Monday, September 26, 2022

Jim Knowles readies for toughest challenge of career as Ohio State’s national title hopes rest on his defense

When it was over, the Oklahoma State defense lit up cigars. Just not in the locker room — and not in celebration. In fact, the get-together was tinged with disappointment.

The regular season had ended in an inches-short bid for the Big 12 title and likely College Football Playoff berth. A Fiesta Bowl invite was a bonus, but it wasn’t the ultimate goal.

The program falling short was hammered home for the Cowboys when their mentor, friend and defensive coordinator, Jim Knowles, called the Cowboys defense over to his house on an early December night. By then, the players already knew their charismatic coach was leaving after four seasons in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

At that point, a 57-year-old gray-bearded free spirit with a hint of Willie Nelson to his look decided it was time to be, well, on the road again. Knowles had accepted the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator position. Proper goodbyes literally went up in smoke.

“They all came over to my house, and we smoked cigars,” Knowles said. “We had a good night. There was some sadness. They were happy for me. I included them in the process.”

That process featured regular Zoom and Facetime calls with Knowles updating his players not only when interest came in from other schools but also the exact numbers he was being offered after a record-breaking year at Oklahoma State.

“Probably risky,” Knowles admitted. “When it was all going on, those guys knew. You watch coaches leave in the middle of the night and that sort of thing. Those guys knew exactly who was offering and what they were offering, even, like, dollar amounts. I treated them like my sons. I trusted them with the information. When I look back, I think, ‘Jeez, that’s kind of risky. Anybody can report that.'”

They didn’t. Besides, Knowles concluded those players with whom he had become so close were the ones who put him in that position. Sharing texts, dollar signs and farewell cigars at his place was the least he could do.

“They’re the reason I’m getting these offers,” Knowles said. “That’s the dichotomy of it.”

The Ivy-educated coach is now peaking at a top-five program as No. 2 Ohio State prepares to kick off against No. 5 Notre Dame. For these Buckeyes, Knowles could be the difference between a mere Big Ten title and a national championship. He’s that accomplished. Last season defense seemed to be what prevented OSU from being not just good but great.

Now, they’ve got one of the country’s greats leading the unit.

“This is somebody who has answers,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “As he says, he’s put in his 10,000 hours. … He’s able to run the entire defense. The way we have it right now is to have a head coach of the defense.”

For years, Knowles has been the cool, hip indie band of defensive coaches. Truly appreciated by only a small group of informed insiders, Knowles was unknown by the average fan. But when his defense stumbled, Day didn’t hesitate signing the veteran to a reported three-year deal worth $1.9 million per season.

That makes the former Cornell defensive end the highest-paid assistant in Ohio State history.

It also underscores how badly the Buckeyes needed an experienced defensive chief.

Their defense was exposed in a home nonconference loss to Oregon in 2021. After keeping it close in the first half of the annual bloodletting with Michigan, Ohio State eventually gave up the most points in the series (42) since 1946. The Buckeyes then had to outscore Utah 48-45 in a highly entertaining but disturbing (from a defensive standpoint) Rose Bowl victory.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma State’s defense was its best in at least 40 years. Georgia Lite, if you will, just without the publicity. Under Knowles, the Pokes were top 10 in total defense, third-down conversions allowed, sacks, tackles for loss and points.

Out of a 4-2-5 base look, Knowles developed a Big 12 outlier: a smothering defense in an offense-first league. It was a process. Hence the cigars after Oklahoma State went from 112th to 82nd to 44th to fourth in total defense across Knowles’ four seasons.

In Lincoln Riley’s last game, his Oklahoma team was held without an offensive touchdown in the second half of Bedlam. The Cowboys won the bitter rivalry game for the first time since 2014. That’s not just improvement. That’s going from selling mixtapes on a street corner to a gold record.

Knowles’ migration to Ohio State is a look-in to the continuing subdivision of programs at even the highest levels. The program that billionaire T. Boone Pickens built couldn’t pony up enough to keep a difference-making coordinator.

Knowles was reportedly offered a five-year contract at $1.3 million per season by Oklahoma State. Ohio State blew that out of the water with an offer that was 46% higher (though for fewer years).

“We got outbid,” Pokes coach Mike Gundy said.

Knowles wanted to challenge himself after six years as Cornell coach (26-34 from 2004-09). Duke‘s David Cutcliffe hired him as defensive coordinator in 2010 after employing Knowles at Ole Miss as a linebackers coach in 2003. From 2013-17, Duke won 37 games, the most in a five-year period since 1938-42.

In 2021, Knowles’ steady hand developed an Oklahoma State unit where every starter was in at least his fourth season, two in their sixth. In his fifth season, linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez was the No. 2 tackler in the Big 12.

How that translates to Ohio State is complicated. Nine months into the job and only a few days before Ohio State’s season opener, Knowles has become philosophical. That has shaped a recruiting pitch that only the coach could create.

It took you 16 years to get to a top-five program, Knowles tells recruits. It took me 56 years. Let’s do it together.

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘How can I express to this kid the quality of our time together?'” Knowles explained. “That came to me.”

Only three Ohio State starters return to lead this turnaround. There needs to be a consistent force off the edge. Defensive end Jack Sawyer could be the next great one. Senior DE Zach Harrison aims for a bounce-back year. Safety Ronnie Hickman is a steadying force, as is Oklahoma State transfer and fellow S Tanner McCalister.

In a way, the Buckeyes can’t help but be better defensively. There were issues just lining up right last season. Oregon was able to exploit the defense running play after play over its left tackle. Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs was eventually demoted.

“You don’t really know [what happened] unless you’re in the submarine,” Knowles said.

The truth: If Ohio State is just average on defense, it might be able to run the table. That’s what happens when you’ve got three Heisman Trophy candidates on the other side of the ball.

Regardless, Knowles is going to be a refreshing addition to a programs that’s judged play by play. He’s old enough to let critiques roll off his back. He cares enough to know what’s at stake.

“I really worked my way up. I feel grateful that things broke the way they did. We know there are a lot of coaches who never make it here,” Knowles said. “They don’t get the breaks.”

Day was more than happy to have Knowles on board as that head coach of the defense. When he ducked in on defensive meetings after Coombs was demoted, “I felt like I wasn’t getting anything done.” Now, he can just hand off that responsibility like it’s a fullback dive.

There was a discussion early on that Knowles might consider staying at Oklahoma State for the Fiesta Bowl after accepting the Ohio State job. That would have given him an early look at Notre Dame before turning around and facing the Fighting Irish again in the 2022 opener. All parties eventually agreed he get to Columbus, Ohio, as soon as possible.

Preparation for Notre Dame was going to take care of itself. The view from the peak for Knowles remains steep and treacherous.

“Living in Columbus and Stillwater is a lot different. Columbus is a real city,” said Knowles with absolutely no animosity intended. “I grew up in Philadelphia, so there is a lot more of what I’m comfortable with. Certainly a lot more things to do. Not that I have a lot of time.”

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