COLUMBUS — New Ohio State graduate assistant linebackers coach James Laurinaitis was introduced to reporters for the first time on Wednesday. The 30-minute interview session was held on the indoor practice field where he used to bleed, sweat, and toil as an All-American linebacker a decade-and-a-half ago for the Buckeyes.
“It’s like a little bit of PTSD,” Laurinaitis said as he took a seat surrounded by the familiar walls. “I can still hear Fickell yelling at me.”
The reference to former Ohio State linebackers coach Luke Fickell wouldn’t be the last for Laurinaitis, who spoke about a number of topics, including what went into the decision to come back home after spending the last year in South Bend as a graduate assistant linebacker coach for Notre Dame.
And, of course even though Laurinaitis is just two days into his Ohio State coaching career, that didn’t stop him from being asked about his coaching goals. The coaching ladder never stops, after all.
“I think for me, it all starts with, can I be the best linebacker coach in the country? And can I aspire to do that at my alma mater?” he said. “I think that to me is the first thing that comes to mind. And so I’ll attack this year with that vision.”
After having prior conversations about a position at Ohio State that never materialized, Laurinaitis and his family moved to South Bend where former linebacker teammate Marcus Freeman, who was now the Irish head coach, had offered him a position.
Laurinaitis enjoyed his time at Notre Dame and the responsibilities as the de facto linebackers coach, but when Ohio State head coach Ryan Day called recently and inquired if he would still be interested, Laurinaitis had to check on a couple of things.
“I said, ‘I have to check with the boss,’ who is my wife,” Laurinaitis said. “She was ‘absolutely, as long as you feel like you’d be happy and have the same kind of impact on the linebacker room’ that I that I did up there. And then it just kind of kept going back and forth. You could sense his passion that he really wanted to bring me back. That he thought the timing was right, and that he really thought that I could help the room and help coach Knowles out and just kind of be another voice there to help.”
At Notre Dame, defensive coordinator Al Golden was also technically the linebackers coach, but Freeman and Golden freed Laurinaitis to take ownership of the room. Coordinators can be pulled in different directions, and Laurinaitis ran his room at Notre Dame and didn’t necessarily want to take a step back.
The situation at Ohio State is quite similar, however, as defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is also technically the linebackers coach, but he has freed up his graduate assistants to handle a heavy workload. His graduate assistant last season — Koy McFarland — actually came over from Oklahoma State with him to coach the linebackers. But McFarland is now off to Tulsa as a full-time linebackers coach for former OSU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson.
The McFarland departure led to an opening that made just too much sense for both parties, but Laurinaitis still had concerns.
“I just wanted to know how much flexibility I would have to help with the linebackers,” he said. “Obviously, Coach Knowles is, from everything I’ve heard, a fantastic and brilliant mind, so being able to have an influence on the room and obviously working under Coach Knowles will be a big part of that, but I had a lot of responsibility in South Bend with the linebacker room and I look forward to earning everybody’s trust here in the building and learning his scheme and how he wants to go about things.”
So much of the coaching ladder is about timing. For Laurinaitis, the timing eventually lined up, because when he asked why he decided to make the move back to Ohio State, the first answer was about being back home.
“Alma mater,” he said. “Obviously, I love the game of football, and I love working with young people. So that’s why I got into coaching. You want to impact the kids on the field, but more importantly, you want them to leave, after building relationships with them, as better men and hopefully give them an example of what being a good husband and father can be.
“The same thing that Luke Fickell did for me. And the same thing Jim Tressel did for me. So you pair that with your alma mater, you pair that with Columbus, Ohio. And when it became something that could happen, I asked my wife and our girls, and it was pure giddiness at that point that we could be coming back home. So it was a great opportunity and I’m thankful for coach Day for providing it.”