When Ryan Day offered James Laurinaitis the opportunity to return to his alma mater and join Ohio State’s coaching staff as a graduate assistant, he and his wife agreed that he should take it – on one condition.
As a graduate assistant at Notre Dame last year, Laurinaitis had a hands-on role helping coach the Fighting Irish’s linebackers. So he wanted to make sure he would have a similar opportunity at Ohio State. Once it became clear he would and that Day truly wanted him to join the staff, it wasn’t a hard decision for Laurinaitis to return to the Buckeyes.
“He first inquired if it was something I'd be interested in. I said, ‘I have to check with the boss,’ who is my wife. She was, you know, ‘Absolutely, as long as you feel like you'd be happy and have the same kind of impact on the linebacker room that I did up there.’ And then it just kind of kept going back and forth,” Laurinaitis said during an interview session at Ohio State on Wednesday. “You could sense his passion that he really wanted to bring me back, and that he thought the timing was right, and that he really thought that I could help the room and help Coach Knowles out and just kind of be another voice there to kind of help. So I think his determination was kind of the factor of yeah, this isn't just an information call, it's something that they really wanted to get done.”
When Laurinaitis left his job as a radio host in Columbus to become a graduate assistant at Notre Dame a year ago, he never would have guessed he’d be joining Ohio State’s staff a year later. He and his family sold their house in the Columbus area and bought a house in South Bend, believing they’d be there for years to come.
Laurinaitis had previously expressed interest in joining Day’s staff on multiple occasions and was not offered a position at those times, so he didn’t have any reason to believe he’d be coming back to Columbus so soon. When he told his wife and his three daughters they had the opportunity to return to Columbus, however, they responded with “pure giddiness,” Laurinaitis said.
“This profession is unpredictable at times. And what I've learned from being a part of a staff is there are so many moving parts, and timing plays a factor, and it's just hard to predict when is the right time to go somewhere,” Laurinaitis said. “But no, I wouldn't have (seen this coming a year ago). If you would have said ‘Hey, you're going to move to South Bend, Indiana and then come right back’ … I would have been like ‘No way. I'm not sure there's a path for how that would become available.’ So the timing was right, and I'm thankful it's here.”
While it was difficult for Laurinaitis to leave Marcus Freeman’s staff at Notre Dame after just one year, as Freeman has been one of his closest friends since they played together at Ohio State, Laurinaitis said Freeman was supportive of his decision to return to their alma mater.
“I hate to let people down just by nature, that's who I am,” Laurinaitis said. “It was tough, because Marcus and I go back to freshman year and in each other's weddings and the whole deal. So thankfully, Marcus was great about it. He basically said, if that's where your heart is, if that's where you want to be, that's where your family wants to be, he's like, ‘Then go back home.’”
Laurinaitis has nothing but good things to say about his year in South Bend and said he “poured everything into Notre Dame while I was there.” But he believes he can make an even greater impact at Ohio State because he’s been a Buckeye himself.
“There's only one place that's home,” Laurinaitis said. “So having an opportunity to coach back where you were living, in a place where you played and your alma mater, it's just so easy and natural to sell it to people who are coming in and to pour your energy into it.”
Day said he wanted to be certain that Laurinaitis really wanted to be a coach before offering him a spot on the staff. Now that Laurinaitis has a year of coaching experience under his belt and Ohio State needed a new assistant linebackers coach following former graduate assistant Koy McFarland’s departure to Tulsa, Day felt it was the right time to hire Laurinaitis.
“James and I had spoken a couple times. And I think one of the things when you have a former player, it's like, ‘Do you really want to get into coaching? Are you really that crazy?’” Day said. “And he shared that he was, and then had an opportunity to go to Notre Dame and shared with me that he still, this is what he wants to do. And so felt like the timing was right here.”
“Having an opportunity to coach back where you were living, in a place where you played and your alma mater, it's just so easy and natural to sell it to people who are coming in and to pour your energy into it.”– James Laurinaitis on returning to Ohio State
As one of Ohio State’s four graduate assistants, Laurinaitis will be allowed to coach players on the field during practices even though he’s not one of the Buckeyes’ 10 full-time assistant coaches. Given that, Laurinaitis expects to play a major role in leading the linebacker unit this year. While Jim Knowles is Ohio State’s primary linebackers coach, he works with the entire defense as defensive coordinator, which means he’ll often rely on Laurinaitis to lead the linebackers through drills and meetings.
“We did some position-specific stuff even today during the workout, team run this morning, and (Knowles was) like, ‘Go ahead, go run individual,’” Laurinaitis said. “You have to make sure you're always speaking the same language as the D-coordinator, especially when he's the linebacker coach. And I had to do it a year ago, under Al Golden. I was trusted with the linebacker room, but you're making sure you're speaking the language of what – you can't be saying stuff that is contrary to what your boss wants to be taught. So I’m still learning all those things.
“But from my understanding, it's ‘Hey, you know, really go and attack it and coach the room.’ So film study, preparation, individual drills, and give him the freedom that he really had the last few years of his career, from my understanding, is the ability to kind of walk around practice and kind of see different areas of the game.”
While McFarland already knew Knowles’ defensive system before they arrived at Ohio State, as McFarland previously worked with Knowles at Oklahoma State, Laurinaitis is still familiarizing himself with Knowles’ defensive scheme. That said, Knowles believes Laurinaitis can be an immediate asset to Ohio State’s linebackers from a technique standpoint, given Laurinaitis’ history as a three-time All-American for the Buckeyes and an eight-year NFL veteran.
“I think it's good to have someone come in, who can work with them individually, technique-wise, and maybe do some different things than I've done,” Knowles said. “Whereas I may have coached something one way, he can say, ‘Well, you know, this is how I did it,’ or ‘This is how we did it in the NFL. This is what helped me make plays.’ He can say, ‘I made a lot of plays using this technique.’ So the system’s going to be the system, but he can bring a lot of new things to our players, and that'll be good for them.”
Although he’s entering just his second year as a coach at any level, Laurinaitis has high aspirations for his coaching career. And even though he’s not a full-time position coach yet, he’s going to hold himself to the same standard this year as if he was.
“I think for me, it all starts with, can I be the best linebacker coach in the country? And can I aspire to do that at my alma mater? I think that kind of to me is the first thing that comes to mind,” Laurinaitis said when asked what his long-term goal as a coach is. “And so I'll attack this year with that vision.”
Laurinaitis can draw inspiration from his former Ohio State teammate and new colleague Brian Hartline, who began his own coaching career at Ohio State as a quality control coach in 2017 and is now the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator just six years later after already establishing himself as college football’s top wide receivers coach.
“To see the growth that he's had, and to see, I mean, obviously his recruiting is incredible, but also just the development of that room, and to see him continue to grow has been encouraging. He's a great example of what can happen,” Laurinaitis said. “He's a great example of just a guy who put the work in, willing to go and a good template for former guys who want to come in and try to work and aspire to kind of grow in this profession.”
Both Day and Knowles believe Laurinaitis has a bright future in coaching, so they’re glad to have him working alongside them now.
“He's passionate. He's committed. He understands the game. Both the micro and macro detail,” Knowles said. “He's just a football guy all-around, who's intelligent and hardworking. Played the game at the highest level. There's so many positives for him in terms of his career.”