A source told The Dispatch that Coombs will become the highest-paid assistant coach on Ryan Day’s staff, making a salary of at least $1.2 million.
Part drill sergeant. Part motivational speaker. Relentlessly energetic.
The force of nature that is Kerry Coombs is returning to Ohio State, with an expanded bank account and more responsibilities.
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day made official on Monday what had been long expected, luring Coombs back from the NFL to replace Jeff Hafley on his coaching staff.
But Coombs isn’t returning from the Tennessee Titans as a defensive co-coordinator, which was Hafley’s title before Boston College hired him as head coach last month. Coombs will be the sole defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes in addition to coaching the secondary.
>> Photos: Kerry Coombs
Returning co-coordinator Greg Mattison remains on the coaching staff and is expected to have similar duties as last year.
“Kerry Coombs is the coach I was really hoping we could hire and bring back to Ohio State,” Day said in the university release announcing the hire. “He is an excellent coach, and he has had two outstanding seasons in the NFL on Mike Vrabel’s staff with the Tennessee Titans.
“I’ve spent a season on staff with Kerry, and I really like his coaching and knowledge of the game, but I also like that he knows Ohio State and he knows how to recruit to Ohio State. He’s recruited some of the players currently on the team and he coached a handful of Buckeye defensive backs who went on to become first-round NFL draft picks.”
Coombs, 58, was at Ohio State from 2012-2017 under Urban Meyer as cornerbacks coach and, after his first season, special-teams coordinator. Under Coombs, five cornerbacks — Bradley Roby, Eli Apple, Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Denzel Ward — became first-round NFL draft picks. All of his starting cornerbacks reached the NFL.
One of them was Damon Webb, who eventually shifted to safety. Webb was among several players whom Coombs recruited out of Michigan. They were reunited with the Titans before Webb was cut after the 2019 preseason.
“Coach Coombs coming back to Ohio State is going to bring back that spark,” Webb said.
Working under defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who retired Monday, Coombs helped the Titans develop one of the NFL’s top pass defenses the past two years.
“Dean Pees is a defensive genius,” Webb said. “I know coach Coombs learned a lot of things in the NFL, and he's going to bring what he learned to the college players.
“He's real ready (to be a defensive coordinator). … I know he's ready to take that next step.”
A Cincinnati native, Coombs built Colerain High School into a powerhouse from 1991-2006 before becoming defensive backs coach at the University of Cincinnati in 2007.
Meyer hired him as part of his original staff at Ohio State. From his arrival, Coombs made his mark. He barked at players, constantly urging them to push themselves to the limit. He was a relentless recruiter, challenging prospects as much as imploring them to come.
“He doesn't want any soft guys,” Webb said. “He wants guys that will step up to the challenge and aren't scared of anybody.”
Last season, cornerback Damon Arnette recalled a story from his recruitment in which he, as a South Carolina commit, spoke about his preference to attend a Southeastern Conference school. Arnette said Coombs’ reacted bluntly.
“He was like, if you're scared to come, don't come,” he said.
The tough-guy stance wasn’t an act. Coombs seemed impervious to the weather. When Ohio State played at Minnesota in 15-degree, blizzard-like conditions in 2014, Coombs wore a short-sleeve shirt on the sideline.
When Coombs left after the 2017 season, many players were deeply disappointed. The defense slipped badly the next year before its dramatic improvement in 2019. The success made Hafley a hot candidate for a head coaching job. As soon as BC hired him, speculation began that Coombs would be his replacement.
The Dispatch learned that Coombs will make at least $1.2 million in base salary. Greg Schiano, who had a base salary of $1.5 million as defensive coordinator in 2018, is the only assistant coach in program history to make more.
Mattison had a base salary of $1.1 million in 2019. Hafley had a base salary of $950,000 last season, as did offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. Coombs had a base salary of $500,000 in 2017 with the Buckeyes.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Kerry Coombs was the highest-paid Ohio State assistant coach in program history.