Mike Vrabel: Forever in Attack Mode

By Kyle Rowland on August 18, 2013 at 6:00a
Mike Vrabel, always in dog mode.

It took Mike Vrabel one day to find new work.

In the summer of 2011, with his NFL career already in its twilight stage, Vrabel’s alma mater was mired in a scandal never seen before. When his best friend and former roommate was elevated to head coach, Vrabel’s phone rang soon thereafter. Luke Fickell was on the other end.

A little more than a month later, Vrabel’s 14-year NFL career came to an end when he retired. His body had delivered and taken punishing blows for too long. It wouldn’t be a quiet retirement, though. In fact, Vrabel was back on the job a day later, albeit in a far different capacity.

The decision wasn’t all that surprising. Vrabel and Fickell’s relationship was well documented and word leaked that Vrabel would like to coach at Ohio State. He had lived in Columbus since he first stepped foot on campus as a freshman in 1993. The university was his comfort zone.

“It was only natural to come back to Columbus,” Vrabel said. “I never really left, I just spent half the year somewhere else playing football.”

But how would Vrabel react – and adapt – to being the instructor?

Success on the playing field doesn’t guarantee a prosperous coaching career, just as being a third-string quarterback doesn’t mean one has no future in the coaching profession.

“Mike Vrabel is as well-suited for coaching as any player I have ever coached,” said New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. “Mike has a tremendous feel for people, players, coaches and what his team needs regardless of the situation. He is outstanding in his knowledge of the game, which contributed to his excellence as a player. While playing, Mike at times acted as another coach on the field. Now, as a coach, I have no doubt Mike will develop tough, intelligent, fundamentally sound winners.”

Vrabel was a former All-Pro and three-time Super Bowl champion who had a borderline Hall of Fame career. An All-American defensive end in college and Ohio State’s all-time sacks leader, Vrabel moved to linebacker in the NFL. He was also a short-yardage receiving specialist, catching 12 passes in his career – all touchdowns. 

Three years later, Vrabel had proven his coaching tryout had much more substance than many may have believed. The first year had its rocky moments. It’s a common occurrence for first-year coaches, especially when a once-proud program flounders to a 6-7 record.

But along came Urban Meyer to save the day. Who would be his Robin, though? Vrabel carried cache in the name recognition category. However, only coaching for one year lessened his impact. After Meyer spoke to Belichick, a close personal friend, he pondered his future at Ohio State. The vision included Vrabel.

“He’s attacking coaching the same way he attacked playing as a pro.”

“He’s attacking coaching the same way he attacked playing as a pro,” Meyer said. “You don’t survive as long as he did in the National Football League unless you’ve got an extremely high work ethic and you’re very professional about your job. He was a first-year defensive line coach, and you can tell he’s a very experienced defensive line coach now.”

In the past two years, Vrabel has coached one of the top units on an undefeated team, a group that included John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, and developed into an ace recruiter. It follows a recent trend in the college game. The new model is hire a former successful player, mold them into a coach, but most importantly establish an exceptional recruiter.

Vrabel was part of the then-winningest class in Ohio State history when his college career came to a grand conclusion in the 1997 Rose Bowl. He is Ohio State, the tradition seeps out of him. He was part of an NFL dynasty that the current generation watched with anticipation. The experiences he brings to be an exemplary coach and recruiter are invaluable. How else do you explain names like Noah Spence, Billy Price, Tracy Sprinkle, Joey Bosa and Michael Hill dotting his resume. And that’s just a sampling.

The Buckeyes’ are replacing all four defensive line starters for the first time in, well, Vrabel was a 10-year-old playing football in his parents’ front yard the last time it happened – 1985. But he doesn’t consider it a burden. Instead, Vrabel embraced the challenge of casting young players into high-profile positions and in turn making the green line a strength.

“I try to coach on testimonial,” Vrabel said. “Every situation they come across I’ve probably seen as a player in four years at Ohio State and 14 in the NFL. I push them. I try to make them mentally tough, and I try to help them avoid the distractions and the pitfalls.

“I just try to coach them as hard as I possibly can and get them to play with effort and toughness.”

The technique must work. A group that includes Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence, Michael Bennett and Joel Hale has shined since spring practice. Meyer, taking a page out of Michael Jordan’s playbook, is a big proponent of making practice more difficult that what a player experiences in games. Vrabel motto is “Make the hard look easy,” a tagline he lifted from Belichick.

So far, he’s done exactly that. 

“I’ve seen some progress in the technique and things we expect,” Meyer said. “It has to happen. We just don’t have very many older guys.

