Ryan Day quietly slips into a legend's shoes as Ohio State football coach
CHICAGO — The enormity of what he’s undertaking seemed to hit Ryan Day midway through an hour-long interview session with about 70 reporters Thursday.
Ohio State’s first-year head football coach was reminded at the Big Ten Conference's football media days that the man he’s replacing, Urban Meyer, lost only nine games in seven seasons.
Day winced and reached down to pick up a cup of iced coffee for a quick sip.
“I know exactly what you’re saying, trust me,” Day said, pondering a question about how he was going to prepare for his inevitable first loss as the Buckeyes’ leader.
“When you start to think of it that way, you get overwhelmed in a hurry and you start to focus on things that really don’t matter. … The expectations are so high here that if you don’t win them all, the minute you lose a game, you can’t just come crumbling and fall apart. It’s one of those things you have to think about and have a plan for.”
The 40-year-old New Hampshire native concluded his answer with this: “I’m in this thing for the long haul, and I know our staff is, too.”
It was Day’s first summer media day session, and much of what he said sounded like typical, self-effacing coach-speak. His first question concerned who would start at middle linebacker when the Buckeyes open their season Aug. 31 against Florida Atlantic. Later, Day was breaking down the competition at the backup wide receiver spots. Basic stuff at this annual gathering of coaches, players and reporters.
But Meyer’s shadow hung over the proceedings, and Day never hesitated to summon the name of his now-retired mentor without ever mentioning the controversial circumstances that led to an abrupt separation.
“I think the easy thing to do is to ask, ‘How are you different than Urban Meyer?’ And that's not something I really like to answer because, first off, you don't replace a legend,” Day said when asked how the Ohio State program will differ under his leadership. “You don't replace one of the best football coaches in the history of the game. What you can do is just be yourself, and I think that's what I'm doing.”
Day first served under Meyer as a graduate assistant at Florida in 2005. He came to Ohio State in 2017 to be Meyer’s offensive coordinator. When Meyer was suspended for the first three games of last season after not revealing his knowledge of spousal abuse accusations against another one of his assistants, Zach Smith, it was Day who was called on to replace him. The Buckeyes won all three of those games.
In December, Meyer announced his retirement at age 54, with Ohio State finishing 13-1 after a Rose Bowl victory. Day was named his successor.
Senior wide receiver K.J. Hill said Buckeye players respect their old and new coaches equally, although he acknowledged the personalities are vastly different.
“I think coach Meyer is more of an old-school, demanding coach. Coach Day is going to ask for the same thing, but it’s more in a laid-back way,” Hill said. “Instead of yelling, screaming at you for something, he’s just going to demand it in an asking way.”
Meyer is still on campus, teaching a “character and leadership” course. He is also a sounding board for the coaching staff, and Day said he reaches out often.
“He's been unbelievable in terms of understanding when to be there, when to step away,” Day said. “He's taken multiple phone calls from me just looking for advice on how to handle certain things.”
Day will have to make his most important initial decision — naming a starting quarterback — on his own. His primary two options, Justin Fields and Gunnar Hoak, are inexperienced transfers.
Fields, who came from Georgia, has been the presumed starter based on his dual-threat skills and pedigree as the No. 1-ranked recruit in the class of 2018.
But Day, who played quarterback for Chip Kelly at New Hampshire and later coached that position for Kelly in the NFL, said Thursday that Fields has not been anointed. He needs to show a mastery of the offense first. Day wants to settle on a signal-caller in the first two weeks of August camp.
“One of our core philosophies is that you don’t just get given a starting position. You have to earn everything you get around here. And he hasn’t done that,” Day said of Fields. “I know everybody wants to start talking (the) Heisman (Trophy), but how about winning the starting quarterback job first?”
Day will be tying his fortunes to his quarterback at the outset of a coaching career in a place where the spotlight never stops shining. There’s a lot of pressure to go around.
Day seemed undaunted.
He’s been busy in the seven months since landing one of the most prized coaching jobs in America. Not too busy to let that soak in, though.
“Every once in a while you catch yourself and you realize you’re the head coach at Ohio State. But it doesn’t last long, because you’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to work,” Day said.
“I always thought I’d be in a situation to be a head coach. The idea wasn’t just to be a head coach. It was to be a head coach for a long time at a great place.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert. No one covers the Hawkeyes like the Register. Subscribe today at Des MoinesRegister.com/Deal to make sure you never miss a moment.