Ryan Day begins tenure at Ohio State with plenty of backers, even more expectations
There is a strong belief Day will continue the Buckeyes' Big Ten dominance, and he better do just that
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- No one involved can clearly recall exactly how Ryan Day ascended to the throne at Ohio State.
Not that the offensive coordinator didn't deserve to replace Urban Meyer after the upheaval and uncertainty of 2018. As acting coach, Day, then 39, had already kept a season and a program from running into a ditch during a three-game audition.
It was the in-the-moment dizzying chain of events when Meyer called it quits (again) in December 2018 that remain unclear.
"I don't even really remember," said Day, Ohio State's 25th coach. "The season was kind of that way. … There was the press conference, then bowl practice, then recruiting, then the Rose Bowl.
"Then, the next day, it's … here we go …"
Three days separated the Big Ten Championship Game and the biggest day of Day's professional life. In one lightning strike of a press conference, Meyer retired and Day was put in charge of one of the shiniest jewels in college football.
His life and career have changed in ways even he cannot imagine. In fact, what little anonymity Day had left may have been spent last week walking the halls of the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort at Gainey Ranch during the Big Ten's spring meetings.
For those conditioned to expect coaches to walk around with an entourage and use back-door entrances, Day was refreshingly walking around alone with his wife Nina, quietly enjoying the resort life.
"When you see your name on a list of [Ohio State] coaches, it catches you," Day said. "You have to take pause for a second -- out of nothing else, respect for those coaches and Ohio State football.
"Then, you quickly have to get yourself focused again and realize you have a job to do and nobody cares [about anything else]."
Wondering whether Day "gets it" or "will get it done" in Columbus, Ohio, are completely different questions.
The answer to the first query? Absolutely. Day married the daughter of a coach and went to the same high school as good friends Chip Kelly and Dan Mullen. As a New Hampshire quarterback, he ran the zone read spread in the 1990s before anyone knew about it. He came to Ohio State from the NFL.
As to whether Day, now 40, can guide the Buckeyes to a fifth top-five finish, fourth Big Ten title and third College Football Playoff appearance in the last six years? That remains to be seen.
And those are just the goals for his first season.
"People say, 'What if you lose? What if you lose to the Team Up North? What if you don't win the Big Ten championship?'" Day recounted.
"My answer always is, 'What if I do?'"
Here we go.
How Day arrived at this place at this time is almost a collective blank space in the Ohio State psyche. Buckeyes athletic director Gene Smith has a hard time articulating why he chose Day (twice) to replace Meyer on a staff filled with older, more experienced assistants.
Sure, Day guided Dwayne Haskins to the most productive season by a Big Ten quarterback in history (4,831 yards, 50 touchdowns), but now he's in charge of it all. That includes improving a defense that was the worst in school history (403.4 yards per game).
"I put a lot of premium on EQ -- emotional intelligence, self-awareness, self-management," Smith said. "The best CEOs around the world, the majority of them have a high EQ."
Day is the Buckeyes' first coach to take over the program without a full season of head coaching experience since Paul Bixler in 1946. At the same time, the fit seems so natural.
Day cannot forget the congratulatory text from Kelly, his mentor: You're built for this.
"For someone to say that, and because he's known me since I've been this tall," Day said, motioning low to the ground, "… it meant a lot. You know Chip. He isn't going to text that if he doesn't believe it."
When Kelly thumbed out that message, he'd had more than 20 years to consider it. Day was Kelly's quarterback for three seasons at New Hampshire. (Kelly was the Wildcats' offensive coordinator from 1999 to 2006.)
In 2002, Day began his coaching career as Kelly's tight ends coach. The two have not been emotionally or philosophically separated much since that time.
They're both Manchester, New Hampshire, natives. Part of that UNH mafia also includes Mullen, Florida's coach.
Meyer became acquainted with Day when he hired him as a graduate assistant with the Gators in 2005.
In the middle of our discussion Day, former Boston College AD Gene DeFelippo wrapped Day in a bear hug. Day was Steve Addazio's offensive coordinator at BC from 2013-14. Addazio was also on that 2005 Florida staff under Meyer and stayed with him at UF until 2010.