“[The defensive line] is where it all starts. You want to have a bad football team? Have a bad D-line. You can be average in some other spots and kind of hide them. But it’s over if you have a bad defensive line. You have no chance.”

Throughout his career in football, Vrabel has won at every level. Big Ten titles, the Rose Bowl, multiple Super Bowls, even the Pro Bowl. The one thing that’s eluded him, though, haunted him even, is the lack of a national championship.

There were two opportunities in college that Michigan spoiled. Now as a coach with a dream job, Vrabel has an opening in those hopes. Ohio State enters the season as the consensus No. 2 team in the nation, on a collision course with top-ranked Alabama.

If the fairy tale comes to fruition, you can count on a sleepless Jan. 5 for Vrabel.

“I can tell you that as a player I never woke up in the middle of the night,” he said. “I hit the pillow and the next thing I knew it was morning. As a coach, I rarely sleep through the night. I worry about a lot more things.

‘What’s so-and-so going to do? Are we installing too much, too little?’ It’s always something. So I guess I can say I’ve figured out part of coaching because that seems to be how it goes for everybody in the business.”


Comments Show All Comments

buckguyfan1's picture

He's pure Buckeye!  Loved him as a player and damn proud to have as a Coach!
That is high praise coming from Belichick.

DannyBeane's picture

If more people were like Coach Vrabel, a lot more good stuff would be accomplished in the world. Definitely a role model.

SGTBuckeye83's picture

How do I get a job working with this team? So many high character, strong work ethic guys. Parents should have no fear sending their kids to TOSU.

Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction.

Hovenaut's picture

He's spot on about how important the d-line is to the success of a football team.

Couldn't think of a better coach for Ohio State to bring in four new starters up front...fully confident Vrabel is going to have this group functioning at a very high level before long.

FitzBuck's picture

Love the fact he never left Columbus.  How many pros keep a house in their college town and return to it every year?  

Fitzbuck | Toledo - Ohio's right armpit | "A troll by any other name is still a troll".

awlinBrutus's picture

Coach Vrabel is awesome. Especially walking into a recruits home with all those super bowl rings.


bodast67's picture

Now he can sport the 12-0 ring as well....




     " I hope when I die, I die laughing"...                

Oldschoolbuck's picture

Again, with apologies to CC - literally all Vrabes did was catch TOUCHDOWNS!
Loved him as a player, believe he is on his way to being an excellent coach (I don't think UFM or Belichick hand out undeserved compliments)!

DenBuck's picture

Great article. Hope he's a lifer here. Potential head coach in waiting? 

Buckeye For Life

JohnBoy's picture

You know, I really thought at first that his sights were set on an NFL coaching job but I think he and his family are settled in. One of those rare guys that has instant credibility based on his accomplishments.

Thank you sir! May I have another?

buckeyedude's picture

Having Vrabel has worked out very well for Meyer and Ohio State, and he(Meyer) knows it.
Just one thing: Is Vrabel the D-line coach? I thought he was LB coach? The article makes it sound like he's the D-line coach.



SOF_Buckeye's picture

D-line coach. Fickell is the LB coach.

"The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender." Woody Hayes

buckeyedude's picture

Thanks dude. That's right.
Age happens to me. :(



Oldschoolbuck's picture

Ficks is LB coach, Vrabes is D-line. Maybe you're thinking of his playing days at NE. *Great minds, SOF!*

CTBuckeyeFan's picture

Vrabel actually started his coaching career here as LB coach in 2011, then became DL coach when Meyer was hired.

chirobuck's picture

He's just the kinda guy who's gonna be successful with whatever he does


^ best post ever ^

BuckeyeNationProblems's picture

When I was in college I was a bartender at Bravos in worthington. Coach Vrabel, Jen and their boys would come in and eat at the kitchen bar. I can honestly say they were some of the nicest, most down to Earth people who came through that restraunt. 


unknownmusketeer's picture

The only course of action when seeing an article about the awesome Mike Vrabel and not being able to upvote the author is to upvote the commenters. All of them.
Vrabel is LEGEN ... wait for it .... DARY.

dubjayfootball90's picture

This dude is all man. Great to have in as a coach and representative of THE Ohio State.

You can feed a bobcat all the chili it wants. That don't mean it's going to crap out diamonds.

zbd's picture

His record of touchdown catches of 13/13 will never be broken. I like Vrabel as a coach much more than Fickell. 

