COLUMBUS — The last year has essentially been one big trust exercise for Ohio State.
When anything could go wrong for players, parents or coaches, it seems it has for the program.
Yet, somehow the Buckeyes football program keeps coming out of every situation feeling tighter, stronger, more unified. The consistently espoused idea of the Ohio State football brotherhood has been tested, repeatedly.
The last week has shown once more how that it’s not just a catchphrase inside the Buckeyes football facilities. It’s the way of life for the young men and the families that make up Ryan Day’s program.
But like most successful businesses, families, etc. It starts at the top. And with apologies to Kristina Johnson, Ohio State’s new president, or veteran athletic director Gene Smith, the top of the Buckeyes football program is Ryan Day himself. The second-year, full-time coach of the Buckeyes have seen his fair share of challenges since arriving at Ohio State from the NFL, and the manner that he’s dealt with them — head on and without excuse — continues to trickle down through his players.
Day, speaking with media on Wednesday, the day his six-week-long push to bring football back to the Big Ten this fall ended, addressed those challenges in the same direct manner.
“I’m very, very excited for our players,” Day said. “Because they never lost faith. They never lost trust. Their behavior through this time has been excellent and they never stopped fighting. It was during a time that was very, very uncertain. It’s not easy for 19, 20, 21 year old young men to go through this, and they did.
“The culture was never more evident. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
The culture and brotherhood have never been tested in the way it has these last few months. From the Covid-19 pandemic, to being a part of a country that has, at times, seemed to be falling apart, to the wreck that the Big Ten produced in the last six weeks, Ohio State has had difficult issues to deal with. From protests to rallies to not knowing how to handle workouts and new health protocols, the long-held leadership of the team has stepped up and new players have risen to the challenge as well.
Justin Fields is one of them. One of the country’s most talented players, Fields didn’t need to go through the challenges. The quarterback could’ve left the program and taken his focus to the NFL. Instead he grew his Ohio State without taking another snap. His path to stardom always seemed obvious, but the superstar has ascended from hired-gun to a leader in the Buckeyes locker room and throughout all of college football thanks, in part, to what he’s seen from Day.
“Me, personally, I’ve gotten to know him more at a personal level,” Fields said. “He told me that he really hasn’t been able to sleep since the season had gotten canceled. The love that he has for this team, it’s just indescribable. I can hear it in his voice. I can see it in his face when he talks to me, how much passion he has for this team and his coaching staff, just everybody in the facility.
“I really don’t think we could have a better leader.”
Sometimes, the hashtag culture around college sports can be trite. It can feel empty. Around Ohio State, words like “Fight” and “Brotherhood” are rooted in shared experiences, shared goals — and a lot of times, shared pain. There’s been no shortage of that in Columbus since the devastating loss to Clemson last December.
Sports aren’t life, but sports reflects life. With Ryan Day leading the charge, Ohio State’s program has turned from its reputation as a football factory and become a place of real, personal development. It’s why young men and families around the country are flocking to play for the young Buckeyes coach and why some of Ohio State’s biggest stars have picked the program over the NFL not once, but twice. It’s the reason why young men like Jonathon Cooper put everyone of his personal goals on hold a year ago and wanted to return to the Buckeyes, to Day, for another year at full-speed.
“Coach Day is an amazing coach,” Cooper said Friday. “Take away the football stuff that he’s done. He’s an amazing person. He really cares about us, and keeping us safe. The other day, he was telling us that in life, it’s like a roller coaster, there’s lows but it doesn’t always stay low. You’ve got to just keep fighting through it, keep going through it, and eventually you’ll break through and you’ll go high, and you’ll find something good. That’s what happened with us. We were all at a very low point, we didn’t know what was going on, but with him being our leader, he kept us going through it. He kept us together and we never lost faith in him.”
And despite the complicated state of the world right now, Day’s message has been simple.
“When things are hard and there’s uncertainty, [we] keep pushing forward,” Day said Wednesday. “When things go well, enjoy it and get all you can. But when things aren’t going well, just hang on. Manage through it and trust the people you’re around because, eventually, it’s going to turn.”
And there’s no doubt that right now, Ryan Day has the full trust of his football team. They know who he is and believe in him.