Sevyn Banks and Tyreke Johnson never got to play for the position coach who recruited them to Ohio State.
When Banks and Johnson signed with Ohio State in December and arrived at Ohio State as early enrollees in January, they did so with the expectation that they would be coached by Kerry Coombs, who had been Ohio State’s cornerbacks coach since 2012 and was widely regarded as one of the best cornerbacks coaches in college football, having had four cornerbacks selected in the first round of the NFL draft in the past four years.
Less than three weeks after Ohio State’s newest cornerbacks arrived on campus, however, Coombs left the Buckeyes to become the secondary coach of the Tennessee Titans, leaving both Banks and Johnson without one of the big reasons why they chose to become Buckeyes in the first place.
Banks and Johnson were disappointed, certainly, that they won’t get the opportunity to play for Coombs. Both also say, however, that Coombs’ decision to leave doesn’t change their opinion of the man who recruited him as a person.
"Who am I to get mad at him?" said Johnson, a five-star recruit from Jacksonville, Florida, while meeting with the media on National Signing Day. “I came here because he’s an elite cornerback coach, and he’s an elite man in life, so it’s to me, he did something that I expect any man to do in life. He made a decision that was better for him and his family.
"We respect Coach Coombs as a man, as a father, as a coach. We look at Coach Coombs sort of like he’s a father figure," Johnson added. "He did what’s best for him and his family, and that’s what a real man does at the end of the day."
Banks said that "Coach Coombs loves everybody," and because of that, he’s happy to see Coombs have the opportunity to further his career.
"My mindset hasn’t changed about him as a coach," said Banks, a four-star recruit from Orlando, Florida. "I love him, he loves me and shoot, he had to do what’s best for his family."
“He did what’s best for him and his family, and that’s what a real man does at the end of the day.”– Tyreke Johnson on Kerry Coombs
That’s not to say, though, that it was easy for Banks to see him leave.
"It was hard for everybody, honestly," Banks said Wednesday. "But it’s a business. You’re going to have to go through things like that. But you just got to bounce back. You got to get back up."
The two early enrollees certainly weren’t the only ones who were sad to see Coombs go. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said Wednesday that he was caught off-guard by Coombs’ decision to leave the Buckeyes.
"That took my breath away a little bit," Meyer said of Coombs’ departure. "Kerry is a dear friend. Him and Holly (Coombs’ wife) are, for the rest of our lives we’ll be very close. He was instrumental in our success we’ve had here. Great Ohioan, a great person. And I was shocked when he did that, but he's a friend and we obviously wish him all the very best."
Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said he will miss working alongside Coombs after doing so for the past two years.
"I respect and really enjoyed working with Kerry Coombs," Schiano said. "He is a man's man, a really good football coach, but he's become a very close friend. So that part of it is always sad. That happens in our profession. You stay in touch, but it's not the same as working with each other."
Meyer, who described Coombs as "an expert at corner play," says the Buckeyes will have big shoes to fill in replacing him. Schiano says that because Coombs had such an energetic personality, Ohio State might not be able to fill his shoes with just one coach.
"He's an excellent coach, so he's going to be hard to replace. He's an excellent recruiter, he's going to be even harder to replace," Schiano said. "When have you a guy with that big a personality, I don't know if you replace him with one guy. I think what we all have to do is, I have to do a better job, other coaches have to pick up the slack a little bit and we hire a coach who’s really good and we keep this thing moving forward."
The good news for the Buckeyes is that they don’t have to replace him with just one guy. While Ohio State plans to hire a cornerback coach to replace Coombs – a hire Meyer expects to be made by the end of next week – Schiano’s decision to stay and the January hiring of former Washington State defensive coordinator and secondary coach Alex Grinch, which was made possible by the expansion of Football Bowl Subdivision coaching staffs to 10 full-time assistants, will give the Buckeyes three assistant coaches with experience working with defensive backs.
Ohio State hasn’t determined exactly how the roles of Schiano, Grinch and the incoming hire will be balanced with one another – Meyer and Schiano say that is something that will be worked out over the next few weeks and months – Schiano has assumed control of working with the Buckeyes’ cornerbacks on an interim basis, an opportunity he has enjoyed having, until the new cornerbacks coach is hired.
"I love working with the corners," Schiano said. "Even when I was a head coach, I worked with the corners. Even in the NFL, when I was a head coach, I worked with the corners. That's kind of what I enjoy doing. So regardless of what I'm doing, I'll be working with them some. But we're going to try to get, as we always do, the best coach we can to help us continue to move the program forward."
Banks and Johnson have had to navigate some of their first weeks as Buckeyes without having a full-time cornerbacks coach, but they say everyone around them – both coaches and players – have stepped up to help them through that transition.
Johnson singled out Damon Arnette, who is set to be the Buckeyes’ most experienced cornerback on the roster entering his redshirt junior season, as a player who has particularly taken on a leadership role since Coombs’ departure.
"We have leaders like Damon Arnette who stepped up strong and basically been our DB coach," Johnson said. "Damon Arnette’s doing a tremendous job of keeping us together, making us know, 'All right, look, man, you got to know this, you got to know that.' He’s a phenomenal leader, a phenomenal guy."
Both players, though, say what has really made the transition easier to manage is the collective effort the entire group has put in to keep moving forward.
"Everything you do here is us," Banks said. "It’s not just one person, it’s us. And we going to achieve it as a unit and as a team. So it’s no one person in this thing. Everybody’s going to work hard, everybody’s going to show you what to do."