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12th of December 2018

Sport



Inside Ohio State coach Ryan Day's whirlwind beginning

Dec 5, 2018

While Ohio State players and staff piled onto a stage in the middle of Lucas Oil Stadium in the very first minutes of the first Sunday of December, Ryan Day stood some 20 yards behind the fray next to his wife and children and surveyed the Buckeyes enjoying their second consecutive Big Ten title.

Urban Meyer had woven through the barricades and climbed the steps, making his way through the crowd to accept what he says will be his final conference championship trophy. The record-breaking, dynasty-building head coach said Tuesday afternoon that he believes his coaching days are over.

As confetti fell and Meyer cradled a large silver football, one of Day's children pulled on his sleeve and pointed to the party unfolding in front of them. She wanted to know when they were taking the stage.

"No, no," Day told her with a big smile. "Right here is perfect for now."

Two days later, Day's family watched from the front row in a jam-packed conference room on Ohio State's campus as he took his seat between Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith. Day said his new reality -- named Meyer's successor as head coach at Ohio State following the team's bowl game -- had not yet fully hit home.

"So the last 48 hours happened really, really fast," he said.

It doesn't slow down from here. The stages will only get larger and more unavoidable.

Ryan Day has enormous shoes to fill at Ohio State, as he takes over for Urban Meyer. AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

Day didn't need to look any further than the two men flanking him Tuesday to be reminded of the outsized expectations that come with the head job at Ohio State, especially when you come on the heels of the most successful coach in the program's proud history. Smith waited only a couple questions in a news conference before saying with a laugh: "Let's be clear: He's gotta win ball games."

Meyer let Day know his job was to place a premium on education, and "you have to win every game you play." A couple sentences later, Meyer scoffed at the idea that he, the coach who has won more games in the 21st century than anyone at the FBS level, might have been ready to take over a program like this one in his late 30s.

How's that for setting a stage for the 39-year-old, ruddy-cheeked, first-time head coach? Day has earned a reputation of being one of the game's better quarterback developers, helping turn Dwayne Haskins into a Heisman finalist this year. He helped resurrect the Buckeyes offense the past two seasons after spending time as a quarterbacks coach at a couple colleges in the northeast and in the NFL, but he's got a grand total of three games as an interim head coach under his belt. His speedy rise to this level of leadership has helped him maintain a bit of an "aw shucks" disposition that he certainly didn't inherit from his mentors -- the relentless Meyer and innovative Chip Kelly.

"I think any time there's a change in leadership there's a different personality, there's a different style involved with it, different demeanor," Day said. "But [Meyer and I] share so much in common that there's going to be a lot that's carried over."

It's an equation that has worked elsewhere in the sport. The Oklahoma team that boxed Ohio State out of this year's College Football Playoff didn't miss a beat when the then-33-year-old Lincoln Riley took over for mentor Bob Stoops.

Meyer will also stick around, which could be a blessing given his experience or a hindrance given his unfailing intensity and the difficulty of disengaging. Even in the best scenario, and even at a place as impervious as any to the cyclical nature of the sport, programs of this size don't run on autopilot.

Day plans to keep strength coach Mickey Marotti and a core of other Meyer lieutenants on staff to maintain the "infrastructure" that has created the attitude needed to win championships. In that sense, Meyer is passing along a program that looks much stronger than what he left in his wake after stepping down in similar fashion at Florida nearly a decade ago. That Gators locker room crumbled shortly after Meyer's departure, and for now he seems to have learned from that experience.

Meyer's relentless recruiting style forced other schools to keep pace, upgrade facilities and hire high-profile coaches.

For the second time in eight years, Meyer has quit coaching because he said his body could no longer take the stress that he applied to it.

Urban Meyer's successor at Ohio State, 39-year-old Ryan Day, has never been a head coach, but he's already had a 15-year career in college football and the NFL, and knows the Buckeyes' program better than most.

2 Related

Perception, though, is college football's most fickle beast. What if -- as Meyer hinted at Tuesday -- a backup Maryland quarterback had thrown a more accurate two-point conversion in overtime against the Buckeyes in late November? Would that upset loss have spiraled into a lesser performance in Meyer's final game coaching against rival Michigan? Would it have kept the Buckeyes from a shot at back-to-back Big Ten titles? Perhaps Meyer would not have been riding off into a San Gabriel sunset following the Rose Bowl next month. What would be made of what he's leaving behind then?

"This profession we've chosen is so fragile," Meyer said Tuesday. "...This is a tough deal now, and we've lived it our entire lives."

Meyer's departing public advice to Day was to divide his energy wisely, and to guard feverishly the slices of that pie that are devoted to faith and family. That's a lesson Meyer will admit he learned the hard way.

Coaching at Ohio State, leading the flagship sports team of his home state to a national title and three Big Ten championships, was the opportunity of a lifetime for Meyer. But some of his former players genuinely worried as this season unfolded that the intensity with which Meyer performed his job would cost him his life.

As the Ohio State alma mater played at the end of the night in Indianapolis this past weekend, Ryan Day swayed with his family near the big stage rolled out for the trophy presentation, in the shadow for the final time. He looked pleased. Meyer stood atop the platform with his Gatorade-soaked arm around his wife. He looked relieved.

This is the biggest gulf between two men who seem a generation apart despite being separated by only 15 years. Maybe the difference is the man. Maybe the difference is the job. Either way, navigating intense scrutiny and pressure is the newest and biggest challenge facing Day as he sets out to walk in the shoes of a coaching legend. Like everything else right now, it's going to happen fast.

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