James Laurinaitis Aspires to “Be the Best Linebacker Coach in the Country” As He Returns Home to Ohio State
When Ryan Day offered James Laurinaitis an opportunity to return to his alma mater and serve as an assistant on the Ohio State coaching staff, he and his wife agreed that he should take it — on one condition.
A graduate assistant at Notre Dame, Laurinaitis had a hands-on role coaching the Fighting Irish linebackers last year. So he wanted to make sure he had a similar opportunity at Ohio State. Once it became clear that he was going to do it and that Day really wanted him to join the team, returning to the Buckeyes wasn’t a difficult decision for Laurinaitis.
“He first asked if it was something I would be interested in. I said, ‘I need to check with the boss’, who is my wife. She was, you know, ‘Absolutely, as long as you feel like you’re happy and have the same impact on the linebacker space that I did up there.’ And then it just went back and forth,” Laurinaitis said Wednesday during an interview in Ohio State. “You could feel his passion that he really wanted to bring me back and that he thought the timing was right and that he really thought I could help the room and help Coach Knowles and just be another voice to be kind to.” be of help. So I think his determination was the factor, yeah this isn’t just an informational call, it’s something they really wanted to get done.
When Laurinaitis left his job as a radio host in Columbus a year ago to become a graduate assistant at Notre Dame, he never imagined that a year later he would be joining the Ohio State staff. He and his family sold their home in the Columbus area and bought a home in South Bend, believing they would stay there for many years to come.
Laurinaitis had previously expressed interest in joining Day’s staff on numerous occasions and was not offered a position at the time, leaving him with no reason to believe he would be returning to Columbus any time soon. However, when he told his wife and three daughters that they had the option of returning to Columbus, they responded with “pure fraud,” Laurinaitis said.
“This job is sometimes unpredictable. And what I’ve learned from my work as a collaborator is that there are so many moving parts and timing matters and it’s just hard to predict when the time is right to go somewhere,” Laurinaitis said. “But no, I wouldn’t have (seen that coming a year ago). If you’d said, “Hey, you’re going to be moving to South Bend, Indiana, and then you’re coming right back”… I would have said, “No way. I’m not sure if there is a way that would become available.’ So the timing was right and I’m grateful it’s there.”
While it was difficult for Laurinaitis to leave Marcus Freeman’s staff at Notre Dame after just a year since Freeman had been one of his closest friends since they played together at Ohio State, Laurinaitis said that Freeman’s decision to return to her alma mater supported .
“I hate letting people down by nature, I am,” Laurinaitis said. “It’s been tough because Marcus and I go back to first year and each other’s weddings and the whole deal. Luckily, Marcus was great at it. He basically said if your heart is there, if you want to be there, your family wants to be there, then he says, ‘Then go back home.'”
Laurinaitis has nothing but good things to say about his year at South Bend, saying he “poured everything into Notre Dame while I was there.” But he believes he can have an even bigger impact in Ohio because he was a buckeye himself.
“There is only one place that is home,” Laurinaitis said. “Having the opportunity to train back where you lived, somewhere you played and at your alma mater, it’s easy and natural to sell it to people who come in and put your energy into it put.”
Day said he wanted to be sure Laurinaitis really wanted to be a coach before offering him a spot on the team. With Laurinaitis now having a year of coaching experience and Ohio State in need of a new assistant linebacker coach following the departure of former assistant assistant Koy McFarland to Tulsa, Day felt it was the right time to hire Laurinaitis.
“James and I had spoken a few times. And I think one of the things when you have a former player is like, ‘Are you sure you 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’s still what he wants to do. And so it felt like the timing was right there.”
“Having the opportunity to train where you’ve lived, somewhere you’ve played and at your alma mater, it’s easy and natural to sell it to people who come in and put your energy into it .”– James Laurinaitis on his return to Ohio State
As one of Ohio State’s four assistants, Laurinaitis is allowed to coach players on the field during practice, though he is not one of the Buckeyes’ 10 full-time assistant coaches. Given that, Laurinaitis expects to play an important role in leading the linebacker unit this year. While Jim Knowles is Ohio State’s primary linebacker coach, he works with the entire defense as the defensive coordinator, which means he often relies on Laurinaitis to guide the linebackers through drills and meetings.
“We even did some position-specific stuff during practice today, team run this morning, and (Knowles was) like ‘Go ahead, go individual run,'” Laurinaitis said. “You have to make sure you always speak the same language as the D coordinator, especially when he’s the linebacker coach. And I had to do it under Al Golden a year ago. I’ve been trusted with the linebacker room, but you make sure you speak the language of what — you can’t say anything that contradicts what your boss is trying to learn. So I’m still learning all these things.
“But my understanding is, ‘Hey, you know, really go and attack it and coach the space.’ Film study, preparation, individual practice and giving him the freedom he really had in the last few years of his career is what I understand is the ability to walk around in practice and see different areas of the game.
While McFarland was already familiar with Knowles’ defense system before they arrived in Ohio State, as McFarland had previously worked with Knowles in Oklahoma State, Laurinaitis is still learning about Knowles’ defense system. However, Knowles believes Laurinaitis can be an immediate asset to the Ohio State linebackers from a technical 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 who can work with them individually and technically and maybe do some different things than I can,” Knowles said. “While I might have coached a bit in a way, he can be like, ‘Well, you know, that’s how I did it,’ or ‘That’s how we did it in the NFL. That helped me to do plays.’ He can say, “I’ve made a lot of games with this technique.” So the system will be the system, but he can bring a lot of new things to our players and that will be good for them.”
Although only entering his second year as a coach at all levels, Laurinaitis has high goals for his coaching career. And while he’s not a full-time positional coach yet, this year he’ll be holding himself to the same standard as if he were.
“I think for me it all starts with can I be the best linebacker coach in the country? And can I pursue that at my alma mater? I think that’s the first thing that comes to mind,” said Laurinaitis when asked about his long-term goal as a coach. “And so I will attack this year with that vision.”
Laurinaitis is able to 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 offensive coordinator of the just six years later, having already established himself as a college Buckeyes is football’s top wide receiver coach.
“Seeing the growth he’s had and seeing, I mean of course his recruitment is incredible but also just developing that space and seeing him continue to grow has been encouraging. He’s a great example of what can happen,” said Laurinaitis. “He’s a great example of a man who has put in the work, is ready to go, and a good template for ex-husbands who want to come in and try to work and strive to grow in the profession.”
Both Day and Knowles believe Laurinaitis has a bright future as a coach and are happy to have him working alongside them now.
“He’s passionate. He’s engaged. He understands the game. Both the micro and macro detail,” said Knowles. “He’s an all round football guy who’s smart and hardworking. Played the game at the highest level. There are so many positives for him in terms of his career.”