A Look at the Ohio State Assistant Coaches Who Have Returned for a Second Stint with the Buckeyes

By Dan Hope on January 21, 2020 at 11:10 am
Taver Johnson and Kerry Coombs

Who says you can’t go home?

Kerry Coombs left Ohio State after the 2017 season because he wanted to try his hand at coaching in the NFL, but after just two years with the Tennessee Titans, he was compelled to return to Columbus, officially rejoining the Buckeyes’ coaching staff on Monday as defensive coordinator and secondary coach.

In his announcement of the hire, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day – who previously worked with Coombs in 2017 when Day was in his first year as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach and Coombs was in his sixth year as cornerbacks coach – said Coombs’ previous experience with the Buckeyes was one reason why he targeted Coombs as Jeff Hafley’s replacement.

“Kerry Coombs is the coach I was really hoping we could hire and bring back to Ohio State,” Day said. “He is an excellent coach and he has had two outstanding seasons in the NFL on Mike Vrabel’s staff with the Tennessee Titans.

“I’ve spent a season on staff with Kerry and I really like his coaching and knowledge of the game, but I also like that he knows Ohio State and he knows how to recruit to Ohio State. He’s recruited some of the players currently on the team and he coached a handful of Buckeye defensive backs who went on to become first-round NFL draft picks.”

It’s not particularly common for an assistant coach to leave a school and return again as an assistant coach later, but Coombs’ return isn’t unprecedented. Five other former Ohio State assistant coaches also returned for a second stint for the Buckeyes, with varying degrees of success.

We opened up the history books to take a look at the previous Ohio State assistant coaches who have done two separate tours with the Buckeyes.

(Note: This list does not include Carroll Widdoes and Luke Fickell, who had multiple stints as Ohio State assistant coaches separated by a head coaching stint, but never actually left the Buckeyes. It also does not include coaches who were Ohio State graduate assistants before returning as full-time assistants – only coaches who were full-time assistants for two separate stints, with time away from Ohio State, are included below.)

Lyal Clark (1947-50, 1954-65)

Clark initially joined Ohio State’s coaching staff in 1947 when Wes Fesler, who he had previously coached with at Harvard and Pittsburgh, became the Buckeyes’ head coach. He left for Minnesota, again accompanying Fesler, following the 1950 season.

He returned to Ohio State to become Woody Hayes’ defensive coordinator in 1954 and made an immediate impact in his return. The 1954 Buckeyes held their opponents to just 7.5 points per game, went 10-0 and claimed the second national championship in school history.

Clark remained on Hayes’ staff for 12 years – even after Bill Gunlock was hired as defensive coordinator in 1961, Clark continued to coach the Buckeyes’ defensive line through 1965 – and helped lead Ohio State to two more national championships along the way.

Clive Rush (1955-57, 1959)

Rush initially arrived at Ohio State in 1955 as backfield coach for Hayes, who coached him as a player at Miami (Ohio). In Rush’s first season with the Buckeyes, he helped coach Howard “Hopalong” Cassady to the Heisman Trophy. Rush stayed with the Buckeyes through their 1957 national championship season, then left for an assistant coaching position at Oklahoma.

After just one year at Oklahoma, Rush returned to Ohio State in 1959, but he was back with the Buckeyes for only one more season before he left to become the head coach at Toledo. He later went on to coach in the NFL as the offensive coordinator for the New York Jets and the head coach of the Boston Patriots.

Frank Ellwood (1958, 1962-64)

A former quarterback for the Buckeyes who played for Hayes from 1954-56, Ellwood joined Hayes’ staff in 1958 but left after one season to join the Air Force. He spent three years at the Air Force Academy, where he also served as an assistant coach for the football team during his military service.

Upon being discharged from service in 1962, Ellwood returned to Columbus and rejoined Hayes’ staff as defensive backs coach. He was promoted to defensive coordinator in 1963 and remained with the Buckeyes for two more seasons before leaving to become an assistant coach at Ohio University. He later went on to become the head coach at Marshall from 1975-78, and made a one-year return to the sidelines at Georgia Southern – where he was a senior associate athletic director – to serve as the interim head coach there in 1996.

Bill Conley (1984-87, 1992-2003)

After playing for the Buckeyes from 1968-71, Conley spent more than a decade coaching at the high school level before joining Earle Bruce’s staff as Ohio State’s inside linebackers coach in 1984. He remained in that capacity through 1987, Bruce’s final season with the Buckeyes.

Conley did not initially stay on as an assistant coach when John Cooper succeeded Bruce in 1988, but after three years back at the high school level, he returned to Ohio State and joined Cooper’s staff as recruiting coordinator. He continued in that capacity for 13 years – in which he came to be regarded as one of the best recruiters in all of college football – and returned to the on-field coaching staff in 1992, starting out as inside linebackers coach before moving to defensive ends coach in 1993. He later switched sides of the ball and became tight ends coach in 1997, and remained in that role until 2003 – including Jim Tressel’s first three seasons as head coach – before opting to leave the Buckeyes.

Conley later became the head coach at Ohio Dominican from 2010-15, and in recent years has appeared on several local television and radio shows to analyze the Buckeyes.

Taver Johnson (2007-11, 2018)

Johnson originally joined Ohio State’s coaching staff in 2007 and served as the Buckeyes’ cornerbacks coach for Jim Tressel’s final four seasons at Ohio State as well as Luke Fickell’s interim season. During his first stint with the Buckeyes, Johnson developed a pair of All-American cornerbacks, Malcolm Jenkins and Chimdi Chekwa.

Urban Meyer offered Johnson the opportunity to remain on staff when he became head coach in 2012, but Johnson chose to become Arkansas’ assistant head coach and linebackers coach instead, opening the door for Kerry Coombs to become Meyer’s first cornerbacks coach at Ohio State. Johnson didn’t turn down the opportunity to return as cornerbacks coach in 2018, though, after Coombs left for the NFL.

Johnson’s return lasted only one year, as Ohio State’s defense had its worst statistical season in school history in 2018. When Day succeeded Meyer after the 2018 season, he chose not to retain Johnson, instead bringing in Jeff Hafley to coach the Buckeyes’ secondary. Johnson is now the assistant defensive backs coach for the NFL's Oakland Raiders.

Kerry Coombs (2012-17, 2019-)

Coombs was previously Ohio State’s cornerbacks coach for each of Meyer’s first six seasons with the Buckeyes, in which he also served as special teams coordinator from 2013 to 2017 and assistant defensive coordinator in 2017.

After two seasons as the Titans’ secondary coach, he’s become the sixth Ohio State assistant coach to return for a second stint, now with more responsibility as the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator and the lead position coach for the entire secondary. Of all the Ohio State assistants who have returned for another tour, Coombs’ return is perhaps the most celebrated, and now, the Buckeyes will hope he follows in the footsteps of Clark and Conley with a lengthy second tenure on staff that brings at least one national championship to Columbus.

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