Famer, Hall of Famer, all the way down the line,” he says. “You can’t make this up.”

And it’s true. And we’ll outline that in a bit. But Tom Merklin wasn’t a hall of famer. He was Albin’s junior high coach, a retired rancher, a mentor, a friend, and maybe the biggest Albin fan on the planet, but he wasn’t recognized as a hall of fame coach. Still, he was the one person, besides his mother, that Albin wanted to talk to at that moment. But he couldn’t. So he called Roxy instead.  

Three months earlier, Albin was back home in Woodward and got a chance to meet up with Tom. 

“I went to see mom, and he’s in my driveway going out to check cattle. So I get in the car, and we have three and a half hours together, just talking and riding around in the pasture,” Albin explains.

Less than a month later, Tom Merklin died unexpectedly.

“I was so thankful to have time with him,” Albin says.

Merklin loved talking about sports, sports talk radio, sports message boards, and the Bobcats after Albin matriculated east in 2005 to join Solich at Ohio. From ball caps to t-shirts, the Ohio logo was emblazoned across a swath of pictures at the memorial service, Albin recalls. 

“He’s a legend in town, but I don’t think anyone else still called him coach except me.”

Instead of Tom, Albin called Roxy and then couldn’t get out what he desperately wanted to say. Three months earlier, Albin had no idea his shot at being a head coach would come so soon. He wanted to share it with people who mattered to him. And couldn’t.

“It was a tough three minutes,” he says. “I couldn’t speak. I just didn’t get a chance to tell Coach.”

Roxy understood, and was thrilled and supportive once the words finally came out. Albin made sure everyone found out eventually, but it was important to make those first calls as soon as possible. Albin is the kind of guy who honors what came before, who recognizes and pays tribute to those who have helped along the way. 

Photo by Jason Arkley

And while he’s about to embark on the next stage of his professional journey, he wants you to understand it began in Woodward. As the middle child of three raised in large part by a single mother, Albin doesn’t shy away from stating the affection that is undulled by time and distance. 

“My mom, she’s the toughest person on the planet,” he says.

Wanda Merchant was the oldest of 11 kids and — as was too common during the time — dropped out of high school to work and help raise her siblings. She jumped on a greyhound bus bound for California, put herself through trade school, then punched a return ticket to Oklahoma. At age 17, she started work as a beautician and hasn’t stopped. She still works part-time now at the age of 85. 

“My mom, my upbringing…it was tough at times. But there’s people there that kept my ass in my lane and kept me out of trouble,” he says. “There’s a process buddy, and they all played a part.”

Running Down the Resume

Albin began coaching in 1989, fresh off a stellar career as a wide receiver at Northwestern Oklahoma State in Alva. A GA stint at Northeastern State (Okla.) followed, and then came offensive coordinator jobs at both Northeastern (1992-93) and Northwestern (‘94-96). He was named the head coach at his alma mater in 1997, and his three-year run culminated with a 13-0 season and NAIA national championship in 1999. 

The Rangers rallied from a 20-0 halftime deficit to win the championship.

From there, he landed a GA spot at Nebraska — then guided by Frank Solich. He became the Huskers’ passing game coordinator and running backs coach in 2003. After Solich was fired following that ‘03 regular season, he spent 2004 at North Dakota State helping Craig Bohl and the Bison transition from Division II football to the FCS level.

Solich returned to coach at Ohio in 2005, picked Albin to head up his offense, and the Bobcats promptly notched their best run of consistent football in the modern era.  

Through it all, Albin kept bumping into Hall of Fame coaches. There was his high school coach Milt Basset, who won 134 games and has spots in five different halls of fame in Oklahoma. The coach who recruited him to Northwestern was Woody Roof, who sandwiched five high school state championships at three schools around a two-year run with the Rangers. Roof’s replacement was Lee Brower, ensconced in the NWST Hall of Fame. 

There’s Tom Eckert, who gave Albin his first coaching job; He’s in the Northeastern State Hall of Fame. The person who brought Albin back to Northwestern was Dr. Steve Lohmann who is, yes, in the Northwest Hall of Fame. 

Solich’s career is well noted and should ultimately land him in several different halls of recognition. Bohl did a terrific job at NDSU, and is forging Wyoming into a consistent winner; Albin calls him “another future Hall of Famer.”

“I’ve been blessed, there’s no doubt,” Albin says.

It’s not something he takes lightly. Each stop has hammered home the importance of core principles he believes are as necessary today as ever. Coach-player relationships. Trust in one another. Building brick-by-brick, day-by-day. There are no shortcuts. You do things the right way, you say what you mean.

