The stress and demand associated with being the head football coach at The Ohio State University is already a daunting proposition. But for Ryan Day, his first season at the helm for the Buckeyes, which also happens to be his first year at the helm of any team at any level, couldn’t have been filled with many more tests or challenges.
Day joked during his introductory press conference in January that he understood the expectations immediately placed on him as Ohio State’s 24th head coach: win the rivalry game and then win every game after that.
While his comments drew laughter from those in attendance that day, everyone associated with the program could see the truth in his words. After all, that’s life at a place like Ohio State, and Urban Meyer’s unprecedented seven-year run served only to heighten those lofty expectations.
No, there would be no easing into the role for Day as he prepared to lead his first Ohio State team into another year where anything less than beating Michigan and winning a national championship simply wouldn’t cut it, reasonable or not.
Despite entering the season with significant questions marks, such as whether his transfer quarterback without a single college start to his name would be ready to perform at a level required to get the Buckeyes back to the College Football Playoff, or whether the changes to the defensive coaching staff would fix the glaring faults of the 2018 unit, Day has thus far handled those expectations masterfully.
Under his leadership, Ohio State navigated the regular season to perfection — and with relative ease — winning all 12 regular-season games by double digits. Day even had to handle the added distraction that came with the two-game suspension of his best player, Chase Young, as the team was preparing for the November stretch run, but that proved to be no problem either.
In the regular-season finale, Day picked up his first win over Michigan in blowout fashion to continue the program’s dominance in the rivalry. The following week, he and the Buckeyes won the school’s third-consecutive Big Ten championship, locking up a spot in the playoff in the process.
But the end of the regular season offered anything but a chance for Day to catch his breath and bask in his accomplishments. In the week following the Big Ten Championship Game, Day was wracking up the miles en route to award shows and banquets while also stopping by to check in on recruits ahead of the Dec. 18 early signing period.
“This last week was the craziest week I’ve ever been a part of,” Day said Monday of his whirlwind week. “We have these mid-year guys coming in. We have four and a half days to get there. There’s different award ceremonies, things all over the country. It was crazy.”
His recruiting effort became even more challenging last week with the announced departure of Jeff Hafley, his co-defensive coordinator and one of Ohio State’s best recruiters, who accepted the head coaching position at Boston College. While Ohio State suffered one casualty as a result of Hafley’s departure, Day’s first full class as the head coach still ranks as a top-five group by all accounts, erasing any doubt about whether he can sustain what Meyer built on the trail.
The loss of Hafley is significant for Day and his program, and having to replace a top assistant just one year into the gig isn’t ideal, although hardly a surprise. Who he tabs to fill Hafley’s vacancy as his first replacement hire is just the next obstacle in a season that has been full of them, for all the right reasons.
Day said of the search to replace Hafley, “We’re going to get the best in America because it’s Ohio State. We want to make sure we make the right decision for a lot of reasons. We’re going to get the best coach in America to go coach that position. That’s what’s great about Ohio State. We want to move quickly but be smart as well.”
That search is ongoing and will undoubtedly require Day to expend more time and focus toward it than he would prefer, particularly in light of the biggest challenge of the season awaiting him and the Buckeyes in just over a week.
Yes, Day’s first season has been a resounding success by almost all accounts. But as Ohio State prepares to take on Clemson in a national semifinal next weekend, there remains a sense of incompletion surrounding the season. Day knew as well as anyone when he took the job that his performance will be measured in wins over Michigan and national championships.
His first crack at climbing the mountain top will require his team to take down the defending national champions and their own roster littered with future NFL draft picks in order to do it all over again two weeks later.
Nothing about this season has been easy for Day, as seamless as it has appeared at times, and the challenges are only getting tougher. He has received the full treatment of being the head coach at Ohio State in just his first season, and regardless of what happens over the final few weeks, he will have gained invaluable experience to draw from as he moves forward with the program.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.