COLUMBUS — Not much can slow down Kerry Coombs, but the moment caught up with the Ohio State assistant for just a split second.
“I get goosebumps just talking about this,” Coombs said.
The former cornerbacks coach-turned-current defensive coordinator was back in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, back at a familiar podium in the team room and back with a Block O on his polo. Coombs famously wears his passion on his sleeve anyway, and it was just as unmistakable on Wednesday morning for National Signing Day as it was during his decorated six-year career before he jumped to the NFL for two productive years with the Tennessee Titans.
Coombs never regretted his decision.
He meticulously laid out his reasoning for joining Mike Vrabel at the next level, everything he learned that would make him a better coach for the Buckeyes and the value of absorbing a different leadership style in the professional ranks.
He also always missed Ohio State over the last two years.
And while it might seem like those feelings were at odds, it all made a kind of perfect sense for Coombs when it aligned with what amounted to perfect timing with the Buckeyes in need of a new coordinator with experience in the secondary. The experience with the Titans was clearly fulfilling, but Ohio State quite obviously means even more to him.
“I love Ohio State,” Coombs said. “I don’t want to understate this: I missed it. I missed the development of the player. We were still able to develop players at Tennessee — those players are better I think than they were when we got there, OK, so I don’t think you stopped developing. I don’t think guys getting the NFL and quit getting better, I really don’t. But I love, love recruiting. I love going into high schools and talking with high school coaches. I love meeting players when they’re 16, 17, 18 years old and seeing that transition from a boy to a man. I love being behind the stage on a draft night and seeing a kid realize his dreams. I love coming out of that tunnel on a Saturday afternoon.
“I’m an Ohio guy. I love it, I missed it, and I’m really really excited to be back. I want people to understand it wasn’t leaving there. I tell people this all time: I didn’t leave Tennessee. I came to Ohio State. I came back. … And, man, it felt like home.”
The homecoming is only in the early stages, and there is plenty of work to do in a secondary that has to replace three starters. But just like Coombs knows the way to his old office, he also brought back previous experience reloading Ohio State defensive backfields hit hard by the departures of NFL Draft picks.
Coombs has been in the Horseshoe. He’s planted flags and cranked out hashtags as a recruiter, and there are numerous players still on the roster who he personally helped bring to the Buckeyes. He’s only been back around for a couple weeks, but his voice is already booming on hype videos and motivating players during Mat Drills.
It’s almost like Coombs never left at all. But that would be ignoring the fact that he’s not the same coach he was two years ago.
“I will tell you that I am [better], in my opinion,” Coombs said. “You guys will be the judge of that, and obviously the scores will indicate it, but I’m infinitely better than I was two years ago. I can tell you exactly why, and I did not expect that to be honest with you. I wasn’t going to the Tennessee Titans or the NFL to become a better football coach. I was going there because Mike Vrabel asked me, and I love Mike Vrabel. That’s why I went. But I will tell you that the experience was phenomenal.
“First of all, the volume of defense in the NFL is incredible. I have a library that is this huge, as big as all outdoors of defensive football now. … The second thing was I got to learn another leadership style from another great leader. I have coached for and with some great leaders in my career. Mike’s style is distinctly different than Urban [Meyer’s] style is distinctly different than Brian Kelly style. He has his own way of leading a team. Man, did I learn some great things from Mike. And then the last thing that I didn’t expect was it you have to coach different in the NFL. You have to contemplate every drill, every coverage, everything you do, and you have to have a why behind it, it makes you a much better coach. Not just because you have to think about it, but because you have to explain it to somebody and I can’t wait to get my hands on these guys and be able to start to explain to them why we’re doing these things. It will make them better.”
That’s never truly been a problem for Coombs at Ohio State before, and there’s a banner with a bunch of his first-round cornerbacks still hanging above the practice facility to prove it.
But Coombs is coming back with more responsibility now as the coordinator. There’s more money, the spotlight will be brighter and the expectations are as enormous as they’ve ever been for Ohio State after coming up short in the College Football Playoff last season. Plus, while Coombs was always adored for his nonstop sideline energy, aggressive fist-pumping and undeniable passion, that’s all ramped up now that he’s something of a returning hero.
Obviously the work is just beginning. But Coombs joked early on that his thumb-print still worked to let him in the door, he thanked all the Ohio State fans who kept embracing him while he was gone, openly embraced the next challenge — and he even threw up his arms like he used to after a big special-teams tackle when he spotted Gene Smith in the hallway.
“I’m back, baby!” Kerry Coombs yelled. “I’m back.”
The second honeymoon at Oho State is only just beginning.