This is the latest in a series examining the 15 most important assistant coaching hires of the 2018 season. Previous installments:
No. 15: Rod Smith, Illinois
No. 14: Matt Canada, Maryland
No. 13: Harlon Barnett, Florida State
No. 12: Jerry Azzinaro, UCLA
No. 11: Bob Shoop, Mississippi State
No. 10: Clark Lea, Notre Dame
No. 9: Bush Hamdan, Washington
No. 8: Herb Hand, Texas
No. 7: Tyson Helton, Tennessee
No. 6: Kendal Briles/Randy Clements, Houston
No. 5: Ed Warinner, Michigan
No. 4: James Cregg, LSU
No. 3: Pete Golding, Alabama
Who: Alex Grinch, Ohio State
Title: Co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach
Previous stop: Washington State defensive coordinator/secondary coach (2015-17)
Why he’s important: Alex Grinch is first and foremost important as a concept. Ohio State didn’t have to hire him. Greg Schiano stuck around for another year, and there were plenty of other talented candidates to replace Kerry Coombs. But Urban Meyer wanted him and, thus, he got him. To fill the NCAA-approved 10th assistant coaching spot, Meyer chose not to fortify the bottom end of his staff but instead strengthened the top, pulling one of the coaching profession’s rising stars away from his position as a Power 5 defensive coordinator to become a co-coordinator on his staff.
That, my friends, is a flex of muscle that makes Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime look like a fourth grader.
“I checked their scores all the time, I checked their statistics, I’ve been watching film on him,” Meyer told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in February. “The minute we offered him the job, he had a handful of job offers right on top of it and obviously, he picked the right one.”
Though Grinch has never coached with Meyer or inside the state of Ohio, it’s kind of surprising it took this long for him to become a Buckeye assistant. A Grove City, Ohio, native, Grinch played at Mount Union, where he counted Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell and Toledo head coach Jason Candle among his teammates. After putting together a 54-1 with three national titles as a Purple Raider, Grinch went into coaching as a graduate assistant on Gary Pinkel’s Missouri staff. After three years on staff in Columbia, Grinch landed a job coaching defensive backs at New Hampshire, where he spent his first two years matching wits with a guy named Chip Kelly each day in practice.
By 2009 Grinch was back in FBS as as the secondary coach at Wyoming, then returned to Missouri as safeties coach in 2012. Three seasons there led to the Washington State defensive coordinator job in 2015, where he took a Cougars unit that ranked 103rd in yards per play, 117th in scoring defense and 124th in pass efficiency defense the year prior to his arrival to 34th, 56th and seventh, respectively, in 2017.
Through Grinch’s travels, a clear trend emerged: either Grinch knows how to attach himself to winning programs, or programs with Grinch on the team win games. His overall record in college football is 176-69, including a 122-68 mark as a coach.
Testimony from former players makes Grinch sound like a young Meyer himself.
“He took every practice like it was preparing for Alabama,” former Washington State player Jeremiah Allison told the Columbus Dispatch. “I thought he was pretty much crazy. He never really screams, but when he gets mad, he gets mad…. He made people want to run through a wall. We felt we (had) let him down. He set the tone for the season.”
Grinch takes over a unit that loses two starters, including No. 4 overall pick Denzel Ward, but is as consistently elite as any unit in the sport. The Buckeyes finished 13th nationally in pass efficiency defense and have done so in seven of the past 10 seasons, including the past four. Opposing passers completed 55 percent of their throws for 6.1 yards per attempt (10th nationally) with 16 touchdowns against 13 interceptions.
Good as they were, those numbers will likely improve in time under Grinch. Washington State picked off just three passes the year prior to Grinch’s hiring, second-to-last in FBS. But the Cougars stepped in front of 13 passes in 2015, 12 in 2016, and 15 in 2017. In overall turnovers, Washington State bounded from eight takeaways in 2014 — tied for last in FBS — to 28 in 2017, tied for ninth in FBS.
Though the Buckeyes lost Ward, they have a 5-star in sophomore Jeffrey Okudah or a 4-star in junior Kendall Sheffield ready to take his place. Safety Damon Webb was lost to graduation, but 4-star sophomore Isaiah Pryor is ready to take over.
And this gets us to the true utility of the Grinch hire. He helps Ohio State tremendously in the short- and long-term. Ohio State enters 2018 riding shotgun behind co-favorites Clemson and Alabama to win this season’s national title. If and when an Ohio State defensive back steps in front of a Tua Tagovailoa pass to hand the Buckeyes another national title, Schiano could very well leave to resume his head coaching career. It’s going to happen sooner or later — and when it does, the next Ohio State defensive coordinator is already on staff.