Life after Urban: How Ohio State's Ryan Day is handling 'enormous' expectations

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The hallway entering the Ohio State football facility doubles as a time warp. Walking through the Woody Hayes Athletic Center presents a trip through football history, as it has large-than-life pictures of the five full-time Ohio State head coaches who’ve had the job since 1951, starting with the coach the building is named after.

The sixth coach is Ryan Day, and his oversized images have already been plastered on the wall with the label “2019 - ”. One of the most compelling questions in college football follows that dash, as Day faces the unique task of maintaining the gangbusters momentum of a program that saw Urban Meyer win more than 90 percent of his games the past seven seasons.

Day, 40, is finding some routine in the new normal of his Buckeyes gig, the first full-time head-coaching job of his career. Dinners out with the family must be planned ahead, trips to the mall are essentially off the agenda and there are occasional awkward moments like with an overserved fan at the Kentucky Derby. But as Day walks that hallway in the facility daily and sees his place as the next in line of a row of Hall of Famers after Hayes, Earle Bruce, John Cooper, Jim Tressel and Meyer, he begins with an appreciation for both the opportunity and the stakes.

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“Sometimes when you walk by, it does give you pause and you realize that the guys who have come before and the players who have come before or the teams who have come before are some of the best in all of college football,” Day told Yahoo Sports in his office. He smiled and added: “So we got a lot of work to do.”

The tangible signs of the work reveal themselves in Day’s office, where a cardboard Lowe’s moving box sits under his desk and there are 13 empty shelves across the massive space. The office, occupied by Meyer and Jim Tressel, was big enough to practically play half-court basketball in. In the upcoming months, a construction project will rip it up, shrink it and put a players’ lounge on the outside to encourage guys to socialize on their way in and out of the Buckeyes’ locker room.

Ryan Day (L) has a very different style of coaching from his predecessor Urban Meyer. (Getty)
Ryan Day (L) has a very different style of coaching from his predecessor Urban Meyer. (Getty)

Day’s office makeover is parallel to the changes coming to the program. There will be a different look and feel, but the core will remain the same. Part of the plan in transitioning to Day from Meyer came with the idea of not having wholesale change in the program. Day’s style and philosophy are grounded to his more even-handed personality, compared to Meyer’s quest for a fourth-and-1 ethos 12 months a year. Day is energetic without being hyperbolic, intense without histrionics and passionate without acting impulsively. That’s created a new vibe in the facility and locker room.

“He's created a different sense of community, where Urban was probably a little bit more demanding on a daily basis,” said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. “Ryan is a little bit more inclusive. I think he's created a space where the ownership is a little bit different in how they communicate with him. So that's a big stamp.”

Smith said there are approximately 72 people who work full-time in the football building, which doesn’t include the 10 on-field coaches. While they all don’t report to Day — like the strength staff and trainers — there’s an enormity to the task of managing an operation that large.

Many of the faces around the Buckeye facility are familiar, from veteran strength coach Mickey Marotti, a long-time Meyer sidekick, to director of player personnel Mark Pantoni to director of player development Ryan Stamper. In other words, there won’t be significant overhauls in player development and recruiting, which were elite. Meyer told Yahoo that it’s “gratifying” to see the similar infrastructure. But there are clear evolutions in the program.

Marotti said that Day’s NFL experience as an assistant for two seasons and time spent under Meyer, Chip Kelly and Steve Addazio will manifest themselves in different ways. Marotti said the practice structure of spring and training schedule of the offseason have been run similar. But he’s quick to acknowledge a different vibe around the facility.

“Obviously they are different personalities,” he said of Day and Meyer. “I think they believe in the same things. I don’t think the culture is going to change, it’s evident. It’s what we are, what we do and what we talk about. He’s different, though. He’s different.”

Day’s day-to-day tasks also will vary from Meyer, as he promises to be more hands-on with the Ohio State offense than his predecessor. Day will call plays for Ohio State this year, and he referenced the biggest changes coming with adding two more enormous responsibilities. “When you become the GM, the head coach and the play caller, that’s hard.” And that’s why Day’s philosophy appears to revolve around giving assistants and staffers the trust and autonomy to do their job, all while fostering a feeling of shared responsibility.

