It was a calm, cool Columbus night as Ryan Day closed up shop in his office at the unusually quiet Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
The in-season hustle that typically reverberated through the facility felt like a distant, fleeting echo. It was replaced by that kind of silence that's somehow ironically deafening, and it was in that moment Day turned his attention from the notes he had been taking to a shadow that moved across his open door.
"Hello?" He hooked the word as a question to the dark hallway outside his office. The only response came in the form of retreating footsteps that were headed toward the indoor practice facility.
Concerned and alarmed – Day had been the office's only occupant for at least three hours – he grabbed his keys, phone and wallet and left to investigate.
It didn't take long for Day's nerves to calm. When he approached the practice facility, he heard the telltale sounds of Sister Hazel music that seemingly followed Urban Meyer since he officially retired from coaching.
Day pushed the door open expecting to greet his old boss, but was taken back as not just Meyer, but also Luke Fickell and Jim Tressel stared at him with sheepish grins on their faces.
"Hey fellas," Day said uncertainly. "What's this?"
Meyer moved forward and embraced his former protege. "Relax, man, this is tradition. We'll explain."
Day greeted Fickell and Tressel and the four of them made their way across the field toward the open bleachers, where the coaches had set up a grill loaded with sizzling burgers.
"This is the unofficial changing of the guard," Meyer explained as they all sat down. "When a new coach takes over here, some of us old-timers show up to offer advice and encouragement before your first season."
"Oh yeah?" Day asked.
"Yeah," Tressel nodded. "It's like how the U.S. presidents turn things over. Usually the outgoing guy leaves a nice, personalized letter in the Oval Office for his replacement and so forth. Think of this like a face-to-face version of that, except sometimes John Cooper shows up and brings the ghosts of 10 Michigan losses with him."
"Not surprised Coop didn't show tonight," Fickell said as he flipped the burgers. "Ever since Jim started dominating the rivalry he hasn't been able to really smile. I mean, he shows his teeth every once in a while, but it never reaches his eyes... There's no laughter or happiness there. Just the unfulfilled potential of a handful of dominant teams."
Fickell was staring off at something in the distance. The rest of the group moved on, and Tressel and Meyer took turns offering tips.
Tressel spoke primarily about staff management and communicated how important it was to hire and promote the right people.
"Don't hire someone just because they're your friend or they were maybe in your wedding and so forth," Tressel warned coldly. "This university has unlimited resources. Use them to get the right guy to help your team."
Meyer suggested forming an identity offensively — to focus on one style and perfect it instead of maniacally bouncing back and forth between modern spread attacks and archaic I-formation sets.
"It'd be easy to hold a team like that to one fluke kickoff return and another desperation drive on college football's biggest stage." Meyer said it quickly while looking away from the group.
"Someone talkin' shit about my offense?!"
The question boomed off the walls of the Woody like the last dying scream of an arctic walrus. The four coaches jumped and turned to the door to see Jim Bollman make his bloated entrance.
"Damnit Bolls," Fickell exclaimed. "How do you keep showing up to these things?"
Bollman reached the group and took a labored seat next to Tressel. "Well Jim here's not too tech-savvy," Bollman replied. "His email password has been 'Justin Zwick, starting quarterback' since the 2005 Texas game."
Meyer snickered while Tressel looked embarrassed.
The group carried on like that for a while before the conversation turned nostalgic. Tressel talked about his favorite victory, the 2006 showdown with Michigan that was built up for an entire season. Fickell talked about the stunning last-minute upset of Russell Wilson's Wisconsin team in 2011. Meyer talked about last November's shellacking of Michigan and then turned the clock back even further Ohio State's 2014 playoff run.
"Hey Fick, remember when we went to Champaign and beat Illinois even though we only completed one pass all game?" Bollman barely got the question out between his thunderous laughter.
"Wait, that was real?" Day asked incredulously. "I found game notes on that a while back and figured it was just some weird erotica Tress wrote during his final days here."
"Nope, that was one of the worst moments of my coaching career," Fickell confirmed as he dressed the burgers up.
"Ah damnit keep the ketchup off mine, you know that crap is too spicy for me," Bollman said in disgust.
The five coaches ate their burgers and talked about the upcoming season, and the group was unanimous on one thing.
"You have to beat Michigan," Tressel said. "There may be ups and downs this year like I had in 2001, or you could run the table like Urban did in 2012. But we both finished our first season with an exclamation point, and that gave us both the momentum we needed during our times here and so forth."
Meyer smiled and Fickell wistfully agreed.
After retelling a few more battle stories, the group decided to call it a night. Fickell turned the grill off and the five coaches made their way to the exit. As they left, none of them saw Cooper, who had spent the evening hiding in a shadowed corner and was still nodding his head to Tressel's final words.
"Just beat Michigan," Cooper whispered to no one as the lights flickered off and the door shut. "Just beat Michigan."