James Laurinaitis 'juiced up' just thinking about Notre Dame's opener at Ohio State

Mike Berardino
South Bend Tribune
Ohio State linebackers Marcus Freeman and James Laurinaitis play video games at Laurinaitis' apartment, in this Wednesday, April 15, 2009 file photo. Freeman is now head football coach at Notre Dame and Laurinatis is a graduate assistant.

SOUTH BEND — A smile crept across James Laurinaitis’ face as he heard the question.

What will it be like for Notre Dame’s massively overqualified graduate assistant to face his alma mater on Sept. 3 at Ohio Stadium?

“Have I thought about it?” the retired NFL linebacker and three-time Buckeyes All-American said after Monday’s practice. “I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about it. Yeah, it’s going to be weird. It’s going to be emotional.”

Even before stepping away from a promising media career, which included hosting a three-hour radio show in Columbus as well as TV analyst work for Fox and the Big Ten Network, Laurinaitis never had a chance to tour enemy territory at The Horseshoe.

James Laurinaitis, right, doing some TV analyst work.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in the visitor locker room in that stadium,” Laurinaitis said. “Look, you’re a competitor, right? It gets you juiced up thinking about going back in there. But to sit here and say it wouldn’t be … “

He stopped himself in midsentence, searching for the right words — words that won’t end up on the bulletin board at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

“It’s hard to say how I’ll feel,” he added, “because I’ve never experienced it.”

'Dude, what are you doing?'

Until joining the Irish staff in January at the invitation of former Buckeyes roommate Marcus Freeman, there wasn’t much Laurinaitis had yet to experience on a football field.

At 36, he can draw upon eight seasons in the NFL, all but the last one (2016) with the St. Louis Rams. Upon his retirement in April of 2017, his first thought was to sit around and do nothing for a while.

“I was just exhausted,” he said. “I’d been playing football since fourth grade.”

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That down time lasted three months before he started exploring media opportunities. As he and wife Shelly raised a family that now includes three young daughters, they enjoyed the work-life balance a broadcaster’s schedule could offer.

All along, however, Laurinaitis could feel the tug.

Other times, it would be a not-so-subtle nudge from one of his many friends in the game. Howard Griffith, his fellow studio analyst on the Big Ten Network, would tease Laurinaitis about that very subject during breaks on the set.

“I would sit there and say, ‘Dude, what are you doing? Why are you messing around with us? You’re a coach. I know you can coach,’ “ Griffith, whose son Houston is a fifth-year senior safety at Notre Dame, told NDInsider.com.

Asked if he recalled those conversations on Monday, Laurinaitis laughed.

“Oh, yeah. All the time,” he said. “It’s funny because I would fly to Chicago on Mondays. There’s a show we would call ‘BTN Live’ and then there was ‘Buckeye Weekly,’ covering Ohio State on SportsTime Ohio. We would sit there in between. Howard’s a great dude.”

Griffith, who also had an eight-year NFL career that started with the Rams, didn’t hold back with his advice to a colleague nearly two decades his junior.

“He would be like, ‘What are you doing? Have you ever thought about coaching?’ “ Laurinaitis said. “I said, ‘All the time. All the time.’ “

The more hours he spent in preparation behind the scenes with coaches and players, the more he started to think about trading his microphone for a whistle.

“You start talkin’ ball, off the record, and you start talkin’ scheme and you’re like, ‘Ah, OK,’ “ he said. “And you start feeling that fire a little bit again.”

Laurinaitis and Freeman had talked about joining forces again during the latter’s rise as a defensive coordinator, including once Freeman arrived at Notre Dame in early 2021. Other programs had openings that interested Laurinaitis, but nothing came together.

“I tried the last few years,” he said. “Opportunities didn’t work out. And some of that is just timing. Guys didn’t have room on staffs and stuff. There’s only so many spots.”

With former Irish walk-on and defensive analyst Nick Lezynski ultimately heading to Vanderbilt last spring, Freeman was able to find a role for one of his favorite people in the world.

“I’ve always talked to Free,” Laurinaitis said. “He was like, ‘If I have anything when I’m D-coordinator, I’ll definitely bring you in if you’re ready to work.’ And then things happened the way they happened. He had a little more say as a head coach. I said, ‘Whatever you got, I’ll come.’ “

'Oh, they love him'

Griffith’s intuition has proven correct many times over since Laurinatis’ career change.

Through regular conversations with his son, one of 12 group leaders at training camp, the former Illinois star and Denver Broncos Super Bowl champion hears about the impact his recently retired friend is making.

“Oh, they love him,” Griffith said of the Irish staff. “Their thing is ‘OK, we have to make sure we have you in the right positions. Because there’s only so much you can do (as a GA).’ He knows it and he has the credibility that those kids want at that position. I think James Laurinaitis is going to be a fantastic coach.”

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Despite his impressive résumé, one that includes 1,039 tackles and 19 interceptions over 168 combined games at the college and pro levels, no special treatment is given to or requested from Laurinaitis.

He jokes that “the hours are little different than a three-hour radio show,” but makes it clear he’s learning on the fly just like all the other newbies.

“It’s just all different roles,” he said. “We all play such a unique role when we’re doing it. It’s been a fun learning experience.”

Initially, he was a little rusty on PowerPoint and XOS video editing software, even though he was a film junkie throughout his playing career.

Notre Dame coaching staff analyst James Laurinaitis during Notre Dame Fall Practice on Friday, August 05, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

“It’s been four or five years since I’ve used the film stuff,” he said. “And even then, when you used it as a player, you were the one taking what the coaches presented and just watching a lot of times. You knew how to mess around with it.

“But now you’re the person entering data. You’re identifying routes or whatever it is. And then, on top of that, you’re presenting. Just like when I first jumped in the media, I had a bigger respect for it. Now, being in (coaching), you’re like, ‘Whew, the guys who’ve been doing this for a long time, they’ve been grinding and they’ve had to grind their way up.’ “

When it came to the interpersonal aspect, especially the transfer of information into usable nuggets, the outgoing Laurinaitis was careful not to use a one-size-fits-all approach. Freeman urged the rookie coach just to be himself.  

“You’re learning: How do I want to teach?” Laurinaitis said. “I know it. How do I want to present it? You can never assume that some of these young players from high school know. Some of them look at you like, ‘What the heck do you mean by that?’ OK, let’s pause.”

It helps, he said, to have experienced, naturally inquisitive linebackers like Jack Kiser, JD Bertrand, Bo Bauer and Marist Liufau in his position room. Not only have they worked with three different defensive coordinators in as many seasons, with six-year NFL assistant Al Golden being the latest, but they are sponges when it comes to the daily download of information.

“I mean, we have a brilliant room,” Laurinaitis said. “The best part about that is that they challenge you as a coach to really know it. You can’t step into the linebacker room and not be prepared.”

Whether as a player, broadcaster or coach, the inner dread has always been the same for the former Butkus, Nagurski and Lott award winner.

“My biggest fear, I think, in life is being unprepared,” he said. “As a player, I wanted to overstudy because I wanted to know every single check. I didn’t want to ever get anything wrong because I felt like I was letting my teammates down.”

Pressure? Stress? Marathon hours?

Now that he’s back in the football building, Laurinaitis is on a first-name basis once again with those familiar concepts. Yet he’s also being reminded every day of something that offsets all those challenges.

“Once you step on the turf,” he said, “it’s pure joy.”

Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for NDInsider.com and the South Bend Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.