With no previous experience as a head coach — save for a three-game cameo last season when Urban Meyer was suspended — Ryan Day was something of a leap-of-faith hire to be Ohio State football coach.
OSU director of athletics Gene Smith and Day’s predecessor, Urban Meyer, both cited infrastructure and continuity multiple times in explaining why Day was the man for the job, which he was given without a national search.
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The pillars of success were already in place, they reasoned when the decision was made in December, so tapping someone who already knows how to build around and ultimately upon them makes sense.
“I hired Ryan Day (as an assistant in 2016) because I thought he was a very good coach,” Meyer said Dec. 4 after announcing he would retire following the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. “I knew he was. He was with me before. What I found out was that he’s far past those thoughts. He’s elite. And I think in trying to build the most comprehensive premier program in America, you also want to hand it off to someone at some point so it can get even stronger. And my witnessing of the work Ryan has done and made this decision not as difficult as I thought.”
But there’s a difference between following the instructions in a manual and coming up with solutions when something unexpected arises.
Many people can do the former, but the latter is tricker. That’s why the world has many more failed coaches than it does Urban Meyers (or Jim Tressels or John Coopers or Earle Bruces for that matter).
Even if Ohio State is too big to fail in some respects — with its massive revenues, years of success, passionate fans and a backyard full of talented players — there are still going to be times real leadership is necessary to truly succeed.
So far, Day has proven to be a problem solver — and one who works quickly.
That began almost immediately.
Day had to hold together the 2019 recruiting class while pursuing additional talent in December.
On his first National Signing Day as a head coach, Day lost four-star safety Jordan Battle to Alabama but scored a commitment from Zach Harrison, the No. 1-rated recruit in Ohio who was thought for quite some time to be headed to Michigan.
With verbal commitment Doug Nester, a four-star offensive linemen from Huntington, W. Va., opting not to sign in December, though, Day was looking at a future numbers problem on the offensive line.
When the next signing day rolled around in February, Nester ultimately chose Virginia Tech, but Day was ready. He replaced Nester with Enokk Vimahi, a four-star prospect from Hawaii, and added Dawand Jones, a three-star from Indiana.
Later on, Day also secured the services of guard Jonah Jackson, a graduate transfer from Rutgers who will be eligible this fall, to soften the blow of losing Michael Jordan early to the NFL Draft.
With the addition of Jackson, Ohio State went from having barely enough scholarship linemen for a two-deep to an eight-man group competing to be part of the starting five this fall and another six youngsters to groom for the future.
“O-line was an area of concern for us,” Day said. “We had to go out there and kind of uncover all the stones. Flying out to Hawaii, staying for three hours, getting on a redeye back to Columbus was part of that plan.”
Most recently, Day had to reconstruct his quarterbacks room after seeing the early exit of not one but three signal-callers from the roster.
One of those departures — Dwayne Haskins entering the NFL Draft with two years of eligibly remaining — should be a positive for the program in the long run. Developing a quarterback who was so good in one year he could be the 15th pick in the draft is a big peacock feather in the cap of a coach, but in the short term he had to find someone else who could run the offense, and he needed someone to compete with that guy.
Justin Fields, a workout partner of Haskins and a five-star member of the 2018 class, turned out to be the replacement for Haskins.
“It started off when Dwayne made his announcement,” Day said in February when asked about adding Fields. “That was hard on us. This is a guy you expected to get three years out of, developed him for two years, got 14 games. That was hard. That took a little time to get yourself off the canvas on that one. We thought we were going to get three years, we got one.
“Then you look at it, for the program, you have to make sure you have depth there. You have to make sure you have at least three or four guys that are able to go play. We were in a tough spot, but when he became available, we investigated it, felt like it was a great fit.”
But bringing him in as a transfer from Georgia had a ripple effect.
Dwan Mathis, a four-star prospect from Michigan who committed to Ohio State in the summer of 2018, signed with Georgia in December as reports circulated about Fields’ interest in becoming a Buckeye.
Tate Martell, who backed up Haskins last fall and thought he was the heir apparent, bolted shortly after Fields arrived, and four-star prospect Matthew Baldwin announced after spring football ended in April he was entering the transfer portal.
Day filled the short- and long-term voids in less than two weeks, first getting a verbal commitment from three-star California high school senior J.P. Andrade to walk on at Ohio State and then adding Gunnar Hoak via graduate transfer from the University of Kentucky.
Hoak, a three-star prospect at Dublin Coffman High School in Central Ohio three years ago, has two years of eligibility and can play right away, joining senior Chris Chugunov to give Day three scholarship quarterbacks for 2019 and three for 2020 when current high schooler Jack Miller is a freshman.
What about 2021? Kyle McCord, a four-star high school junior-to-be from Philadelphia, verbally committed last week.
All in all, it’s been a busy four months on the job for Day.
Well, recruiting never stops — and neither does wanting to beat Michigan.
The Buckeyes might only face the Wolverines on the gridiron one time a year, but they recruit against them for 365.
Two more of Day’s moves could have the a big impact on both of those fronts. New assistants Greg Mattison and Al Washington, hired away from Jim Harbaugh’s U-M staff in January, were both regarded not only as top-notch teachers of the game but also great recruiters.
Specifically, both have had success recruiting players from Ohio, something Day pledged to prioritize upon being promoted.
That of course is easier said than done, as Meyer learned while trying to balance the desire to recruit as many in-state prospects as possible without compromising his ability to bring in the best players from across the country.
Here again Day is off to a good start, counting three Ohioans among his eight early verbal commitments for the 2020 class.
Summer is a crucial time for putting the bulk of a class in place, and it has been the season in which many of the state’s best prospects have recently decided they were not willing to wait for an Ohio State offer and instead committed elsewhere.
While the world is learning what Day is made of, Mattison already knew.
He worked with Day when both were on Meyer’s 2005 staff at Florida, and the veteran coach liked what he saw.
“When you work at as many places as I have, you get a lot people who come through the door,” Mattison said in April. “Some of them you look at and go, ‘Oh really?’ I remember the first time (Day) came in there, I said, ‘Man, he’s so mature, so way ahead of his time.’
“Then I would run into him over the years after that and see where he’s gone and what he’s done. ‘Oh, you’re in the NFL now? I believe that, I see that.’”
The same was true when Mattison learned Day was joining Meyer’s staff at Ohio State three years ago.
“I went, ‘Yeah, Urban doesn’t make many mistakes now,’” Mattison recalled. “That doesn’t surprise me a bit.”
Only time will tell what type of head football coach Day will be for Ohio State.
A coach is only as good as his next game in Columbus, and Day’s debut as the full-time head coach of the Buckeyes is still nearly four months away.
If he handles fourth-and-goal in fourth quarter of a close game as well as he has a handful of potentially major problems over the past few months, his tenure will probably go pretty well.
“The foundation is so strong at Ohio State, the culture is so strong,” Meyer said Dec. 31 in his last pregame press conference before the Buckeyes beat Washington in the Rose Bowl. “It certainly wasn’t me — it was all of us, and everything’s in place — and Ryan’s going to do exceptional. He’s an elite coach. And I think he’s handled the transition — just ask our players. It’s been awesome. And I can’t wait to see what it does.”
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