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Tough Love: J.K. Dobbins, Tony Alford and unbreakable Ohio State bond

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Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford and Buckeyes junior J.K. Dobbins. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Tough Love: J.K. Dobbins, Tony Alford and unbreakable Ohio State bond

COLUMBUS — The calls from the 979 area code down in Texas would pop up daily for Tony Alford.

Some days the Ohio State running backs coach would hear the phone ring two or three times. Sometimes the conversation would last a minute, others would go for an hour. Sometimes the talented tailback on the other end wanted to talk about the development plan, one time he called from a hospital bed to tell Alford that no surgery was going to stop him from becoming a star for the Buckeyes.

Just like the way he runs with the football in his hands, J.K. Dobbins is every bit as relentless when he’s building relationships. And the rise of the best tailback in the nation has been accompanied at every step by an unbreakable bond with Alford that started before he even stepped foot on the Ohio State campus — and has only become stronger over the last three years.

“It’s definitely like a father-son relationship, for sure,” Dobbins said. “It definitely takes time to get to that point. It takes trust. It’s not like at the beginning I was just going to be super close with him, because I didn’t know him. But building that relationship from high school to now, it’s a great relationship.

“He’s definitely part of my family.”

Alford wasn’t looking to expand his own when he first took a January flight down to a small town in the Lone Star State, and he’s not out scouring the country for future friends on the recruiting trail.

The film had already made it clear the trip would probably be worth it to evaluate what Dobbins was all about and what made him tick. But what happened after that might have altered the trajectory of both their careers.

“I don’t really know why it happened,” Alford said. “I think it’s timing, and I’m a firm believer that people are placed before you for a reason unknown to you.

“Maybe he felt he needed someone to latch on to. I know it started for me because I was looking for a damn-good running back.”

Alford certainly got one. And Dobbins found what he was looking for, too.

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Ohio State tailback J.K. Dobbins is proving himself to be the best in the country. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Tony Alford ‘was not bluffing’ J.K. Dobbins

There wasn’t a shortage of coaches willing to tell J.K. Dobbins what he wanted to hear during his recruitment. But at some point that process is going to end.

The trick back then for Dobbins was trying to figure out who was going to keep treating him the same way, coach him as hard as he wanted and care about him personally once he decided to sign with a program.

“I remember him being real,” Dobbins told Lettermen Row. “I remember him being honest, and that’s what I was looking for in coaches during the recruiting process. And that was the main thing that I realized with him.

“I could tell that he was not bluffing me.”

The memories of those early meetings are engrained for both of them, even though they’ve made countless more during the record-setting career at Ohio State since the two first met in the winter after Dobbins’ junior year.

In fact, the two still bicker over their record in dominoes, a rivalry that dates back to an in-home visit when Alford claims he set the competitive tone by winning the first head-to-head matchup.

“I don’t recall that,” Dobbins said with a smile. “Maybe I let him win just to be nice.”

That would be hard to believe for either party since honesty is the backbone of their relationship.

Alford made it clear right from the start that he wasn’t trying to expand his circle of friends or his family. He had enough on his plate with three boys about the age of Dobbins, and he also spends as much time as possible looking out for his nephews after his younger brother passed away at the age of 39. 

But those experiences were also intriguing to Dobbins. They were part of the reason Alford got so many phone calls, because the young man on the other end of the line seemed to be craving the kind of guidance that he also lost after his dad died just a couple years earlier.

“There was never anything where I was like: I’m going to try to be a father figure for this kid,” Alford said. “I’m not sure how that came about from his perspective, but we really started having long conversations. We both kind of had to deal with that stuff on a personal level and my nephews had to try to move on without their dad. He asked me once how often I talk to my nephews. I talk to them all the time and try to be the best I can as a part of their lives, so I also had some experience dealing with young men who that had happened to — obviously in different circumstances.

“That might have been a common bond, and it just kind of grew into some really deep conversations from there. It definitely wasn’t just business with him.”

That part was critical, too.

But the first step had to be finding somebody Dobbins and his mother could trust.

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Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford has built a close bond with J.K. Dobbins. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

‘Coach Alford kept his promise’

Mya Grounds thinks back on the recruitment now and admits there were doubts about her baby boy going so far from home.

