"I'd be holding my sister on my shoulders," recalls James, "and my brother would jump off the diving board and clothesline her into the water."
Clothesline, as in forearm to the neck?
"Yep," says James, cheerfully. "Joe would take care of that."
At Wayzata High coach Brad Anderson emphasized seniority in his program, and Laurinaitis could not crack the Trojans' starting lineup as a sophomore. Once he got on the field, though, Laurinaitis quickly made up for lost time. In his first start he had 17 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble in a 6-3 upset of the defending Class 4A state champs. The following season he was ridiculously effective, posting 193 tackles. At the urging of defensive coordinator Matt Lombardi, Laurinaitis took copious football notes. Every Monday he took the scout-team plays home and copied them into his three-ring binder, a football bible in which he stored his diagrams and observations about the opponent.
"I'm a better learner when I write things down," says Laurinaitis, who found himself all but ignored, well into his senior season, by every Big Ten school but Minnesota. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he started getting letters from the Buckeyes (whose running backs coach—Dick Tressel, Jim's brother—is a former head coach of St. Paul's D-III Hamline Pipers and was hearing good things from his Minnesota connections).
Notre Dame came in late on him as well. Laurinaitis, though, was sold on OSU after his official visit, becoming the first Minnesotan to play football on scholarship for the Buckeyes since Sid Gillman, who captained the team in 1933.
Coming off that bitter loss to Florida in the 2006 title game, Laurinaitis turned in what Tressel described as an "average" spring, then turned it up. In fall camp "he really took it upward in everything: his knowledge, his ability to get everyone else in the right place, his leadership." Tressel credits his junior captain with "catapulting" the Buckeyes into national championship contention during the '07 season.
FOUR DAYS BEFORE LAST JANUARY'S TITLE game LSU quarterback Matt Flynn was running plays against a scout-team defense that fielded not one but two number 33s. "He's all over the field," Tigers offensive coordinator Gary Crowton said at the time, "so we got two of him."
It may be cold comfort to Buckeyes fans, but the fact is, Ohio State played better in bowing to the Tigers than they had in getting their ears boxed by Florida a year before. The Bucks' most recent loss "wasn't about mismatches, and it had nothing to do with team speed," Laurinaitis insists. "I just think we shot ourselves in the foot. A few plays here and there, and it's a whole different ball game.
Getting back to the title game will be a long shot, he knows. No Ohio State team has beaten Michigan five times in a row. No Buckeyes squad has won three consecutive outright Big Ten titles. "And we won't be flying under the radar, either," he says, unlike the 2007 squad, which wasn't expected to reach the BCS championship game.