Jake Diebler Made Up for Lack of Experience With Leadership Traits, Recruiting Ability and Authenticity for Ohio State AD Ross Bjork

By Andy Anders on March 18, 2024 at 8:25 pm
Ross Bjork

In the early days of Ohio State’s basketball coaching search, Ross Bjork let it be known that experience mattered in finding the right fit for the program.

Jake Diebler, outside of the month he served in an interim capacity before being named the Buckeyes’ full-time head coach on Sunday, has none as a head coach.

In other words, Bjork must have been sold on all of Diebler’s other qualities in building a program sustainable for long-term success. He made as much clear at the coach’s introductory press conference on Monday.

“He’s the real deal,” Bjork said. “He knows how to live at the highest level of college basketball, he’s seen it in action. So to me that made up for the lack of long-term head coaching experience, because he just fits with where we are in this program right now.”

Diebler’s authenticity, long-term plan, leadership traits and recruiting ability convinced Bjork that he’s the man to lead Ohio State forward as it tries to compete to, in his words, “cut down nets.”

“This isn’t just five weeks, this is a long-term vision and do you have a plan? Are you prepared to make the kind of adjustments that we need to make, knowing that we have a really good foundation,” Bjork said. “That’s through conversation. You test that willpower that he has. And again, people are born to do this and there’s innate leadership abilities that you see manifest in conversations, in interactions. The way he carried himself in the media, he never made it about self-preservation, that he’s doing everything to manipulate it to get the job. He was doing everything, ‘What’s best for the program in this time?’”

Bjork sees some of himself in Diebler.

When Bjork landed his first athletic director job at Western Kentucky in 2010, he was just 37 years old. People questioned if he was ready for the opportunity given his age, but he’s gone on to become one of the most prominent athletic directors in college sports, making stops at Ole Miss and Texas A&M before arriving at Ohio State.

Diebler, being from Northwest Ohio – the “419” as the coach put it – and the son of an Ohio high school basketball coach has thought of this opportunity since a young age.

“He’s overprepared because he’s been dreaming about this for a long, long time,” Bjork said. “I think I was 37 when I became an AD. Jake, how old are you?”

“37,” Diebler said.

“37. So very similar in terms of the preparation. Just because you’re not the head coach in title doesn’t mean you don’t have an organized plan, doesn’t mean you don’t have a vision, doesn’t mean you’re not establishing core values for when you might take over a job. So he was equipped, I think, a little bit beyond what you see on a résumé.”

Bjork actually sees Diebler’s youth as an edge in the rapidly changing collegiate landscape of NIL and the transfer portal.

“I think you actually take his age as an advantage,” Bjork said. “The relatability piece, he was the lead recruiter on most of the guys on the roster, he’s recruiting that next generation of guys that are considering Ohio State. To me, you take that whole package that he offers – yeah, he may be a certain age. But either wherewithal is there and the DNA is there (or it isn’t).”

“He was equipped, I think, a little bit beyond what you see on a résumé.”– Ross Bjork on Jake Diebler

Diebler’s interview process started in his eight-game interim head coaching stint. He and Ohio State came out victorious in six of those eight contests including a win over then-No. 2 Purdue to get the ball rolling, which greatly impressed Bjork.

That’s where Bjork first saw the “wherewithal” he spoke of. Diebler guided the Buckeyes on a five-game winning streak through the end of the regular season and the second round of the Big Ten Tournament before falling in the quarterfinals to Illinois.

“I think what we saw the last eight games ... either you have the wherewithal or you don’t,” Bjork said. “He outcoached coaches that have been doing this a long time. Strategy, substitutions, timeouts, so as you observe that you say, ‘OK, do you have that wherewithal?’ Clearly, he has a whisperer, he has his dad in his ear, that born-to-coach mentality.”

Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, as the saying goes, and Diebler’s already built a reputation in that realm.

While an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, he served as the lead recruiter for Darius Garland, now an NBA All-Star with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was Chris Holtmann’s lead recruiter up until the now-former Buckeye coach was fired, championing the effort to sign the nation’s No. 8 class in both 2022 and 2023.

"As we looked at all the characteristics, as we looked at, ‘Where is this program at now, what’s coming down the pathway in terms of the next couple of classes here in the state of Ohio,’ which are really deep in terms of recruiting – I sat down with the folks that know recruiting and this landscape and to connect all the dots that he has, there’s value in that," Bjork said. "There’s value in that in terms of other people that would have to come in and learn that."

Building from the transfer portal will also be important as the Buckeyes try to mix in some veteran talent with any youth they accumulate. 

“Balance is important at Ohio State,” Diebler said. “We’re able to recruit talented high school players and we need to continue to do that, but we also need to utilize all the resources available to build the best roster possible. So that balance will be important.”

Of course, to retain the talent already in Ohio State’s program, Diebler gives the Buckeyes their best shot.

Stability wasn’t a deciding factor in Diebler’s hiring, Bjork said, but it is a nice perk.

“The added bonus of this is the timing,” Bjork said. “He’s already been hitting the ground running from a recruiting standpoint, he’s already built those relationships. So the added bonus, where he has a head start, that was an attractive piece of it but he had to fit the other things first. If he didn’t match the other characteristics and you only went with that, was that sustainable? The leadership and the wherewithal has to be sustainable and so that was the first thing.”

Diebler will have months to lay out his long-term plan, make any staff changes and attack the transfer portal to fill in the talent gaps he’ll have in his first full season. Right now, though, he’s focused on leading Ohio State through the NIT as best he can to close out the 2023-24 campaign. The Buckeyes tip off against Cornell in the first round at home Tuesday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2.

“We need to finish this season well first,” Diebler said. “The focus is serving these guys all the way through and then we’ll turn to being able to make some of those more significant changes that didn’t make sense to do to give us the best chance, (and) was best for our guys when the (coaching) change happened.”

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