Tony Alford was initially just another in a long line of coaches trying to get a signature from a running back who could elevate an offense at the next level. But it was hard to ignore all those hours Dobbins was spending on the phone with one of those guys in particular, and almost all of that doubt was gone by the time her son was ready to head north to join the Buckeyes.

“I was a little iffy,” Grounds said with a laugh. “I remember telling Coach Alford that once this process was over with, I probably won’t even see him anymore. He was like: ‘It’s not going to be like that.’

“I’m not so sure if it was a father figure J.K. was was looking for, he just wanted somebody who was going to be there for him. Someone that you can trust. Him and Coach Alford were always talking on the phone before he left for Ohio State, I mean, they kind of had a bond before he stepped on campus. I think that’s why I felt secure because I could see how J.K. felt about him. … It has worked out better than I could have imagined. I can definitely say that Coach Alford kept his promise.”

That’s the mission for anybody at Ohio State entrusted with the responsibility of developing, mentoring and coaching somebody else’s child, and it’s one that all of them take seriously.

Tough Love wasn’t chosen as the program’s top slogan by new coach Ryan Day by accident. And the entire staff is charged with building as many strong relationships with their players as possible. But even among the tight-knit Buckeyes, Alford and Dobbins still stand out as a special.

“I mean, there’s a lot of respect there,” Day said. “J.K. is a great young man, he’s got a beautiful heart and he’s going to leave a legacy here just because of the way he is and his work ethic.

“That’s what you want in recruiting. You talk to families and you tell them that you’re going to be the family when they leave home, and we want to make sure that we are treating them the same way here as we are in recruiting. I don’t think that’s always the case everywhere. I think a lot of guys just try to get the sale, get them on campus. I think it goes to show that when we’re telling them something in recruiting, we’re going to be family, we’re going to take care of them, we’re going to love them, there’s a great example with Tony and J.K. having that bond. When there is love there, guys can work through those issues together.”

And it isn’t always smooth sailing.

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Ohio State tailback J.K. Dobbins has most likely played his last game at the Horseshoe. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

J.K. Dobbins: ‘He’s doing it because he loves me’

The journey hasn’t always been a nonstop fairytale for J.K. Dobbins and Tony Alford.

By his own admission and on multiple occasions, Dobbins called his sophomore season a failure. And in the middle of it, Alford called him into his office and gave him the tough news that Mike Weber was about to become the new starter for the Buckeyes.

“He threw an absolute tantrum,” Alford said with a smile. “Going on and on, lots of words were said, going at it. I was over there [in the meeting room] eating a sandwich, and I just let him talk.

“Finally I said: ‘Are you done now?’ He talked about how nobody cares about him, this, that and the other. Then I stood up, calmly closed the door, sat down across from him — and I pounded the table. I went postal. How could you think I don’t care about you? I went completely in on that.”

The conversation ended, and Dobbins didn’t speak to Alford for two days.

He kept practicing. He kept attending meetings. And honestly, Alford still thinks those were some of the most productive two days he’s seen from Dobbins as he immediately set out to reclaim the top spot for Ohio State.

During a water break at a Wednesday practice, Alford walked up and put an arm around the kid who he had promised years earlier to always give the truth.

“Hey, is this how it’s going to be from here on out? I’m fine, I’m good. Remember I told you a long time ago I didn’t have to be your friend. I just want to know what the relationship is going to be, because I’m good either way.”

Dobbins still didn’t break the silence — until Alford had started walking away and made it about five steps.

“He said: ‘Coach, I still love you,’” Alford said. “I laughed, told him I loved him too and walked away.

“It’s unconditional love. And that means it’s not all a bed of roses with us all the time.”

But when the going does get tough, that Tough Love is what pulls both of them through it.

And without it, Dobbins almost certainly wouldn’t be heading up to rival Michigan looking for a third pair of Gold Pants, trying to solidify his status as the best running back in America and closing in on the opportunity to deliver the national championship he guaranteed back in January.

“He’s still the same way with me, and it doesn’t change,” Dobbins said. “Really he’s trying to make things harder on me, and that’s how I like it. It makes it way easier for me.

“To play hard for somebody, it makes it so much easier when you have that great relationship. I know that he’s doing it for me. He’s doing it because he loves me.”

J.K. Dobbins isn’t going to be around Ohio State much longer.

But that just means Tony Alford should get ready for a lot more phone calls, because they’ll be coming from that familiar area code for the rest of his life.

Austin Ward

Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.

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