It isn’t hard to see why Jim Knowles was Ryan Day’s choice to be Ohio State’s new defensive coordinator in 2022.
Only two defenses in the country allowed fewer yards per game than Oklahoma State this season, and neither of their defensive coordinators – Wisconsin’s Jim Leonhard, who played for the Badgers, and Georgia’s Dan Lanning, whose next job will likely be as a head coach – were likely to be realistic hires for the Buckeyes.
By many measures, Knowles’ Oklahoma State defense has been one of the best in the country in 2021, ranking first in the nation in sacks (54) and tackles for loss (113), second in opposing third down percentage (25.8%), third in yards allowed per game (278.4), fourth in yards allowed per play (4.42), sixth in yards allowed per rushing attempt (2.74), eighth in points allowed per game (16.8) and 14th in yards allowed per passing attempt (6.26).
Those numbers might be enough right there to tell you why Ohio State hired Knowles. A veteran defensive coordinator with a track record of leading successful defenses is exactly what the Buckeyes needed, and Knowles – a finalist for this year’s Broyles Award – fits that bill as well as anyone.
That said, there’s plenty more to know about Knowles, who’s had a unique path to becoming the most coveted defensive coordinator in this year’s hiring cycle.
A track record of improvement
Oklahoma State’s defense progressively got better each year over the course of his four-year tenure in Stillwater.
His tenure got off to a shaky start in 2018, when Oklahoma State ranked 112th in total defense (452.5 yards allowed per game) and 97th in scoring defense (32.5 points allowed per game). But the Cowboys improved to 82nd in total defense (412.3) and 61st in scoring defense (26.8) in 2019 and 44th in total defense (379.0) and 34th in scoring defense (23.5) in 2020 before becoming a top-10 defense this year.
Duke’s defensive numbers also improved over the course of his tenure in Durham, culminating with a defense that ranked 21st in both yards allowed per game (332.6) and points allowed per game (20.2).
At Ohio State, he’ll be expected to deliver elite results on a more immediate basis, as Ryan Day will be expecting him to turn the Buckeyes’ defense into one of the nation’s best right away in 2022. But he’ll be inheriting more talent in Columbus than he’s ever had at his disposal in any of his previous coaching jobs.
A varied coaching background
In more than 30 years of experience as a college coach, Knowles has done a little bit of everything.
He has spent most of his career on the defensive side of the ball and most of his time coaching linebackers. He was Oklahoma State’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for the past four years, and was the linebackers coach for the final seven years of his eight-year tenure as Duke’s defensive coordinator before that. He was also the linebackers coach at Ole Miss for one year in 2003, in his final year as Western Michigan’s defensive coordinator in 2002 and in his final two years as an assistant coach at his alma mater Cornell in 1995 and 1996.
That said, he’s also been a defensive line coach in his first five years at Western Michigan (1997-01) and in his first year as an assistant coach at Cornell (1987), while he was the safeties coach in his first year as Duke’s defensive coordinator (2010). He even has experience coaching on the offensive side of the ball, as he was Cornell’s running backs coach from 1989-94.
Like Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, Knowles also brings head coaching experience to the staff, as he was the head coach at Cornell – where he played defensive end from 1983-86 – from 2004-09. Knowles went 26-34 in six seasons as the Big Red head coach before leaving to join David Cutcliffe’s staff at Duke.
He has East Coast roots
Knowles grew up in inner city Philadelphia, where money was tight and he often heard gunshots in his neighborhood, but he credits football with leading him to a better life.
“I started playing football when I was 6, and football saved my life,” Knowles told The Oklahoman’s Scott Wright in 2018. “It delivered me from a really tough situation.
“There was no grass where I grew up. So my memory of football, when I went to practice, it was that fresh-cut grass.”
Knowles ultimately earned a scholarship to St. Joseph’s Prep High School, the same high school current Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord and wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. attended. From there, Cornell went to the Ivy League, ultimately graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in 1987.
After college, Knowles briefly worked on Wall Street as a financial broker. Ultimately, Knowles decided he was more passionate about football than finance and took an opportunity to join the coaching staff at Cornell, starting his journey that will lead him to Ohio State beginning on Jan. 2.
He was in high demand
Ohio State wasn’t the only major program that sought to hire Knowles away from Oklahoma State. He was also considered to be a candidate to replace Brent Pry as Penn State’s defensive coordinator, while new Florida coach Billy Napier was also reportedly interested in hiring Knowles.
Mike Gundy was also highly interested in keeping Knowles in Stillwater. Gundy’s promise that Knowles would be back with the Cowboys in 2022, however, ultimately went unfulfilled.
“I am fairly certain that he’ll be coaching here next year,” Gundy said last week. “The Green Bay Packers may offer him $3 million. I can’t say for sure. But within reason I’m very, very certain that he’ll be coaching here next year.”
Oklahoma State players loved him
In the aftermath of Ohio State announcing Knowles’ hiring, a multitude of current and former Oklahoma State players took to Twitter to praise the Buckeyes’ new defensive coordinator and wish him well.
So happy for Coach Knowles mann! When he first came to Oklahoma State he told me he always had a dream of coaching at the highest level. Good things happen to good people. Ohio State fans, be patient and trust the process, but youre in great hands! @CoachJimKnowles— Amen Ogbongbemiga (@closedprayer) December 7, 2021
Theres nothing to say other than thank you @CoachJimKnowles !! You put us in the best position to win week in and week out. @OhioStateFB youre getting the DC in the country. Take care of him for us!— Brock Martin (@btmartin40) December 7, 2021
Although I hate to see him go, im happy I got to spend my first year with @CoachJimKnowles..he taught me so much I never knew. Extremely excited for my coach he got what he earned!!— Collin Oliver (@cloliver25) December 7, 2021
@CoachJimKnowles taught me a lot more than just how to play the game of football. So many life lessons learned from this man over the past couple years. You deserve nothing but the best!— Trace Ford (@traceford12) December 8, 2021
Man..@OhioStateFB Gettin a helluva a coach..Cant be more happy and joyful for @CoachJimKnowles. Everything hes done for me and this program in just a few short years cant even be put into words! Thank you Coach #strengthandhonor— Brendon J. Evers (@Big_E_98) December 8, 2021
Blessing to a new beginning @CoachJimKnowles the best coach and person around!! Go be GREAT!! pic.twitter.com/orp8dRJ9E2— henne_harp16 (@DevinHarper13) December 7, 2021
GOTEEM A BAG— Kolby Harvell-Peel (@kolbypeel) December 7, 2021
4 Years of memories, Forever Thankful. @CoachJimKnowles pic.twitter.com/fjVxhBaVi0
Knowles is known for smoking a post-game cigar when his teams win, and he’s been described by his players as a “goob.” As illustrated in the following video published by Oklahoma State in November, his players have often made fun of his quirks, such as how he wears his shoes.
He’s also connected with those players, though, in a way that’s brought the best out of them on the football field.
“It just makes us play harder out there for him and he knows that and that’s why we’re always flying around for him out there, and I just want to make sure he knows that,” said Oklahoma State linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, a Butkus Award semifinalist this season.