Under most circumstances, an old player beginning his second career as a position coach at his alma mater doesn’t make for much of a headline. Then again, under most circumstances, the fledgling assistant in question doesn’t happen to be an active NFL player with three Super Bowl rings, and Ohio State’s newest hire is: Citing “sources close to the program,” the Columbus Dispatch has confirmed rumors that ex-Buckeye All-American and 14-year NFL vet Mike Vrabel is returning to OSU as linebackers coach. The official announcement is expected on Monday.
Vrabel’s retirement won’t come as a surprise to anyone with an eye on the buzz out of Columbus last week. Still, it might seem rather abrupt to his current employers, the Kansas City Chiefs, who (as of Sunday morning) still list him as a starter at outside linebacker and apparently expected him to return for his 15th NFL season this fall — you know, if there is an NFL season this fall.
Vrabel has spent the past two years in K.C. after eight wildly successful seasons in New England, where he was one of the cornerstones of the Patriot teams that took three Super Bowl titles in four years from 2001-04 and delivered the most dominant campaign in league history in 2007 prior to being upset by the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. He was rewarded that season with his first and only All-Pro nod and two years later with a spot on Sports Illustrated’s All-Decade team.
At Ohio State, Vrabel was a two-time All-American in 1995 and 1996, when he helped anchor a pair of nasty defenses on teams that combined to go 22-3 and seemed headed for perfect seasons if not for back-to-back losses to Michigan at the end of the schedule. Another defensive anchor on those teams: Defensive tackle Luke Fickell, who found himself just as abruptly thrust into the head coaching job last month when his boss, Jim Tressel, was tossed overboard as part of the Buckeyes’ ongoing penance for multiple, major NCAA violations on Tressel’s watch. As linebackers coach, Vrabel will be filling the vacancy left by Fickell’s promotion from co-defensive coordinator, where he worked primarily with the linebackers. Oh, and he roomed with his new boss in their campus days, too.
Vrabel, 35, brings as much formal experience to his new job as Fickell brings to his — he has never coached any position on any level, just as Fickell, 37, has never been a head coach — but he’s got more going for him than in-the-trenches chops and nostalgia. With recruiting grinding to virtual halt in the face of Tressel’s exit, Fickell’s tenuous future and pending NCAA sanctions, Vrabel is a name prospects will recognize with rings they will respect. In the long run, his second stint in Columbus may be tied to Fickell’s, which — depending on how the upcoming season goes and how attractive the job is to bigger names after the NCAA is done with the Buckeyes — may expire before the end of the year. But if he can staunch the bleeding on the recruiting trail even a little, he can claim mission accomplished.