Jim Knowles prepares for the toughest challenge of his career as Ohio State national title hopes rest on his defense

When it was over, the Oklahoma State defense lit cigars. But not in the locker room – and not celebrating. In fact, the meeting was tinged with disappointment.

The regular season had ended with a short bid for the Big 12 title and likely a berth in the College Football Playoffs. An invite to the Fiesta Bowl was a bonus, but it wasn’t the ultimate goal.

The underdog program was hammered home for the Cowboys when their mentor, friend and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles called the Cowboys defense home one night in early December. 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 in his look decided it was time to hit the road again. Knowles had accepted the position of defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes. The good farewells 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 sadness. They were happy for me. I included them in the process.”

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

“Probably risky,” admitted Knowles. “When it all happened, these guys knew. You watch the coaches leave in the middle of the night and that kind of stuff. These guys knew exactly who was offering and what they were offering, even, like, amounts in dollars. I treated them like my sons. I trusted them with the information. When I look back, I think, ‘Damn, that’s a little risky. Anyone can report it.’ “

They did not do it. Additionally, Knowles concluded that the players he became so close with were the ones who put him in this position. Sharing goodbye texts, dollar signs and cigars at his house was the least he could do.

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

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

Now they have one of the greatest in the country leading the unit.

“He’s someone with answers,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “As he says, he’s past his 10,000 hours. … He’s capable of leading the whole defence. The way we have it now is to have a head coach in defence.”

For years, Knowles has been the hip independent group of defensive coaches. Truly enjoyed by only a small group of informed insiders, Knowles was unknown to the average fan. But when his defense stumbled, Day didn’t hesitate to sign the veteran to a 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 leader.

Their defense was exposed in a home loss to Oregon in 2021. After keeping it close in the first half of the annual bloodshed with Michigan, Ohio State finally caved the most points in the series (42) since 1946. The Buckeyes then had to beat Utah 48-45 in a very entertaining but disturbing (from a defensive point of view) victory at the Rose Bowl.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma State’s defense was the best in at least 40 years. Georgia Lite, if you will, just ad-free. Under Knowles, the Pokes were in the top 10 in total defense, third conversions allowed, sacks, tackles for loss and points.

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

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

Knowles’ migration to Ohio State is a glimpse of the continued subdivision of programs even at the highest levels. The program set up by billionaire T. Boone Pickens could not be enough to keep a coordinator who makes the difference.

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

“We 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 linebacker coach in 2003. From 2013-17, Duke won 37 games, the most in five years since 1938-42 .

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

How this translates to the state of Ohio is complicated. After nine months on the job and just days before the Ohio State season opener, Knowles became a philosopher. It shaped a recruiting ground that only the coach could create.

It took you 16 years to get into one of the top five programs, Knowles tells rookies. It took me 56 years. Let’s do it together.

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

Only three Ohio State starters return to lead this turnaround. There must be a constant force on the edge. Defensive end Jack Sawyer could be the next big thing. Senior DE Zach Harrison is aiming for a rebound year. Safety Ronnie Hickman is a stabilizing force, as is Oklahoma State transfer and fellow S Tanner McCalister.

Somehow, the Buckeyes can’t help but be better defensively. There were problems just last season. Oregon was able to exploit the defense’s run play after play on their left tackle. Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs was eventually demoted.

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

Truth: If Ohio State is just average on defense, it might be able to lead the board. This is what happens when you have three candidates for the Heisman Trophy on the other side of the ball.

Either way, Knowles will be a refreshing addition to a program judged game by game. He’s old enough to let the critics roll off his back. He cares enough to know what’s at stake.

“I’ve really improved. I’m grateful that things turned out the way they did. We know there are a lot of coaches who never make it here,” Knowles said. “They don’t have breaks.”

Day was more than happy to have Knowles on board as the head defense coach. When he slipped away in defensive meetings after Coombs was demoted, “I felt like I was doing nothing.” Now he can just transfer that responsibility as if it were a back dive.

There was some early talk that Knowles might consider staying at Oklahoma State for the Fiesta Bowl after taking the job at Ohio State. It would have given him his first taste of Notre Dame before turning around and facing the Fighting Irish again in the first game of 2022. All parties eventually agreed that he would travel to Columbus, Ohio as soon as possible.

The preparation of Notre-Dame was going to be done by itself. The view from the top of Knowles remains steep and treacherous.

“Living in Columbus and Stillwater is very different. Columbus is a real city,” Knowles said without any animosity. “I grew up in Philadelphia, so there’s a lot more stuff I’m comfortable with. Definitely a lot more stuff to do. Not that I have a lot of time.”

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