Oldschoolbuck's picture

Fair enough, ZBD, I respect your opinion and give you an upvote.
I give Fickell mad props for being handed an excrement burger in '11 and keeping things from TOTALLY stinking!
Perhaps he's not HC material right now (if ever), but he's coached some pretty good LBs over the years and had the brains/humility/foresight to give his best friend a call and shout, "Help!"
Those two guys will always bleed S&G, no matter where they end up in the future.

2morrow's picture

Coach Vrabel is a big part of the early success of the Bucks - recruiting and on the field. Credit to Coach Fickell for bringing him on board, Coach Meyer for keeping him, and Vrabel for making it all work! Go Bucks!

BSTP DeCon's picture

I never knew the man only caught TD's and I'm so happy Coach Meyer kept Vrab's on tOSU staff. Easily one of my favorite highers in my lifespan!

Edincostarica's picture

His Dad was/is a class act as well. He was a basketball coach at Norton High School back in the mid 70's.


NitroBuck's picture

One thing the story does not mention is that during his last couple of years in the NFL, Vrabel was working to complete his degree so that he could go into coaching.  Just another example of how he works hard to earn success.l

Ferio.  Tego.

southbay's picture

This team had four starters on the D line graduate, and yet well before the end of this coming season I think the Buckeyes will have a dominant line, and in no small part due to Vrabel's leadership.  It will be yet another significant accomplishment for him.  I could be wrong, but so far it is looking good.

nm_buck's picture

Vrabes is a Man's Man.  He exudes toughness, confidence, and leadership.  I never seen a guy grow a beard so fast.  His face is like a chia pet.  He shaved an hour before the photo at the top of the page. 
How many D1 coaches could strap it on vs their top players and prevail?  I am certain the young defensive line both respects and fears him... which will translate to a solid defensive front that improves every game.

"The future is bright at Ohio State."  - Urban Meyer 1/1/15

3technique's picture

In my opinion the ONLY difference between TOSU and the $EC is the DLines. His recruiting and coaching are changing this and I cannot wait to see it on the field this yr...

Oldschoolbuck's picture

NC game in Jan of '07 a case in point.
Florida's D-line was totally dominant (thank you, Coach Walrus)!
No matter what level of football, teams with great lines on BOTH sides of the ball win a lot of games.

SOF_Buckeye's picture

Good point Buck... his beard reminds me of the cartoon character's from the old days...always a 5 o'clock shadow...Vrabel could have been the inspiration for that.

"The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender." Woody Hayes

buckeyedude's picture

  I never seen a guy grow a beard so fast.  His face is like a chia pet.  He shaved an hour before the photo at the top of the page. 

Maybe Vrabel needs to replace Alec Baldwin in those Cap One commercials with the Vikings. Those guys grow beards fast.



TraptnMI's picture

Brings tears to my eyes. So excited and happy for Vrabes! PENETRATION EMINENT!!!

" It's real good whatcha done Anthony, real good ! "

Oldschoolbuck's picture

My inner 13 year old has several comments to add to your double entendre, TRAPT!
I'll refrain and simply upvote you for your enthusiasm and for making me smirk.

pjtobin's picture

I'm a big fan. He is super nice. And super cool. I thought he won a Super Bowl MVP. No or yes?

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

zbd's picture

He won 3 super bowl rings, but not the MVP. They usually go to the QBs.

pjtobin's picture

I have thought he had been the MVP for a long time. I have told many ppl that he was. Man do I feel like a dumbbutt. Oh we'll shat happens. And thanks for replying ZDB. 

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

63tinman's picture

Don't beat yourself up too badly, PJTOBIN. I swear I remember the Buckeyes beating Arkansas but have been told by many that that never happened either.  

ScarletGray43157's picture

Solid coaching staffs are a huge part of whether a team succeeds or not.  Not much recognition given to them even though they make a big difference.  Having Mike Vrable on the staff will make a huge positive difference.  

In old Ohio there's a team that's known throughout the land...

BenArazi4's picture

Loved that Meyer kept him on, I had a feeling he would be special not only in recruiting but in coaching because of his feel for the game, intelligence, intensity and ability to get through to the kids.  Glad to have you coach, one of my favorite Buckeyes ever!




buckskin's picture

Another great strory on a team full of them.  Like Meyer, he has come home, hopefully to stay.  Through Fickell in there as a emerging position coach/coordinator and we have the Ohio Connection.

Boxley's picture

Actually 10 receptions for ten touchdowns, eight with NE, 2 with KC. also one INT for a TD while with NE.
He had two TD receptions and a sack in one game, being the only NFL player to date having ever accomplished that feat.
tOSU is lucky to have such a hard driven , intelligent player as a coach, and now a top recruiter as well..

"...the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic-the man who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done." President T. Roosevelt