Two days after Ohio State had a press conference to announce the retirement of Urban Meyer and hiring of Ryan Day, Gene Smith started chuckling. He was laughing at the idea the football program’s expectations would change whatsoever with Meyer gone.
“Oh, God, no,” he said. “What's wrong with you?”
Day has taken a similar tact with both his public messages and behind-the-scenes comments to his team.
Ever since the university announced him as the team’s next head coach, he hasn’t shied away from any expectations of grandeur. As Damon Arnette said on Tuesday, Ohio State fans expect greatness from the team at all times, and if that doesn’t happen, anger about what happened to knock the team off course follows shortly thereafter.
Day, who has publicly embraced the necessity of the Buckeyes remaining a national power, said on Tuesday that he privately talks to his team about playing not just at their best, but at a level surpassed by nobody else in the nation.
“We've talked about it before, that we want to be the best at what we do, and we've talked about what that means, whether it's a sniper in the military or the best surgeon,” Day said.
“There's no small surgeries if you're a surgeon. There's no small games at Ohio State. If you're the best in America, you need to show that every week. That's our goal. And we're not ashamed to say that. We want to be the best.”
He might be wrong that there aren’t any “small games” at Ohio State – Saturday’s tilt with Miami (Ohio) certainly qualifies – but he made that comment with intent.
After three blowout wins that came by a combined score of 138-31, Day doesn’t want his team full of 85 scholarship players, most of whom are between 18 and 23 years old, to become overconfident in a way that could lead to a preventable loss to a less talented team. As a first-time head coach, he hasn’t ever had to control an entire team’s psyche in moments like these before, and it’s pertinent that he guards against any form of complacency.
By maintaining a focus on becoming the best team in the country, Day can keep his team working toward larger goals while correcting some flaws that didn’t cost Ohio State against overmatched opponents but could crop up at the wrong time against better teams.
“We played well, but we didn't play great,” Day said. “We played hard, they played tough, but we have so many things to clean up, and when you watch the film, it's actually really frustrating to watch. There's so many things we could be cleaning up there.”
Was it actually such a dismal performance that Day, the coaching staff and the players really, truly had difficulty rewatching a 51-10 blowout win against Indiana? Probably not. Imagine what must have happened in the film sessions after last year’s game against Purdue or the prior season’s loss to Iowa.
But it offers a glimpse at how he has tried to motivate this team.
Day wants every player to remain focused on each individual practice or game, not looking ahead, yet at the same time understanding that this team is chasing bigger goals. So even though the results of each of the first three games have been so in favor of the Buckeyes that backups have played substantial snaps, he and the assistant coaches use the idea that they want to be "the best" to keep the team on track after blowout wins.
“All these little things that when you play really, really good teams with really good players, just thinking one-on-one, you're going against someone who has equal talent or better talent, your technique's going to be the equalizer,” linebackers coach Al Washington said.
Washington might not have said anything particularly revelatory, but it lends another peek into how Ohio State has responded at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center with three blowout wins to open the season and a likely fourth destruction on the horizon in just a couple of days. Only a couple teams in the country have equal or better talent, but those remain on the mind of the coaches and players.
Defensive tackle Robert Landers, too, mentioned improving the “little things.”
“What I'm seeing is special, but it could be 100 times better,” Landers said.
Of course, their performances could actually be 100 times better. But that's exactly what Day and the coaches want the players believing after three blowouts in a row.
“We have momentum right now; we have to keep that going, and we can't get distracted. Once that happens, then you set yourself up for failure,” Day said. “That will be the focus this week. It's not going to be manufactured. We're not just going to make that up, but we're just going to hold them accountable like we always have, and that doesn't change from when we were in the spring to when we were doing preseason workouts. Every day has to be consistent. So far we've done that, but it's something we have to stay on them definitely about.”