COLUMBUS — College football careers at the University of New Hampshire usually don’t include an introduction into the sport’s offensive wizardry. Then again, how often do FCS schools have one of the game’s best offensive minds as their offensive coordinator?
Ryan Day had that luxury at UNH, where Chip Kelly became a mentor and Day’s coaching career started on second base. Now, he’ll round third in a situation that was unforeseen as Ohio State’s acting coach for the season opener Saturday vs. Oregon State.
But by all indications, Day has provided exemplary leadership for Ohio State in these unorthodox times.
“Ryan is certainly qualified to do this,” co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “I’m so impressed just working underneath and observing him and trying to help him. I mean, he’s got the ‘it’ factor.”
The process of learning and absorbing information began in Durham, N.H. Day wasn’t your normal study-the-playbook and practice-throwing quarterback. He was attentive and in tune with New Hampshire’s offensive concepts.
“He was a kid who was always interested in what was going on — the how, what, and why we were doing something,” New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said. “He was involved an awful lot as a player. It was really unique.”
Ohio State has two coaches on its staff with Division I head-coaching experience — Schiano and co-offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson — while defensive line coach Larry Johnson and running backs coach Tony Alford also have the words “assistant head coach” in their titles.
But when the university’s leadership discussed who would take over, they reached a consensus on the 39-year-old Day. He was a graduate assistant for Meyer at Florida and worked alongside Kelly at New Hampshire and in the NFL. At each stop, he’s taken a little from each guy and added his own expertise.
“I think he’s a hell of a coach,” McDonnell said. “Now, I’m awful biased, but I’ve watched his development. He’s had some really good mentors. Every time I talked to him after he left some place, you could see his growth and maturity in understanding the game of football, understanding the recruiting process, understanding the player-coach relationship.
“He’s been a very demanding coach anytime I’ve seen him, but he’s also very approachable. I always thought that was a successful combination.”
A half-century of experience might not have been enough to prepare Day for the past month. He was thrust into an unenviable position during Meyer’s paid leave, then his three-game suspension. But he’s handled it with aplomb, pulling the correct lever at every turn. During his first press conference Monday, Day came off as a smooth operator who seemed as if he’d led the program for the past 10 years.
“If you saw me in one of the scrimmages, I don’t know if you would have thought I balanced it very well,” Day said, laughing. “I was trying to coach the quarterbacks, call the plays and organize the scrimmage, and I looked like my hair was on fire. So it was a challenge. And there’s been times where I’ve felt like I’ve been drinking through a fire hose, to be honest.”
Schiano said in his first game as head coach he forgot his play sheet in the locker room. It’d be surprising if Day has any game-day blunders. He’s set the tone for a beleaguered team, telling his players to step up with a man down.
There’s been leaning on Schiano and Wilson, and there are indications the collaborative effort among all the assistants has kept the fifth-ranked Buckeyes focused on the now and on the field.
“It has been a whirlwind,” Day said. “But my goal in this thing was never to replace coach [Meyer]. That’s not what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do is empower the coaches, empower the leaders, and just keep this thing moving. I think we have done that.”
Whether it’s Woody Hayes, Luke Fickell, Meyer, or Day, the expectations at Ohio State, college football’s ultimate pressure cooker, do not change. Fans and alumni presume the head coach will have a perfect record. One blemish brings a torrent of criticism.
“I understand that,” Day said, adding he feels the pressure.
Count McDonnell among those who think Day will rise to the occasion.
“From knowing Ryan and talking to him, he’s ready for this,” McDonnell said. “He’s always been gearing toward this. Maybe not this situation, but he’s smart enough to utilize the people around him. The level of knowledge of the staff around him — Greg Schiano, Kevin Wilson, and Alex Grinch — I know what kind of guy Ryan is, he’ll help them and they’ll help him. I think he’s more than ready for this job.”
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