No Empty Nests For Kerry Coombs and Larry Johnson

Empty Nest Syndrome is an experience some parents must deal with when their final child leaves home for life on their own. With no more kids to care for, there is sadness, questions of what to do now, and an overall feeling of loss for the parent.

Parents go about their daily lives feeling as though something is missing, unable to fill the new void that has overtaken them.

In college coaching, having an empty nest is a good way to get fired, and so recruiting keeps the nest full, but that doesn’t mean the coaches don’t go through feelings of loss when players leave.

After all, it’s impossible to spend this much time with players, teaching them and seeing them grow, and not get supremely attached to them.

This is part of the job description, however, and when players reach the goals they set out for themselves years prior — such as the NFL — a departure is as much a celebration as it is a goodbye.

Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs and defensive line coach Larry Johnson have both had their share of successful departures.

Johnson has had eight defensive linemen drafted in the first three rounds over the past five years, with Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa, and Chase Young all being selected in the top three picks of their respective drafts.

Joey Bosa leads all 2016 draftees with 40.0 sacks, so his time in Johnson’s nest was productive. But it’s not just the first rounders who have produced. Sam Hubbard was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft and he leads all 2018 draftees with 14.5 career sacks.

Both coaches understand their time with the players is temporary, and so they better put as much into them and get as much out of them in that period of time as possible. For both their own good, and the players’.

“For myself, I think when you recruit great players and they develop into great people and have a chance to play in the NFL, you almost expect them to leave in three years,” Johnson said.

“And so you have the expectation knowing that if he’s good enough, he’s probably not going to be around for very long. So you better do a great job recruiting, and make sure you’re ready to go with the next guy. And I think that’s what we do really well.”

And as for Coombs?

“I would say that I’d like to keep them all forever,” he said. “I mean, I’m not gonna tell you I wouldn’t. They’re great players.”

But that’s the attachment talking. And Coombs has certainly had his share of great players at Ohio State. Every starting cornerback during his first stint at OSU from 2012 through 2017 was either a first-round draft pick or First-Team All-Big Ten player.

Those first rounders included Bradley Roby, Eli Apple, Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley, Denzel Ward, and Damon Arnette. He’s also the guy who signed Jeffrey Okudah and likely first-rounder next year Shaun Wade.

The thing about it, however, is that even as players leave the nest, the attachment doesn’t go away. In fact, it only grows.

“I think what’s really cool is it’s just like your family, only our family gets to keep growing,” Coombs said. “You know, Larry’s got an extensive reach all the way through the NFL. When I was with the Titans last year, I’m coaching guys that Larry coached in different times in his career and it’s really kind of cool.

“So for me now, the ability to communicate with Denzel and Bradley and Eli and Marshon and Gareon and those guys that are playing in the league, those are like my sons. They’re an extension of us and so it just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

Clearly, the coping strategy for Johnson and Coombs is to just continue bringing in as many talented players as they can.

“The year we lost Joey Bosa, people were like ‘What are you gonna do?’ Well, we got his brother,” Johnson said. “Then all of a sudden we lose Nick, ‘What are you gonna do?’ We’ve got Chase Young. And as I stand here today, there’ll be other guys that are gonna step up and take the same role again that is going to move this thing to the next level.

“So I’m not as much worried about that. I don’t cry about it because what are you gonna do? They have earned the right to be where they’re at to get a chance to play in the NFL. It’s just that now you hope you recruited well enough that you have the next guy ready to go. So we have the mentality of the next man up. And so that’s what we try to preach and teach.”

In reality, the nest never empties, and that’s what excites both coaches.

Their job is to prepare their players to leave. College is temporary. It’s just part of the path, rather than the destination. The nest was never meant to be long term.

Johnson and Coombs understand their respective roles in the process, which is why they love it as much as they do.

It’s also why they are as effective as they are.

While a coach’s job is to get players ready to win games, a coach’s passion is to make the next step of a player’s life a successful one.

“I’ll be honest with you, I’m excited for the next group. I’m excited that you just get to keep doing it,” Coombs said. “I think that’s probably part of the beauty of it is that you get to keep doing it over and over again and you get to watch them and be really proud of them.

“You get to watch them go out there and make their statement in the league and you just got more guys coming. So would I like to keep them all forever? Absolutely. But at the same time, man, it’s fun to just keep doing it over and over again.”