Kerry Coombs has always been known for his boundless energy throughout his two tenures at Ohio State, but that has never been more evident in a press conference setting than it was during his first media availability in a full month on Tuesday.
Coombs met with reporters on Tuesday for the first time since Ryan Day opted to reassign defensive play-calling responsibilities to Matt Barnes, and he acknowledged that the last month has not been easy for him, as he’s had to accept no longer being in charge of the defense he was hired to coordinate less than two years ago.
What he also made clear, though, was his commitment to doing his job and helping Ohio State’s defense succeed has not wavered.
Speaking with the same passion that’s made him an elite recruiter and beloved assistant coach for most of his Ohio State tenure, and exuding far more energy than the last time he spoke publicly following the Buckeyes’ 35-28 loss to Oregon in their second game of the season, Coombs was adamant he’s still doing everything he can – and will do so for the rest of the year – to try to help the Buckeyes win every game they play.
“This has been the hardest stretch of my professional career, which I would tell you means I’ve had a really good career, because if this is the hardest stretch, then life’s not gonna be too bad,” Coombs said. “The handling of it is a work in progress, but I would also tell you this, that in my opinion, handling it in a different fashion – picking up your ball and going home, kicking the can down the road, quitting, packing your stuff up, being a miserable human being – if I had done those things, that would make me a liar to every one of those young men that I coached along the way that had tough times.
“So if you’re here for the other men on this team, the other coaches and the other players on this team, if that’s truly what you believe, then you’re here with them come heck or highwater. And you’re here fighting and struggling and scrapping. And I love those kids. I love those kids in that locker room, I love those kids on this team. I love the men I work with and I love Ohio State. And I’m gonna be here. I’m gonna be fighting and battling and scratching and clawing for the remainder of the season to help us win every freaking Saturday. That’s what I’m gonna do.”
Coombs said multiple times Tuesday that he remains confident in his ability to coordinate a defense, and whether Coombs will be back with the Buckeyes in any role next season seems uncertain at best, as it’s unlikely he will get play-calling responsibilities back.
For right now, however, Coombs says he’s not thinking about that. He still holds the title of defensive coordinator and he’s still being paid the $1.4 million salary that comes with that title, and he’s still committed to doing his job to the best of his ability.
“Whether or not I like everything or how everything went, that’s got nothing to do with it. It’s gotta do with you got a job to do,” Coombs said. “And hopefully some day down the road, some young man who had trouble, who faces trouble or adversity can remember an example of a man who tried to lead with positive energy in the midst of adversity. And if I can do that, then I will have accomplished my goal. As long as we are continuing to progress and win on Saturday afternoons.”
Although Coombs was disappointed Day decided to effectively demote him, and that the change played out in the public eye, he didn’t allow himself much time to sulk, nor did he want Ohio State’s players or other coaches to see that he was hurting.
“I’ll tell you the same thing I tell the kids when they have a tough day or an injury, it’s OK to be sad. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Coombs said. “But that can’t last. That’s a 24-hour window. You gotta pick yourself up, you dust yourself off and you go back to work. And that’s what life is. That’s true for all of us. So be sad for a day. I’m not gonna tell you I was kicking my heels and jumping up for joy. I’m not. That would be a lie. It would be disingenuous. But I’m gonna tell you that I made a conscious decision every day, and even that day, to make sure that I wasn’t gonna paint that picture for everybody else. Your guts can be turning inside out and upside down, but you don’t have to show that to everybody else. Because to me, that’s just asking for sympathy.”
”I’m gonna be fighting and battling and scratching and clawing for the remainder of the season to help us win every freaking Saturday. That’s what I’m gonna do.”– Kerry Coombs on accepting his new role
Ultimately, Coombs recognizes Day made the decision he thought would give the Buckeyes the best chance to win games – a decision he understands from his own background as a head coach at the high school level. So the last thing Coombs wants to do is anything that would stand in the way of Ohio State winning games.
“Do I have respect for Ryan Day? Absolutely. Do I have respect for the university? Absolutely. Do I have respect for how difficult that process was? I do. Do I wish everything wasn’t so public? Yeah, I do,” Coombs said. “I’m gonna be honest with you, it’s hard. It’s hard for your family, it’s hard for these kids, it’s hard. That part is really hard.
“But we can control how we respond to those tough and difficult situations, and Ryan responded in a way that Ryan believed was best for the Ohio State Buckeyes. And that is absolutely, 100 percent, the head coach’s prerogative. And I’ve been in that job, and I know that. And so I understand it. And when you’re a part of the team, whether everything’s going the way you want it to go or not, you’re still a part of that team.
“We’ve all got choices. You can quit … I’ve had a lot of kids that come in and knock on that door and that’s what they’re thinking, especially in the world of transfer portals and all those kinds of things. If you’re gonna look a kid in the eye and say, ‘Hey man, you gotta hang in there. You’re a part of this team, you’re a part of this brotherhood, you need to fight, you need to scratch, you need to claw. Things are gonna get better. You keep working, you keep struggling, you keep knocking on that door, it’s gonna open someday,’ you can’t do that and then turn around and walk out and say, ‘Well, that doesn’t apply to me.’ That just makes you a liar.”
While Coombs is no longer calling the defensive plays, he has taken on some new responsibilities in game planning and is serving as the defensive coaching staff’s eye in the sky from the press box during games. He believes that’s enhanced his ability to see the game and to communicate with the rest of the defensive coaching staff – though he does miss being able to interact directly with the players on the sideline during games.
“I miss hugging people. I’ve got (offensive coordinator) Kevin Wilson now, and I’ve gotta be honest with you, it’s not the same,” Coombs joked. “So that part, that’s real. I miss that desperately, being on the sideline. But that’s selfish, too. And so having the opportunity to go up there, which was my idea by the way, and be able to see it and I think really, really see it and get a feel for the game has been very helpful.”
In recognition of the commitment Coombs has continued to demonstrate over the past four weeks, in which Ohio State’s defense has played significantly better than it did in the first two games of the season, Ryan Day awarded Coombs the game ball from Saturday’s 66-17 win over Maryland. Day has been impressed with the selflessness Coombs has shown in accepting his new role, which he believes has set a great example for the Buckeyes.
“I’ve just got a lot of respect for the way that whole defensive staff has handled this last month, but in particular Kerry,” Day said. “It takes special people who understand what this place is and what Ohio State means, and you don’t act that selflessly without really loving Ohio State and loving Buckeye Nation and these kids, so when you see something like that, you gotta call it out for what it is, and I think it’s a great lesson for all of our players.”
Coombs, however, said he felt “undeserving” of the honor, believing the credit for the defense’s improvement belongs to the players.
“We had a lot of kids who played their butts off and played in a great environment, in a Big Ten game and a lot of young kids that are starting to grow up and come of age,” Coombs said. “I love those kids, and I’m gonna fight for them. And that’s what we’re doing.”