“If you don’t have integrity in what you do, then you have nothing.”

It all comes with responsibility, one he’s willing to embrace and honor in Athens. As a program, Ohio has never been on firmer footing. It’s on him to keep it there, and move it forward. 

“I’m going to find more hours in the day to squeeze out to protect (Solich’s) legacy. He’s the GOAT,” Albin says. “I saw how Coach protected that spirit and culture at Nebraska when he took over for THE GOAT (Tom Osborne), and then made it his own.

“Our core values are not going to be compromised. No way. That’s the building block in this.”

The challenge will be to recognize the strengths in place, and be himself in the process. The program doesn’t need a Solich impersonator, it needs the best Tim Albin it can get. Maybe that means he’s a little more off the cuff. Maybe it means more outward displays of emotion. Maybe that means some new tweaks. Whatever it is, it needs to be authentic. 

So far, the reviews have been good.

“He’s been his own guy. Like we do things a certain way, and that hasn’t changed that much,” said sixth-year WR Cam Odom. “But he’s bringing that energy every day. He’s the type of guy to run through a brick wall.”

And whether it’s been media obligations, handing out pizza, or pushing t-shirts, Albin has embraced all the extra things a head coach in the MAC has to do. 

“The head coach has to wear a zillion different hats and Tim has done a great job of managing all of that,” said Scott Isphording, OU’s quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator. “At the same time, he’s being himself. He’s not trying to be someone he’s not.”

For Albin, it comes back to trust and integrity. He can’t be Solich, and even if he tried it wouldn’t work.

“I’m going to be Tim,” Albin says. “I’m going to be excitable at times, that’s who I am. It’s not going to be all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s got to be genuine.”

It Takes a Village

As Ohio’s offensive coordinator, Albin helped mold the Bobcats from the traditional, two-back, I-formation offense that Solich imported when he arrived to the one-back system employed today. The results have been, by and large, good to great. 

Under Solich/Albin, Ohio has posted nine of the top 10 scoring seasons in program history and nine of the top 10 seasons in program history in yards per game. In terms of points per game, seven of OU’s best seasons have come in the last decade alone. 

And when you look at other metrics, like yards per play, yards per rushing attempt, rate of explosive plays, and so on, Ohio’s offense has been a top 25 caliber outfit for most of the last five years. In large sample sizes, the Bobcats’ offense clearly works. Isphording called Albin “brilliant’” for what he’s been able to create at OU.

But that’s not why Solich believes his long-time OC will be a great fit and give the program a relatively-smooth transition.

“It’s his ability to relate to people,” Solich said. “That’s in recruiting, that’s in communicating with players within the program, that’s with parents. Everybody. That’s a real strength of his.”

With the extra responsibility of being the head coach, Albin will give up primary offensive play-calling duties. It will still be a collective effort, and most things will be funneled through the head coach as they were before, but Albin is now responsible for everything. Isphording and Allen Rudolph (offensive line) will carry co-offensive coordinator titles this season.

Albin is fine with that. There is pressure to be sure — and Ohio fans remember well what happened the last time the program stayed in house to field the next head coach — but Albin believes his uncanny run of working with great coaches didn’t end when Solich announced his retirement. 

He’s going to lean on the current staff, let it work, and rely on them in the same kinds of ways that Solich tried to empower his staff over the previous 16 years. There will be differences and changes, but the culture, the ‘right’ way of doing things won’t be among them. 

It’s a staff complete with remarkable continuity within the program (like Dwayne Dixon, Ron Collins and Pete Germano) and young coaches poised for big things in the future (such as Tremayne Scott, Nathan Faanes, Brian Metz and Tyler Tettleton). It’s a mix he says he couldn’t be happier about. 

Tim Albin is now a Division I head coach. It took a lot of people, and a lot of circumstances to fall into place, to make it a reality. He’s well aware of it, and wants to honor and respect it all. 

It’s ‘his’ program now, but everyone is going to have ownership of the process. After spending the last 16 years of game days up in the coaching box, he’ll be front and center on the sidelines now. But the Bobcats’ success will be a result of every player, coach, and staff member doing their part. 

It’s how he got to this point to begin with. If the Bobcats continue to win and expand the scope of what’s possible, it’ll be the reason why. If there wasn’t a Tom Merklin when Albin was in eighth grade, and in all the years since, then he’s not where he is right now.

When the Bobcats win, he says, everyone will see what he already believes.

“As this thing plays out, everybody is going to find out how strong this staff is. I believe that,” Albin says.

“It’s gonna shine.”

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