Kerry Coombs, cornerbacks coach for Ohio State.
COLUMBUS — The path to coaching on Saturday afternoons once began on Friday nights, in classrooms and pigskin-centric communities big and small across Ohio.
Woody Hayes started as an assistant in Mingo Junction, an old steel town of some 3,600 residents on the Ohio-West Virginia border, then spent four seasons at New Philadelphia. Gerry Faust coached 19 seasons at Moeller in Cincinnati before he was hired to lead Notre Dame in 1980. And Massillon Washington became a nationally recognized springboard, its past coaches including Hall of Famer Paul Brown, Bob Commings, and Earle Bruce.
"Massillon was the pipeline to college," said Dover coach Dan Ifft, the outgoing president of the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association. "You'd coach at Massillon, and their expectations were three years later you'd go into the college level."
But over the years, the preps-to-college pipeline dried. The once-egalitarian system that allowed successful high school coaches like Bruce to leap from Massillon to an assistant position at OSU under Hayes in 1965 gave way to a new divide. Most aspiring college coaches now enter the ranks from the cradle.
"Today, you've got to go through the GA [graduate assistant] process to get indoctrinated," said Ifft, whose son, Dan, is a graduate assistant under first-year Toledo coach Matt Campbell.
That is why Ifft and his colleagues find the throwback scenario unfolding at Ohio State so refreshing.
As part of first-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer's pledge to field a staff with knowledge of the state's landscape, he hired two longtime former Ohio high school football coaches: Tim Hinton and Kerry Coombs.
Hinton, who coaches tight ends, was the head coach at Marion Harding from 1993-2003 while Coombs, the cornerbacks coach, is one of college football's biggest outliers.
Coombs spent his first 24 seasons as a coach at the high school level, including 16 as the head coach at Colerain, where he led the Cincinnati-area school to the 2004 Division I state championship. Meyer called him "one of the great coaches in Ohio high school football history."
"I was going to be a high school football coach until the day I die," Coombs said.
His break came after the 2006 season when former Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly hired him to assist with defensive backs. Coombs rose to associate head coach in 2009 and spurred Meyer's interest when cornerbacks coach Bill Sheridan left OSU in February to become defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"Now I'm going to coach on a national championship football team someday, can you imagine that?" he said. "In my state?"
Coombs, for one, cannot. His advice to other high school football coaches who dream of landing at Ohio State?
"Pray," he said with a laugh. "You like to think that you found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."
In truth, Coombs is exceedingly modest. He said Ohio is filled with high school coaches capable of coaching at the highest levels of college football.
"I bang that drum all the time," Coombs said. "I tell people all the time there's a lot of people coaching at this high school or that high school that can do this job. … I'm not a better coach than a lot of guys I coached against. Some of them are probably better coaches than I am."
Coombs warns against schools snubbing their nose at high school experience. He believes his time on the preps level was for the best, helping him develop both relationships across the state and an in-your-face coaching style he may not have as a young assistant in a more buttoned-down college setting.
Coombs is a tangle of energy and charisma on the practice field. He screams at his charges, telling a player in one recent session, "Do you know how good and how bad that was all at once?" He runs down cornerbacks for chest bumps after big plays. And he tells receivers before drills, "You're going to have a long day."
"When he comes out for stretching, he's yipping and yapping at the receivers and getting in their head talking trash," cornerback Travis Howard said. "It gets us fired up."
"I love that," Bradley Roby added. "I'm right behind him doing the same thing."
The loudest coach on the field now laughs as he recalls his first day at Cincinnati.
"I tried to be a college football coach, what I thought a college football coach should be and be cerebral and have my arms folded," Coombs said. "I was absolutely miserable and almost quit after the first day. I decided I needed to coach the way I was comfortable, and that's the way I coach. I don't know any other way."
Coombs said he hopes more high school coaches get next-level opportunities, and evidence from a bygone era suggests they should.
Seven coaches in the Big Ten have high school experience, including Meyer (Cincinnati's Saint Xavier, 1985) and Michigan's Brady Hoke (Yorktown, Ind., 1982). Nebraska coach Bo Pelini spent the 1993 season coaching the quarterbacks at Cardinal Mooney in Youngstown. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz spent two years as an English literature teacher and defensive coordinator at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts.
Yet Coombs knows times have changed and that not all dreams are the same. For every fast-rising coach like Arkansas State's Gus Malzahn, who spent 15 years as a high school coach before becoming the offensive coordinator at Arkansas in 2006, there are many more highly-successful men entrenched in their communities. College coaches must be willing to serially uproot their families and live out of a suitcase chasing recruits.
"You go to a MAC game or a Big Ten game and you're like, ‘Man, this is thrilling,'?" Ifft said. "But the price you have to pay to be on that sideline is for a lot of people too great."
Besides, he noted, "High school football in Ohio is tremendous. On Friday night's, there's nothing like it."
Coombs is not one to argue.
"I would tell every high school coach to do the best you can at the job you have," he said. "Don't worry about what's coming. I didn't look for any of these jobs. Something is just out there for you. If you're good at what you do and you try hard and you try to be a good person, something good is coming your way. It has for me."
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.
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