Throughout the 2023 season, Ohio has featured one of the best defenses in not just the Mid-American Conference but throughout all of college football. When some think of the dominance of the Ohio defense, names like Bryce Houston and Keye Thompson understandably come to mind, but few think of the mastermind behind it all: second-year Defensive Coordinator Spence Nowinski.
Nowinski took the job as DC ahead of last season, coming to Ohio from MAC rival Miami. The Wisconsin native was attracted to the Ohio job as a result of his relationship with Ohio Head Coach Tim Albin.
“Coach Albin, I said I've known for 20 years, he’s been a pretty incredible friend and an incredible mentor to me,” Nowinski said. “He’s different than me in a lot of respects, not just offensively and defensively, but I burn pretty hot and my fuse is pretty short and Coach is much different. Coach is very calm, very cool…he’s very fatherly to everybody. When I burn hot, he extinguishes that.”
A native of a small town in central Wisconsin, Athens feels like home for Nowinski and his family. The town where he grew up was a bit smaller than Athens, but the people were largely the same.
“I’m from a real little town in North Central Wisconsin, it’s much smaller than Athens, but it reminds me of Athens,” Nowinski said. “You know, tough, hard-nosed, gritty people that work really, really hard, but they enjoy life. They have personality, they like to celebrate good things and they like to rally around things that are important to them.”
Nowinski’s relationship with Coach Albin is at least partially to the team's success over the last two seasons. However, it’s not just Albin who Nowinski aims to have a relationship with—it’s everybody in the program whom he works with.
Houston and Thompson have each played major roles as leaders for the team so far this season, and both accredit Nowinski as the best coach they’ve ever had.
“He is my favorite coach I’ve ever had; I would say that for a lot of the people on the defensive side of the ball,” Houston said. “It’s not just how intense he is; he really does love us and we know that. We know that that’s a bad dude; he gives off his swag and his confidence and it feeds on us just knowing how confident he is in us to make plays; we owe it to him to be able to do that for us. We see he’s a great father, we see how he is with his kids and he doesn’t change. He acts like me and Keye (Thompson) are his sons, just like his own two sons.”
Nowinski will be the first to tell you that he can be a little bit hot-headed in nature, but in the end, he wants the team to have fun playing football and enjoy showing up every day just like he does.
“A lot of weeks, guys are bumped and bruised and beat up and it just can’t be miserable all the time,” Nowinski said. “I want to see us play hard and I want to see us play physical so that mental side can’t always be hard and physical; there has to be some levity there. That’s been my approach for 29 years and that’s what I love about it. I do blow my top at times but I will laugh every day too and make the guys laugh.”
If you strictly see Nowinski coaching on the sidelines, you’re never getting the whole story. Who he is on the field is just a glimpse of the way his players see him off the field.
“I yell, I tell them the truth, but then I will hug them,” Nowinski said. “You talk about Bryce and Keye and the first thing I do when I see them in the morning is hug them; that’s important. You have to coach the guys really, really hard, but you have to love the guys really, really hard; the relationships is what it’s all about for me.”