COLUMBUS — Nobody knew how Mike Vrabel’s hiring would play out. It was a rush job. An NFL retiree one day, he became an Ohio State assistant coach the very next, riding to the rescue of a friend in need.
Being great at one doesn’t necessarily translate to success at the other.
Vrabel is starting his third season with the Buckeyes and if Urban Meyer is any authority on the subject then what once looked to be an interesting experiment has become a rousing success.
“He attacks coaching the same way he attacked playing,” Meyer said of Vrabel. “You spend as long as he did in the NFL, you understand an extreme work ethic.”
Fourteen years is how long Vrabel spent in the pro league, where he won three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots. But in July of 2011, after Jim Tressel exited and Luke Fickell took over as OSU’s interim head coach, Vrabel answered a hurry-up plea and returned to his alma mater to fill a hole on his one-time roommate’s staff.
When Meyer arrived as head coach a season later, bringing with him a number of new staffers, Vrabel was retained and made the move from linebackers coach to the defensive line.
How would he describe his coaching style?
“Testimonial,” he said Sunday at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. “Every situation they come across I’ve probably seen as a player. I push them, I try to make them mentally tough, and I try to help them avoid the distractions and the pitfalls.”
It is a big task this time around. The Buckeyes, considered a national championship contender in some circles, will have four new starters on the D-line. Some of the candidates are promising. A couple are locks. Not a single one is a senior.
“He coaches us like we’re NFL pros,” said one of the best of them, sophomore defensive end Adolphus Washington, a beast of a lad at 6-foot-3, 292 pounds. “Coach Vrabel has a saying, ‘Make the hard look easy.’ And he knows what it takes. Everything he says, I guarantee everybody in the room is listening to it.”
That “make the hard look easy” is a line Vrabel admits he stole from his coach in New England, Bill Belichick. Long before they crossed paths, Vrabel was a two-time All-American and Big Ten defensive lineman-of-the-year at OSU (1995-96).
“I’ve been here since ’93,” Vrabel said. “First a dorm room, then an apartment, then a condo, now a house. I really never left. I just spent part of the year elsewhere playing football. So this is home. And taking the job here was an easy decision.”
There was no way he could have known if he’d be any good at it.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever know,” Vrabel said. “But I can tell you that as a player I never woke up in the middle of the night. I hit the pillow and the next thing I knew it was morning.
“As a coach, I rarely sleep through the night. I worry about a lot more things. ‘What’s so-and-so going to do? Are we installing too much, too little?’ It’s always something. So I guess I can say I’ve figured out part of coaching because that seems to be how it goes for everybody in the business.”
Especially so with an all-new lineup and, just maybe, titles in the balance.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.