Before Ohio State, Day was Kelly's quarterbacks' coach in the NFL with the Eagles and 49ers. Typical of an ascending coaching talent, Day hasn't spent more than two years at any job since 2010.
"His whole life he's been that guy," Kelly said. "The point guard on the basketball team, the quarterback on the football team, catcher on the baseball team. He's always been a steady influence and ran the show."
Smith long had an inkling that Day was the guy should Meyer ever call it quits. During their combined suspension amid the Zach Smith scandal, Smith said he and Meyer "tailgated at my condo" each Saturday with "Coors Light and hamburgers."
As the season wound down, Meyer met with his boss each Sunday.
"This was prior to Urban's final decision," Smith said. "I had already lined up Ryan. I had already met with the president and got his approval."
Smith divulged that, shortly before a meeting to finalize the transition of power, he told Meyer, "If you want to change your mind, you've got 10 minutes because I can make this meeting about something else."
Day was as surprised as anyone to get the job.
"Shoot, we won a rivalry game and lost one game during the season," Day said. "Things were good. Urban could have gone for another 10 years, in my opinion."
Smith made the last-minute decision to announce Meyer's retirement and Day's ascension in the same Dec. 4, 2018, press conference.
Smith had consulted Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione on that strategy. In a combined presser three years ago, OU announced its own double shocker -- Bob Stoops' retirement and Lincoln Riley's promotion. Allowing any gap between its dual announcements and the Ohio State/college football world would have gone "absolutely berserk," Smith said.
Into the great wide open, Day took over stewardship of a football giant. By all accounts, he is a tireless recruiter. At the end, Smith said Meyer was basically told the equivalent of shit or get off the pot so Day had "a chance to salvage" the 2019 recruiting class.
That Meyer/Day recruiting class finished 14th nationally, according to 247Sports. Day's first complete class in 2020 is currently ranked 10th.
"Gene must have seen something," Day said. "Whenever he tapped me on the shoulder, I felt a responsibility to him. He entrusted me with that job."
The hiring once again reinforces the sense that Ohio State football is almost bigger than whoever leads it. It has been 73 years since a full-time Ohio State coach failed to win at least a share of the Big Ten title.
Day's future is almost laid out for him … if he doesn't screw it up.
"The things that we hoped have emerged," Smith said. "He's hired some pretty good guys."
About that: Eyebrows were raised when Day hired not one but two Michigan assistants for the defense. At least Al Washington's dad had been a Buckeye. New co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison spent 13 seasons at Michigan trying to beat the hell out of the Buckeyes, though he was also on that 2005 Florida staff with Meyer and Day.
"I'm just like you guys," Smith told the gathered media last week. "He brings it to me, [and I say], 'That's interesting. Let's talk about that.'"
Perhaps Day's biggest accomplishment to date is securing the program's next quarterback. Justin Fields transferred from Georgia, then won a waiver appeal making him immediately eligible in 2019. The former No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2018 has three years remaining.
"When Dwayne leaves as a sophomore, we think he has three years left and he comes for one and throws 50 touchdown passes," Day said. "He's a first-round draft pick. He left things uneasy, almost a mess. We kind of had to figure all that out in short order. When Justin became available, it made sense. We didn't know if he'd get the waiver or not."
Under Day, a sense of calm settled over the Buckeyes during those first three games of 2018. That was when Meyer was banned from associating with his team. While he and Smith were downing Coors Lights and hamburgers, Day was winning over the team.
That 3-0 Meyer-less start concluded with a convincing 40-28 win over TCU. Asked to give a letter grade to Day at that point, Haskins asked me, "Is there an A++ in the grade book?"
Also during that time, Day realized the true meaning of the old coaching saw: one day at a time. In that uncertain period, few knew where Ohio State football was headed, whether Meyer would ever be back. Waking up and getting through the day without another surprise was a bonus.
"You've got to empower the staff," Day said. "Love the kids and make sure they know you love them. If they know that, they'll do anything for you. You've got to be vulnerable."
At this point, Day looks forward to Meyer texting "every other day." Their offices are close inside the football facility. Kelly is available at any time. But advice only goes so far. A unique experience awaits.
"Not a lot of people have walked in these shoes," Day said.
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