'Can I be the best linebackers coach in the country?' Passion drives James Laurinaitis
In one sense, James Laurinaitis didn’t need to get into coaching.
Ohio State’s most recent three-time All-American had a successful eight-year NFL career end in 2016 and then became a popular radio sports-talk host in Columbus.
But in another sense, the lure of returning to football as a coach was too strong to resist. A few years ago, he talked to then-Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell, who was his linebackers coach at OSU from 2005-08, as well as Buckeyes coach Ryan Day.
“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.
Laurinaitis insisted he wanted to give it a try. The timing didn’t work out then, but after his former OSU teammate Marcus Freeman got the head coaching job at Notre Dame in late 2021, he hired Laurinaitis last year as a graduate assistant to help coach linebackers.
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When Day recently offered him the same job at OSU, he jumped at the chance to return to his alma mater. His hiring was announced last week. He said his wife, Shelly, and their three daughters reacted with “pure giddiness” about returning to Ohio.
“I love the game of football, and I love working with young people,” Laurinaitis said. “That’s why I got into coaching. You want to impact the kids on the field. But more importantly, you want them to leave, after building relationships with them, as better men and hopefully give them an example of what being a good husband and father can be – the same thing Luke Fickell did for me and Jim Tressel did for me.”
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Though his title is grad assistant, Laurinaitis will have a large role in coaching Ohio State’s linebackers under defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.
“Coach Knowles has, from everything I’ve heard, a fantastic and brilliant mind,” Laurinaitis said.
Knowles retains the title as linebackers coach, but he is expected to delegate much of the hands-on duties to Laurinaitis.
“It's always exciting when you have a guy to come in and coach with you who also has his picture on your (office’s) wall,” Knowles said. “He's a legend – All-American, a pro, a Buckeye – and having a veteran corps of linebackers coming back, 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.”
Ohio State returns Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers at linebacker, as well as younger players such as 2022 five-star recruit C.J. Hicks. Like Eichenberg, Laurinaitis lacked blazing speed as a player but compensated with instincts and strong preparation that allowed him to diagnose plays.
“I was joking with Tommy earlier that he might have to install the first few defenses to me, teach me a little bit, which will help him because once you’re able to teach, it helps you relearn it,” Laurinaitis said.
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As a grad assistant, Laurinaitis isn’t permitted to go on the road recruiting. But he should have a major role in attracting linebackers to come to Ohio State.
“No. 1, he brings that love and passion for Ohio State and instant credibility with recruits and players,” Knowles said.
Laurinaitis was teammates with newly promoted offensive coordinator Brian Hartline at Ohio State. He sees Hartline’s career path, which began as a support staffer six years ago, as one to emulate.
“I’d be lying to you if that wasn’t the goal,” Laurinaitis said. “Ohio State is such a storied program and such a unique place that it should be Wide Receiver U. It should be LB U. You should have all of that. I truly believe that.
"Selfishly, being a linebacker, I believe that any defense stems from having alphas in the linebacker room. I feel they have to push the whole defense forward, so that’s the goal. It’s a lofty goal. But when you’re at a place like Ohio State, and once you’ve lived it, you understand what the standards are.”
The first step is learning OSU’s scheme and developing relationships with players.
“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?’ ” Laurinaitis said.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: James Laurinaitis happy to return to Ohio State as graduate assistant