“Having the ability to trust the guys that are around you and believe in those guys, and if it fails, we fail,” Day said. “If we win, we all win. And not just, ‘Hey, the gun is pointed at the head coach.’ That's hard and that takes years off your life. And so we're in this thing together. Our families, our kids, our wives and everybody here. And I think that helps give it some perspective, and you feel less on an island, less isolated that way.”

Day punctuated that soliloquy by asking: “That make sense at all?” It was a small sign that he’s still feeling out articulating his role, his vision and his philosophy as intangibles become tangibles once the season starts. Through the whirlwind of the season, transition and push to signing day, Day didn’t have much time to step back and evaluate how he’d like to grow the next iteration of the program. But as winter workouts began and some routine set in, he said, “Every day became more and more normal.”

Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day talks with assistant Tony Alford during the Ohio State Spring Game on April 13. (Getty)
Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day talks with assistant Tony Alford during the Ohio State Spring Game on April 13. (Getty)

It has remained a constant learning experience, as Day related the subtleties of doing things for the first time as a head coach — recruiting on the road, closing on recruits, motivating the staff, hiring assistant coaches and staff and even things like envisioning cosmetic and physical changes in the football facility. “It’s been a big adjustment,” he said.

Day hired former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich as offensive coordinator, but he’ll still maintain a strong voice in the Buckeye offense. He recognizes he was hired without any full-time head-coaching experience largely because of the success that Ohio State has experienced on offense since his arrival two years ago as the co-offensive coordinator and then the play caller last season. Ohio State finished No. 2 nationally in total offense last year (535.6 ypg), up from No. 31 (459.2) before Day’s arrival.

“One of the things that I take pride in is expertise in quarterback play, the passing game and offensive football,” Day said. “And so because of that it would be foolish for me not to be involved. At least in the first year or two. And so I want to jump in, you know. And then as time goes on, I'd like to step away from that possibly but who knows.” He then added about the offense a sentiment that’s summed up his young coaching tenure: “You don't have a handbook on this type of thing.”

Day has maintained staunchly that there’s an open competition for the starting quarterback spot, as five-star Georgia transfer Justin Fields and Kentucky transfer Gunnar Hoak will compete in camp, along with West Virginia transfer Chris Chugunov. Fields’ pedigree will make him the favorite, but the Ohio State offense will surely change. Any notion of repeating Dwayne Haskins’ historic 50-touchdown season is a Buckeye fever dream. Haskins was a first-year starter last year, but entered with more than 100 practices, intricate familiarity with the system and a rare arm talent that led to him being drafted No. 15.

Day hinted at a bit of an identity shift, perhaps even leaning on an experienced defense and star junior tailback J.K. Dobbins while a new starter establishes himself at quarterback. There’s a strong core of tight ends and a deep crop of receivers that will also dictate how the offense evolves.

“It’s about players, not plays,” Day said, offering a window into his offensive philosophy. “I think when you start to recruit to a system, you can get yourself jammed up. The art of coaching college football is now, here’s what we have, then you go, OK, this is the strength of the offense. Players, not plays.”

Day’s first season could end up be defined by changes on defense. There are four new coaches on that side of the ball, including sharp young coordinator Jeff Hafley, who has received early raves for his tactical knowledge. Ohio State has a potential top-10 pick in defensive end Chase Young and solid corners in Jeff Okudah, Shaun Wade and Damon Arnette. The linebackers were the glaring weakness of the Buckeyes defense last season, which Day expects to change under first-year coach Al Washington.

“I think the one thing about the defense is that the linebackers should show up more,” he said. “They were a little bit more match oriented in the coverages, where I think in this defense they have a little more opportunity to have a vision and break.”

Day summed up the defense this way: “I’d be disappointed if we’re not really good on defense this year.”

Day knows the program’s standards, as he passes them daily in the hallway. The schedule is favorable, with the only game the Buckeyes could be underdogs coming in the final week at Michigan. So much will change between now and then, except for the constant Day faces in his first season: “The expectation of this thing,” he said, “is enormous.”

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