Ryan Day looks to keep Ohio State on top following Urban Meyer's retirement
Urban Meyer never coached in a Rose Bowl Game prior to the 2018 season finale, but the Granddaddy of 'Em All could not have been a more appropriate place for him to hand the reins of Ohio State football to Ryan Day.
With the Buckeyes' 28–23 win over Washington in the 105th Rose Bowl Game, Meyer joined four of Ohio State's previous six head coaches — save for only Earle Bruce and 2011 interim coach Luke Fickell — in tallying a victory there. That lineage dates back to January 1950, when the Wes Fesler-coached Buckeyes beat Cal, 17–14.
Tens of thousands of scarlet-and-gray-clad fans counted down the game's final seconds with chants of "Urban," a show of appreciation for the coach of seven seasons. He concluded his Ohio State tenure walking off the Rose Bowl stadium turf to those chants, his name added to the Buckeyes' Rose Bowl legacy, and with a new Day officially dawning at Ohio State.
The 40-year-old Day inherits Ohio State's rich lineage, as well as the lofty expectations that exist following decades of success. While the new Buckeyes leader must live up to the standard of his predecessors, Day's background deviates in one key manner: Before Day, every Ohio State head coach since Fesler's hiring in 1947 came to Columbus with prior head coaching experience, with Fickell's late-spring 2011 replacement of dismissed Jim Tressel the lone exception.
Beginning with Woody Hayes in 1951, the resumes that Ohio State's hires brought to the job were impressive. Hayes led Miami (Ohio) to a 9–1 finish and Salad Bowl win in 1950; Bruce coached the University of Tampa to a 1972 Tangerine Bowl victory before a six-season turnaround of Iowa State, which culminated in appearances in the 1977 Peach Bowl and 1978 Hall of Fame Classic.
John Cooper won at least a share of five consecutive Missouri Valley Conference championships at Tulsa, then went 25–9–2 in three seasons at Arizona State. He coached the Sun Devils to the 1987 Rose Bowl, a decade prior to winning his sole Granddaddy with Ohio State against his former program.
Both Tressel and Meyer won multiple national championships before arriving at Ohio State: Tressel with four at then-Division I-AA powerhouse Youngstown State, and Meyer a pair at Florida. Meyer's two BCS championships with the Gators represented a high-water mark in a career that also included outstanding seasons at Bowling Green and Utah.
Day does have almost two decades of coaching experience, including two years in the NFL. His background is just markedly different from the seven decades of precedent that came before him.
And yet, Meyer believes that no one is better suited for the job. Before January's Rose Bowl Game, he said of the thought of retiring without Day lined up to replace him: "I don't think I could."
Meyer's hire of Day to join Kevin Wilson as co-offensive coordinator in 2017 proved critical. Not only did the Buckeyes see an improvement of almost three points per game combined in Day's two seasons after taking over the offense, but the former record-setting quarterback at the University of New Hampshire also helped Dwayne Haskins develop into a coveted NFL Draft prospect.
More important for the direction of Ohio State football, Meyer gained an obvious successor.
"He's an elite coach," Meyer said during Rose Bowl week. "And I think he's handled the transition [well] — just ask our players."
A change in head coaches can oftentimes produce wholesale changes, but Day's two seasons as coordinator leave Ohio State's offensive players with a familiar face. And the transition to Day is unusual in that he spent three games as the Buckeyes' interim head coach in 2018.
Day stepped in during a suspension administered against Meyer, following revelations of domestic abuse allegations against former wide receivers coach Zach Smith. Day's stint at the helm — which included wins over Oregon State, Rutgers and TCU — previewed what Ohio State players on both sides of the ball, like safety Jordan Fuller, can anticipate.
"Since Coach Day's younger, he's a little more relatable," Fuller says. "He has a good balance of being able to relate to his players, but at the same time, being stern; when it's time to work, it's time to work."
Beyond the youthful exuberance of a new head coach who is 14 years Meyer's junior, general sentiment suggests that the program's identity won't dramatically change.
Says running back J.K. Dobbins: "We didn't really see a difference [in day-to-day operations during Day's three games as head coach]."
NFL-bound Haskins says he expects a similar approach, in part because "Coach Day looks up to Coach Meyer."
Fuller describes it as "the same infrastructure."
"It's not like the whole staff's blown up," he says.
But that's not to say Day will not reshape Ohio State in his own image. Changes on the coaching staff marked his first major impact in the new role. Co-defensive coordinator Alex Grinch accepted the same position at Oklahoma, and just six days after the Rose Bowl Game, Day split with Ohio State's other defensive coordinator, Greg Schiano.
In their place is Greg Mattison, a well-traveled coach who most recently oversaw the defensive line at Michigan.
And although Wilson remains on staff as offensive coordinator, Day indicated at the start of spring practices that the head coach would call plays during the season. This is a decision reflective of the influence Day's former mentor and colleague, UCLA coach Chip Kelly, has had on the new Ohio State front man.
Day's 653 pass completions and 53 touchdown throws as quarterback at New Hampshire under then-offensive coordinator Kelly set records. The two reunited in 2015 when Day joined Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles staff as quarterbacks coach, a position Day held again alongside Kelly in 2016 with the San Francisco 49ers.
Indeed, Day is no different from other head coaches — including his legendary forerunners at Ohio State — in that his approach is a reflection of past influences.
"You look at different models that people have used over the years … the positions that some of the [assistant] coaches take on and the responsibilities [they have]," Day said before the Rose Bowl. "There are a lot of models out there that work. Obviously at Oklahoma and Notre Dame, and obviously I use Chip Kelly as a guy I go to a lot. He's made it work that way."
Day cites some noteworthy names. Prior to his 2018 debut at UCLA, Kelly went 46–7 in four seasons at Oregon. Meanwhile, Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma and Brian Kelly at Notre Dame coached teams that beat out Ohio State for two of the four berths in last season's College Football Playoff.
Day also takes influence directly from the Meyer coaching tree, which has roots in New Hampshire. Current Florida head coach and Manchester native Dan Mullen was the Gators' offensive coordinator under Meyer when he recommended a then-26-year-old Day for a grad assistant spot on Meyer's staff in 2005.
"I went and spent a day with the Eagles when Chip was there and Ryan was a quarterbacks coach," Meyer says. "I went and sat in meetings and I walked away and took a lot of notes on how he ran the meeting. I watched them on the field, and obviously it was much different being a quarterback coach at the Eagles than GA at Florida."
He may have never been a head coach in that decade, but Ryan Day evolved to a point that he's now prepared to lead at Ohio State. He will have his own concepts and style. Ultimately, though, Fuller perhaps summarizes the transition between coaches most succinctly.
"Ohio State will still be Ohio State."
— Written by Kyle Kensing for Athlon Sports' 2019 SEC Football preview. Kensing also is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Top photo courtesy of ohiostatebuckeyes.com)