Each NFL football Sunday for the past two years in Nashville, Tennessee, –– all 16 occasions –– Kerry Coombs saw the same fan sitting by the gate when he prepared to enter Nissan Stadium.
Coombs said the woman, an avid Titans enthusiast, never failed to greet her team’s secondary coach with the same two letters; a familiar pairing for a former Buckeye, though for two seasons, they had little to do with his task at hand.
But a self-proclaimed “Ohio guy” doesn’t shun the call of “O-H,” even if it’s beckoned several hundred miles from the source of its origin.
Coombs answered the call in a time of need for Ohio State head coach Ryan Day and the Buckeyes, returning to his old office of six years with a shiny new title and fatter wallet –– but those are far from the first reasons he’d give for returning to Columbus.
“I’m an Ohio kid. Not a kid anymore, but I grew up here,” Coombs said. “And so for me to be part of such a special place and to have that connection with really everybody. There’s nowhere I can go where somebody doesn’t say, ‘O-H.’ Nowhere.”
He wasn’t gone long, though.
The Colerain, Ohio, native and Dayton alum has spent all but two years of his life in his home state and has seven grandchildren in Cincinnati, where he spent five years coaching the Bearcats.
He spent six years as the Buckeyes’ cornerbacks coach from 2012 to ’17, capturing a national title and sending each of his starters to the NFL. From 2014 to ’18, Coombs helped develop five defensive backs into first-round NFL Draft selections.
With all that success in Columbus, why leave in the first place?
Coombs said that in his two seasons coaching with former Ohio State linebacker and assistant coach Mike Vrabel, the two would often joke that when one was eventually hired as a head coach, they would hire the other. That opportunity came for Vrabel when he was named the head coach of the Tennessee Titans in 2018.
“If you’re my friend, you’re my friend for life. And so he called and he asked, and for whatever reason, at that time, it felt like the right thing to do,” Coombs said. “And it did, and I am telling you, it was not a mistake for me to go. I don’t regret a single day being down there because I’m better for the experience.”
The two-year stint taught Coombs lessons that he said have made him “infinitely better” than he was in his previous Buckeye tenure. He attributed that fact to the volume of defensive schemes he had to learn in the NFL, as well as the leadership style Vrabel imparted upon him.
Day said Coombs was his No. 1 pick to replace former secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, but the Titans’ deep run to the AFC Championship in the NFL Playoffs delayed the process.
The Buckeyes’ 2020 recruiting class had the potential to lose a second defensive back commit in Cameron Martinez after top 5 cornerback Clark Phillips flipped to Utah in December following the news that Hafley would become the new head coach at Boston College.
Given the tight spot for Ohio State, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Coombs might leverage the situation for more money and a promotion to return. He got both of those things, as Day clarified that Coombs is the sole owner of the defensive coordinator position –– a change from a season ago –– but Coombs said that wasn’t something he asked for.
“I don’t make conditions,” he said.
While Coombs said he improved as a coach in the professional ranks, developing players is one of the reasons he was thrilled to rejoin the college game.
“I love recruiting. I love going into high schools and talking with high school coaches,” Coombs said. “I love meeting players when they’re 16, 17, 18 years old and seeing that transition from a boy to a man. I love being behind the stage on a draft night and seeing a kid realize his dreams. I love coming out of that tunnel on a Saturday afternoon.”
Coombs helped recruit seven of the returning Ohio State defensive backs on the roster, and his addition to the coaching staff solidified Martinez’s commitment. He was the lone Buckeye to sign on this past week’s National Signing Day.
“A place like Ohio State, you’re going to have great coaches here. And I told [Martinez] it’s my job to make sure he has the best coach he can possibly have and that’s what we’re going to do,” Day said.
Coombs’ return was a plus for other incoming Buckeyes in the secondary as well.
“I was definitely really excited because — knowing that I met him my freshman year — he was the first person to originally offer me from here,” incoming four-star safety Lejond Cavazos said. “Knowing that he was coming back, it was definitely a big blessing.”
Day said Coombs’ personality has already been felt around the facility, joking that he drinks “four pots of coffee a day” and can be heard coming down the hallways.
As for the fear that Coombs may leave again, Day said he thinks his new defensive coordinator wanted a taste of NFL experience, but hopes he’s back in Columbus for the long haul.
Back home once again, Coombs doesn’t sound opposed to the idea either.
“I love Ohio State. I don’t want to understate this, and I missed it,” he said.