COLUMBUS — Kerry Coombs grew up a 90-minute drive from Ohio State. Or, as it seemed to him and his friends in their provincial Cincinnati neighborhood, about 9,000 miles away.
The Buckeyes’ assistant football coach lived his first 50 years almost entirely, he said, within a “five-mile radius.” Coombs went to Colerain High School, met his wife there, sent his children there, and spent 16 years building his alma mater into one of the state’s top programs.
Then, in 2007, he made his big career jump and joined the coaching staff at the University of ... Cincinnati.
“I don’t have any experience with Cleveland or Toledo or Akron,” Coombs said. “But it is true that when you live in Cincinnati, you kind of become insulated from the rest of the world, for whatever reason. It’s like we’re our own little cult.”
Now, he is part of the Buckeyes’ revamped effort to bridge the divide between the place wags call the Republic of Cincinnati and the rest of the world — mainly Columbus.
Saturday marks their latest and boldest step.
After decades of receiving a cool embrace from the Queen City — and with Ohio Stadium undergoing renovations — the Buckeyes are taking their show down I-71 to Cincinnati.
OSU will play its spring game at Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Bengals, while saving time to take in the city’s sights and tastes. The Buckeyes and coach Urban Meyer, a 1986 University of Cincinnati graduate, will visit the Reds museum and feast on a postgame spread of Skyline Chili, Montgomery Inn ribs, and Graeter’s Ice Cream.
“So we’re going to do it right,” Meyer said.
Consider it an olive branch to an area OSU has long struggled to crack. While the Buckeyes have a monopoly on most of this scarlet-mad state, southwest Ohio has traditionally been its most divided region.
The Cincinnati Enquirer sized up the dynamic last year with a column headlined, “Why doesn’t Cincinnati root for Ohio State?” Many of the area’s top high school prospects have historically spurned OSU — a trend variably attributed to the city’s fractured college allegiances, a strong Catholic prep football league that has funneled players to Notre Dame, tinges of southern culture, and parochialism.
While OSU overflows with players from central and northern Ohio, sophomore-to-be defensive lineman Adolphus Washington and senior offensive lineman Andrew Norwell stand as the Buckeyes’ only two scholarship players from a Cincinnati metropolitan area with more than 2 million residents.
The Buckeyes have signed only two of the last 10 Cincinnati-area players rated among the state’s top-10 prospects by Rivals.com. By comparison, spurred by a flowing Glenville pipeline, the Buckeyes landed Cleveland’s marquee recruit every year between 2002 and 2009 — Avon Lake’s Mike D’Andrea, St. Edward’s Alex Boone and Nate Oliver, and Glenville’s Donte Whitner, Ted Ginn, Jr., Robert Rose, and Marcus Hall.
Per Rivals’ rankings, OSU also has signed four of the last six top-20 Toledo-area recruits — senior left tackle Jack Mewhort (St. John’s), incoming freshman safety Jayme Thompson (Central Catholic), and since-departed class of 2011 prospects Kenny Hayes (Whitmer) and DerJuan Gambrell (Rogers).
“When you look back historically, northeast Ohio, Cleveland, Canton, Akron — that’s always been a stronghold for Ohio State football recruiting, and it continues to be,” said Bucknuts.com and 247sports.com recruiting analyst Bill Kurelic. “Cincinnati has been spotty.”
Coombs acknowledged there is “some sort of disconnect” between OSU and Cincinnati, where the Buckeyes compete for attention with the hometown Bearcats, Louisville, Kentucky, and Notre Dame, among other schools. He says he feels the pull of home, too.
“I still couldn’t tell you where anything is in [Columbus],” he said. “But if you want to ask me where I can go to get a cheese coney up here, I found that out right away. You understand what I’m saying. Cincinnati is different, it is unique. That’s OK. Cincinnati should celebrate who they are, and I do as a Cincinnatian.
“But,” Coombs added, “I’m also an Ohioan, and that gap is the thing we’re working really hard to bridge.”
Besides, he said there are more OSU fans from his hometown than you might think — including himself. Coombs remembers watching every Buckeyes game as a kid, then bounding into his backyard.
“I replayed every down of the game in the leaves,” he said. “Woody Hayes was my hero. The Ohio State Buckeyes were my team. I would fight you for the Buckeyes.”
Even Ohio State’s highest-profile recruiting misses in Cincinnati are not always as they seem. In 2007, five-star La Salle defensive end Ben Martin chose Tennessee in part because he felt so much pressure to be a ... Buckeye.
“Everybody at La Salle, including me, was telling him he should go to Ohio State,” former La Salle coach Tom Grippa said in a phone interview this week.
“Two of his best friends went to Ohio State. ... But Ben was kind of an independent soul. He heard everybody telling him to go to Ohio State, so finally he got fed up, and said, ‘Nah, I'm not going there.’ ”
So perhaps the ingredients are there for OSU to cultivate Cincinnati. Meyer thinks so, and he sees doors opening by the day — the result of an effort to build inroads that, beyond moving the spring game south, have included hiring former UC assistant Tim Hinton and traveling in January to meet the coaches of southwest Ohio’s top football programs.
“They could not have been more gracious, more welcoming, and more eager for us to be a part of Cincinnati,” said Coombs, who accompanied Meyer on the goodwill tour.
For OSU, the early returns are promising. Meyer signed five-star Cincinnati-area recruits in each of his first two classes — Washington (Taft) in 2012 and Middletown receiver Jalin Marshall this year — and last week secured a commitment from four-star Moeller linebacker Sam Hubbard.
“I wasn’t here in years past, but I have heard a lot of, ‘Well, we haven’t done well in Cincinnati,’ ” Meyer said. “I think we’re doing great. I think we’re killing it.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.