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Ohio State might lose Luke Fickell and Kerry Coombs this offseason, and replacing them would be hard

Replacing assistants is part of the game at Ohio State. But not every one is easily replaced.

NCAA Football: National Championship-Media Day Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Losing assistant coaches is a fact of life for Ohio State football. When you’re a highly successful program with a record of churning out excellent coaches, other teams are going to want to hire your guys. It’s happened every year at Ohio State so far, and even with fewer openings this cycle compared to last year, it will probably happen again.

Greg Schiano, after all, was tied to the Oregon job, and is now currently linked to the USF position. Other Buckeye assistants, from offensive coordinator Ed Warinner to defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, have been tied to other gigs as well.

The chatter around Fickell appears to be the loudest, at the moment, especially with Cincinnati, who is looking to replace Tommy Tuberville. And a recent tweet from a Cincinnati beat writer raises the possibility of an larger exodus from Columbus.

Is this the most likely scenario? I don’t know about that. Is this a plausible scenario? Sure.

Kerry Coombs, after all, is basically Mr. Cincinnati. He’s a former Bearcats assistant, and perhaps more important, a highly successful and respected high school coach in the area, including a stint at local powerhouse Colerain. And after his long stint as a successful coordinator at Ohio State, few know Buckeye State high schools better than Luke Fickell.

It would be a little unusual for an Ohio State assistant to leave for a non-NFL or head coaching job, but given Coombs longstanding ties to the area, this certainly seems at least possible.

With the possible exception of the Tom Herman for Tim Beck swap, the Buckeyes have handled assistant coaching turnover well, which is no small feat given the expectations of the program, and the number of coaches that have turned over. And since Fickell is often not credited as the schematic architect of the defense (credit has typically gone more to former Ohio State-DC Chris Ash, and now, Schiano), some fans might look to him as somebody that might be more easily replaced.

I don’t think that’s necessarily true. If Ohio State needed to replace both Fickell and Coombs, they might find that a difficult transition to make.

Why? Recruiting.

It’s true, to some extent, that Ohio State sells itself a bit. The Buckeyes have brought on board assistants who didn’t have the reputation as dynamic recruits, like Beck and Ash, and have them produce quality results. When you can sell Urban Meyer, the NFL Draft, and The Horseshoe, and a whole mess of trophies, you may not have to be the most dynamic personality in the living room to grab a blue-chip or two.

But recruiting is a relationship driven business, and one that requires a high degree of energy, and few have been better at it than Coombs, at least in recent memory. In 2016, Coombs was rated the 17th best college recruiter in the country in 2016, and 20th in 2015, per the 247 Sports Composite, working as the lead recruiter for guys like Austin Mack, Justin Hilliard, and Michael Jordan.

The later two are particularly instructive. Ohio State typically dominates recruiting in Ohio, but if there is one place where they occasionally miss on players, it’s at parochial high schools, especially in the Cincinnati area. Hilliard, a five-star out of St. Xavier, might have been the most dramatic pull from the region in recent memory. Those commitments cannot be taken for granted.

Jordan, who started as a true freshman on the offensive line, may be even more meaningful, as he’s from Michigan, and had Wolverine interest. Coombs had helped establish Buckeye inroads to Michigan power high schools like Cass Tech, grabbing other playmakers like Mike Weber. Even if that pipeline doesn’t produce a prospect every cycle, it puts additional pressure on Michigan and Michigan State, keeping them honest and forcing them to spend time on prospects that might otherwise be easier for them to secure.

Fickell, for what it’s worth, hasn’t been as highly rated as a recruiter, but his eye as an evaluator is exceptional valuable. Fans probably recall that it was Fickell who fought hard for the Buckeyes to take a “skinny-necked” HS QB from New Albany named Darron Lee (and Lee hasn’t forgotten it). His ties to the Columbus area are exceptionally strong, and if another lower-rated Buckeye blossoms, chances are, Fickell had his fingerprints on it.

Quality, well-run organizations should want their talent to move up and achieve better things. The fact that Meyer can sell this record of achievement to his assistants helps make Ohio State a very desirable place to work if you’re a hotshot coordinator. For all he’s done for Ohio State football, few coaches deserve another shot at a head job like Luke Fickell, and if that opportunity opens up. I personally hope he gets it. The same goes for Coombs.

But replacing one very talented assistant coach is difficult. The Buckeyes may very well have to do that anyway, with Schiano. Replacing two, or three, who have very specific skillsets? That’s much harder.

Ohio State will certainly get a long list of excellent candidates should an assistant job open up. But coaches who can teach and develop at a high level, who also have strong ties to Cincinnati, Michigan, and across the midwest, and who can spot diamonds in the rough don’t grow on trees. Buckeye fans shouldn’t take it for granted if they need to be replaced.