Taver Johnson picked a pretty good time to return to his home state.
Not only is he back as the cornerbacks coach at Ohio State, he is also closer to Wittenberg, where he was a star football player in the early 1990s.
That means he just might be able to watch the Tigers men’s basketball team when they begin the NCAA tournament on their home floor Friday night against Misericordia.
“We’ll see what we’ve got going on down here,” he said at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Wednesday. “I definitely want to go down and support ‘em. I always support from afar, but now I’m close again, being able to hop on (Interstate) 70 would be good.”
A member of the Witt Hall of Honor, Johnson was the NCAA Division III Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in 1993 and a classmate of current Tigers basketball coach Matt Croci, who starred on the team that went to the Final Four that season and finished third in the nation.
"A bunch of football players drove up to Buffalo to watch those guys,” Johnson said. “I’m excited for the basketball program. I’m excited for the school!
“Our women’s team is doing well. Swimming and diving was doing pretty good. They’re getting ready to build an unbelievable indoor (facility) and things like that, so I just love it.”
Entering his 25th season as a college coach, Johnson has put together an long resume, working at his alma mater as well as Milikin University in Illinois, Notre Dame, Miami University, Ohio State, Arkansas, Purdue and Temple.
He also spent a year with the Browns in 2004, but the Cincinnati native has never forgotten where he came from.
“I guess the older I get the more I appreciate the things I went through in college,” he said. “Especially because it’s so small. You get that family feel.”
Of course, he’s proud of the winning tradition that has continued under coach Joe Fincham, who was an assistant during Johnson’s playing career and became head coach in 1996.
The Tigers went 10-0 in the regular season last fall and won the NCAC for the seventh time in the last nine years. They lost in the first round of the playoffs to Frostburg State.
“Obviously we haven’t won the national championship yet, but we’re on the brink and that’s because of, No. 1, continuity with Coach Fincham there. He’s unbelievable. He is awesome,” Johnson said.
“The other thing is they’ve had success. You get a great education and they’ve had success and they have the expectation of not just trying to win this many games or trying to in the conference but being playoff contenders year in and year out. That will attract student-athletes.”
As for Johnson’s current employer, Ohio State is on an amazing run when it comes to sending cornerbacks to the NFL.
The last five starters at the position have been drafted, including four in the first round. Denzel Ward is widely expected to join that club in April, extending a run that started with Bradley Roby in 2014.
Roby, who was recruited by Johnson during his first stint at Ohio State, played his last season for Kerry Coombs, who recently left OSU for a job with the Tennessee Titans after receiving much acclaim for his work with the corners.
Johnson wants to keep that pipeline to the pros open, but that isn’t his No. 1 priority.
“I don’t want to be — and I don’t think any of us want to be — associated with pushing that guy or being able to get that guy to the NFL. It happens, but as a coach that’s the last thing you think about,” Johnson said. “You want to develop that young man inside and out, in between his ears, and then when the football takes over you just want to make sure you enhance that.”