Ohio State football: Laurinaitis couldn’t resist chance to return to alma mater

COLUMBUS — Last time James Laurinaitis was at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center as a member of the Ohio State football organization, he found himself in the opposite situation he is now.

“Yeah, I can still hear Coach Fickell out here yelling at me,” Laurinaitis cracked wryly Wednesday as he began his first meeting with reporters on the indoor practice field after agreeing to return to his alma mater as a graduate assistant coach.

He credited Luke Fickell, the current head coach at Wisconsin who was the OSU linebackers coach during Laurinaitis’ decorated playing career, with getting more out of him than he ever felt possible.

After arriving as a three-star recruit from Minnesota in 2005, Laurinaitis left as a two-time captain and three-time All-American. He won the Butkus, Bednarik and Lott IMPACT awards then was drafted in the second round by the St. Louis Rams.

He went on to become that franchise’s all-time leading tackler then went to work in the media after retiring from the NFL following the 2016 season.

But now he intends to follow in Fickell’s footsteps one year after starting his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame, where former college teammate Marcus Freeman is the head coach.

“Obviously, I love the game of football, and I love working with young people, so that’s why I got into coaching you,” the 36-year-old said. “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 that Luke Fickell did for me, and the same thing (head coach) Jim Tressel did for me.”

That desire and the opportunity to return to Columbus and work at his alma mater proved too tempting to turn down despite his close relationship with Freeman.

“When it became something that could happen, I asked my wife and our girls, and it was pure giddiness at that point that we could be coming back home,” Laurinaitis said. “It was a great opportunity and thankful for Coach Day for providing it.”

Credit: Barbara Perenic

Credit: Barbara Perenic

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said the two had talked previously about Laurinaitis getting into coaching, but the timing was not right.

An opportunity arose when Koy McFarland, who came to Columbus a year ago with new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, followed Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson to Tulsa, where Wilson is the new head coach.

Knowles coaches linebackers, but his primary concern is trying to restore the Silver Bullet defense to the glory days that Laurinaitis was a part of as a player.

“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.”

Laurinaitis will have to learn Knowles’ scheme, but Knowles sees him being valuable for his personal experiences.

“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.’ 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.”

As a graduate assistant, Laurinaitis cannot go on the road recruiting, but he can perform most other tasks of a full-time coach, including communicate with recruits and meet them on campus.

“Obviously, Coach Knowles is from everything I’ve heard a fantastic and brilliant mind, so being able to have an influence on the room and obviously working under him will be a big part of that,” Laurinaitis said. “But I had a lot of responsibility in South Bend with the linebacker room and I look forward to kind of earning everybody’s trust here in the building and learning his scheme and how he wants to go about things.”

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