Taking over as a full-time head coach for the first time is daunting at any school. But it’s nearly impossible at a program like Ohio State.
Throw the task of replacing a certified coaching legend into that cauldron of confusion, and in most cases it’s only a matter of time before some fresh-faced, energetic young coach becomes a soon-to-be-replaced ex-coach.
Ryan Day, after one year in that unenviable role, seems set to buck the trend. His first season leading the Buckeyes went about as well as it possibly could have, and it’s positioned them in a spectacular spot moving forward.
Day could have gone into his first year running a college program as an inexperienced 40-year-old simply selling Urban Meyer’s program, with his own ideas of how to improve it lightly sprinkled on top for flavor. Instead, he overhauled Meyer’s final coaching staff and told recruits all over the country to trust his vision for a refreshed Buckeyes defense, one that would return the program to its proud defensive roots. He hired Jeff Hafley, a relatively unknown former co-worker and handed the keys of the defense to Hafley and Greg Mattison, a septuagenarian poached from Ohio State’s biggest rival.
The trust Day placed in Hafley, Mattison and the rest of the defensive coaches on his first coaching staff was only bested by the confidence he had in his own ability as one of the game’s premier offensive minds. A first-year coach at one of the country’s foremost programs wouldn’t usually enter that challenge by putting more work on his plate, but Day did that, making sure everyone knew he was the man responsible for calling Ohio State’s offense.
Justifiably, people had questions about whether or not Ohio State and Day were setting themselves up for a fall. Instead, both the Buckeyes and Day proved themselves right. Under Meyer, Ohio State was quick to talk about testimony versus theory, a fun way to highlight that Meyer’s teams were doing what others said they would.
After an offseason full of theoretical promises from Ryan Day to recruits, their families and their coaches, the success last season provided all the testimony that Ohio State will need to keep its powerhouse program going strong.
“There isn’t anything that [Day] said almost one year ago today that we haven’t seen out of him and the program,” Craig James, the father of Buckeyes 2020 signee Jakob, told Lettermen Row. “Ohio guys a priority? Check. Fostering a great relationship with commits and families? Check. Having a product that would be built on toughness, integrity and passion to be a Buckeye? Check.
“It’s funny, because we hadn’t met him prior to [Meyer’s retirement]. He came in by himself on the first day of winter recruiting last year and stayed for almost three hours talking about everything under the sun. We haven’t looked back.”
After signing the Big Ten’s top-ranked 2020 recruiting class, Day and the Buckeyes have an early start as the nation’s best class in 2021. Ohio State’s on-field production, combined with Day’s now-proven success running a top-level program, could prove to be a combination that matches what his predecessor was able to accomplish in Columbus.
“A coach’s first year at a school, you can’t have too high of expectations,” Buckeyes 2021 linebacker target Barrett Carter told Lettermen Row. “Usually it takes schools a couple of years to figure it all out. Coach Day flipped this program around with only a year’s work, and that’s huge.
“Seeing how he prepared his players to perform like that is huge. It’s eye-opening for a recruit to see that.”
If his first year is any indication of what Day is capable of, it won’t just be Ohio recruits being drawn to the beast of the Big Ten.
“I think recruits seeing what Coach Day did in his first year will have them believing,” 2021 commit and 5-star prospect Jack Sawyer told Lettermen Row. “He will put them in the best position to be successful for the team and for themselves.
“He’s one of the best in the country already in his first year. I’m still sticking to my predictions that we will win a national championship in the next two years.”
So much of recruiting is trust. In Day’s case, the biggest question mark was never about him as a person, but his ability to take what Meyer built and make it his own while growing it to even greater heights. So far, he’s answered that for recruits around the country. The future is still bright at Ohio State.
“I just wanted to see how Coach Day would transition as the head coach,” 5-star junior receiver Beaux Collins told Lettermen Row. “He’s done a great job. It helped me trust Coach Day and the entire coaching staff a lot. Knowing that their scheme and energy allowed them to be successful helps them in the recruiting process.”
Ryan Day knew he wasn’t going to be able to replace Urban Meyer. But he also knew the expectations Meyer left behind would be the standard his own eventual coaching legacy would be measured up against. There is no learning curve when a three-time national championship-winning coach like Meyer handpicks his replacement and does so knowing a championship-caliber roster is being left behind.
Turns out Day and Ohio State didn’t need one.