In Earle Bruce’s final two recruiting classes, Ohio State plucked away Cincinnati’s top players. Quarterback Greg Frey and running back Carlos Snow went to Ohio State, not Notre Dame or an SEC school. At the same time, Cleveland’s best – Elvis Grbac and Desmond Howard – fled the state for Michigan.
Over the next three decades, recruiting territories inside Ohio’s state borders changed drastically. Cleveland was painted scarlet and gray, with nearly every major target Ohio State wanted venturing south on 71 to Columbus. Meanwhile, there was a blockade around Cincinnati’s city limits.
But the Southwest Ohio trend is beginning to change under Urban Meyer. Five-star linebacker Justin Hilliard became the third Cincinnati recruit to join Ohio State in Meyer’s four recruiting classes and seventh from the southwestern part of the state. Hilliard is just the second St. Xavier player to sign with the Buckeyes since Frey in 1986.
John Cooper and Jim Tressel were never able to penetrate the Greater Cincinnati area on a consistent basis. During that time, SEC schools began marching north and pulling talent away from Ohio State and other Midwestern schools that recruit the area.
“In my opinion, there’s no better high school football anywhere in the country than there is in the city of Cincinnati,” said Ohio State assistant and Cincinnati native Kerry Coombs. “I think historically, you could say that they have produced an awful lot of great, talented kids at a wide range of ability levels and a wide range of universities. Friday nights in Cincinnati are truly special and unique. I loved coaching football there. I still love whenever I have a chance to be back there for high school football.”
One reason the Buckeyes have never been major players in the Queen City on a yearly basis is the lack of rabid fans when compared to Cleveland, Dayton and Canton, where Saturdays are planned around Ohio State games. Even Toledo, which contains a segment of Michigan fans, is considered a major Ohio State market.
Just 100 miles separate Columbus from Cincinnati, but the two cities couldn’t be more different. Whereas Columbus, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Detroit are Midwestern to the core, Cincinnati has a southern feel to it. The culture is more Kentucky than Ohio.
“To me, Cincinnati is different, it is unique, and that's OK,” Coombs said. “Cincinnati should celebrate who they are, and I do as a Cincinnatian. I'm also an Ohioan, and I feel that gap is what we're continuing to bridge and working really hard to bridge.”
The University of Cincinnati also contributes to the city’s distaste for the Buckeyes. The Bearcats upended Ohio State to win the college basketball national championship in 1961 and ’62. The two schools wouldn’t meet again until 2006 due to lingering animosity from the title games and the infamous recruitment of basketball star Damon Flint in the early 1990s.
In recent years, the Bearcat football program has enjoyed a resurgence. They’ve won or shared four conference championships in the last six seasons and appeared in two BCS bowls. In 2009, Cincinnati finished the regular season unbeaten and nearly played for the national championship. Ten bowl games in 15 years has led to a spike in interest from Cincinnati residents and a surge in attendance at Nippert Stadium.
The Catholic influence is also significant in Cincinnati, making it fertile recruiting ground for Notre Dame and Boston College. Brian Kelly’s relationship with the city has only strengthened the Irish’s recruiting grip. They currently have two Cincinnati players on the roster and four total from Southwest Ohio.
“That was the school I had the most trouble with saying no to,” Hilliard said. “I definitely see the connection with St. X. “
Ohio-born Mark Stoops, the head coach at Kentucky, has a coaching staff with deep Ohio ties and is recruiting the Cincinnati area hard.
During Tressel’s tenure, Jordan Hicks, Trey Depriest, Andrew Hendrix, Matt James, and Spencer Ware, among others, all got away to other big-time programs. Tressel hailed from Northeast Ohio and tended to recruit more heavily from that area. It was during this time that Glenville became a pipeline for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes offered 20 Glenville players in Tressel’s 10 years as head coach and signed 17 of them. The number of offers to Glenville kids was nearly the same as the offers that went to kids from the entire city of Cincinnati (22).
In Meyer, Ohio State hired a coach who has national appeal, was born and raised in Northeast Ohio and then established roots in Cincinnati, graduating from UC, coaching at St. Xavier and having family that still resides in the city. The week before Meyer was hired, Cincinnati Taft defensive end Adolphus Washington committed to Ohio State. When asked by reporters who his head coach would be, Washington didn’t hesitate in naming Meyer.
Turning Cincinnati into an Ohio State hotbed is one of Meyer’s biggest recruiting objectives.
“Urban coached me my senior year at St. X, so I have known him a long time,” St. Xavier head coach Steve Specht said. “He's fiery. If Coach Meyer wants somebody, Coach Meyer is going to get that somebody. I enjoyed talking to Coach, and I enjoy the whole staff at Ohio State. I coached against Coach Coombs for years, but Coach Meyer, boy, he’s cut from a different cloth. He’s a special individual.”
It’s no surprise that when Ohio Stadium was being renovated in 2013 the Buckeyes opted to move their spring game to the Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium. It was a shrewd strategy by Meyer that was executed with precision.
Ohio State went on team trips to Montgomery Inn, Skyline Chili, Graeter’s Ice Cream, the Reds Museum and Marvin Lewis’s home. Nearly 40,000 fans showed up to the game. It was a number that made Meyer and Coombs, the former head coach at Colerain and an assistant at UC, beam.
“I can tell you for me personally I couldn’t be more proud of my town," Coombs said. “There’s something that fills your heart as a Cincinnati guy to come down 71, and then you turn and there are the buildings. For me, thank you to the people of Cincinnati. This was special for a lot of kids today.”
Coombs has become Ohio State’s ambassador to Cincinnati, a pitchman who speaks with fire and brimstone about the Buckeyes. He was hired for his work in the defensive backfield, but it’s no secret Coombs’ ties to Cincinnati were also part of the job interview.
“I’ll put it this way,” Specht said when asked about Coombs, “I think Kerry Coombs is a hell of a recruiter. I don’t think it matters if it’s Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland or another state. If Kerry is recruiting an area, he’s a good recruiter and he’s going to get kids to look long and hard at Ohio State.”
Said Stacy Elliott, the father of Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott: “Coach Kerry Coombs is phenomenal. When he speaks, he touches my soul. When I first heard him speak, I had to stop what I was doing because I love great speakers. He speaks the truth. He’s a walking billboard for Ohio State. When you hear him speak, he dies and Ohio State football lives through him. That’s a great man. I’m not surprised by anything he does.”
Including turning the forbidden city of Cincinnati into an Ohio State enclave.