Coming inside of the locker room after Ohio State beat Washington in last year’s Rose Bowl, Urban Meyer’s handoff of his whistle to Ryan Day happened in the most private of private moments for a college football team.
Yet the exchange also ended up on the program’s social media accounts, letting the public in on the seconds that signified the delivery of everything Meyer built to Day, a first-time head coach who had impressed to such a degree in his first two years in Columbus that Gene Smith felt comfortable promoting him. The publicity of the transfer wasn’t an accident. Ohio State wanted the world to see what had happened. Meyer giving Day the whistle indicated a transition of power between two coaches on equal footing – even if Meyer had much more prestige at the time.
Smith didn’t tap Day to run the program with the thought of it taking any steps backward in his mind, and he didn’t foresee Day upending the structure that Meyer put in place. One of the largest benefits of promoting from within was the ability to maintain the backbone of what his predecessor constructed. So Smith wanted Day to do his own thing and put his own stamp on the program, but also to take advantage of what Meyer built.
“Our program does not need disruption,” said Smith on the Dec. 4, 2018 during a press conference to announce Day as the next head coach. “It does not need to blow up and have people come in and try and adapt to our standards of operation and try and change the infrastructure that we've put in place for the student-athlete.”
Most importantly, he didn’t hire Day for a rebuild. With a staggering amount of talent littering the roster and framework remaining in place, Ohio State expected Day to reload.
And in Day’s first season, that’s what the Buckeyes got. A 12-0 regular season, a Big Ten championship and the first College Football Playoff Appearance in three years.
“Ryan's done a hell of a job,” Smith said on Dec. 8. “You guys know that.”
The retooling didn’t lead to a national championship. A sudden, shocking ending to the season in Saturday’s 29-23 Fiesta Bowl loss will live in infamy with about a dozen legitimate “what-if” moments that conceivably could’ve led the Buckeyes past Clemson. Pain, anger and incredulity were the dominant emotions that night, and they remain what both the team and fans feel.
Yet to take a step back and think about how the team performed in what was Day’s first opportunity to show he can reload should lend confidence in his ability to keep the program rolling to the standard set by Meyer.
Yes, he inherited arguably the most talented roster in college football, and yes, it already had tremendously steady infrastructure before taking over. But Ohio State had those qualities and had only made the College Football Playoff once in the prior four years and went scoreless. Nothing, even in Columbus, is guaranteed in college football.
Day took what he was given and, until falling 23 yards short of a national championship appearance, maximized the results.
“The older guys, the seniors have left a legacy, and the younger guys have to learn from it. Wake up in the morning, the sun will come up and we'll regroup.”– Ryan Day after the loss to Clemson
It began at quarterback.
In an offseason filled with quarterback transfers – including Tate Martell to Miami and Matthew Baldwin to TCU – Ohio State ended up with the best of the bunch. Oklahoma got Jalen Hurts, Missouri got Kelly Bryant, Washington got Jacob Eason and Central Florida got Brandon Wimbush, and they’d all have preferred Fields. Once the realization hit that Dwayne Haskins would go to the NFL after one year as a starter, Meyer said, the coaches “hit the panic button a little bit” due to lack of quality and quantity of quarterbacks on the roster. That led them to the quarterback once ranked as the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2018 recruiting cycle now backing up Jake Fromm.
Day pulled off a remarkable recruiting heist for a first-year head coach, landing Fields on Jan. 4.
“That get, that changed it,” Meyer said last week.
On the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes maintained much of their defensive personnel, but Day turned over the majority of the coaching staff.
Out went Greg Schiano, Alex Grinch, Billy Davis and Taver Johnson. To replace them, Day turned to Greg Mattison, Jeff Hafley, Al Washington and Matt Barnes, retaining Larry Johnson in the process. They immediately embarked on the process of turning around a defense that had one of the worst seasons in program history, changing up coverage schemes from the two-safety, press-man coverage looks that dominated the Meyer era.
Plenty of other questions populated the roster, too. Could J.K. Dobbins have a rebound season? Were there enough playmakers at wide receiver? Would an offensive line with four new starters click? Might the linebackers take significant strides? Can the secondary return to “Best In America” status?
Incredibly, the answers to just about all of those questions went Ohio State’s way, and essentially all of the key offseason moves worked.
Fields immediately turned into one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist. The defense went from allowing 25.5 points and 403.4 yards per game to giving up 13.7 points and 259.7 yards per game. The Buckeyes landed Jonah Jackson and turned an inexperienced offensive line into a Joe Moore Award finalist. Dobbins became arguably the nation’s top running back. The defensive backfield, under new coaching, locked down opponents.
All the while, the Buckeyes thrived on the recruiting trail. In his first month, Day solidified a 2019 recruiting class that had the third-best average player rating. He signed the nation’s No. 3 overall 2020 recruiting haul and currently has the top-ranked 2021 recruiting class.
Day reloaded this season, and with those recruiting classes, he’s positioning himself to do so again. Set by Meyer and the other coaches before him, constant competitiveness is a baseline expectation at Ohio State. And even with overwhelming talent and structure, that's not an assurance.
Plenty of challenges will again appear in the next eight months as the Buckeyes prepare for Day’s second year at the helm. Who replaces Dobbins? Who steps in at quarterback coach? Will the loss of Hafley hurt the secondary? Can a coaching staff with new hires mesh as well as it did this season? How do the Buckeyes replace Chase Young? Is the young in the secondary too much to overcome?
They’re all legitimate questions that’ll eventually get the full focus of Day throughout the offseason.
“The older guys, the seniors have left a legacy, and the younger guys have to learn from it,” Day said on Saturday after the loss to Clemson. “Wake up in the morning, the sun will come up and we'll regroup.”
The sun came up over the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Sunday, and the regrouping began.
Day has reloaded once. That’s not a guarantee of what’ll come in the future, but it should ease some of the concerns that followed him as a first-year head coach at this time a year ago when he took that whistle from Meyer in Pasadena, California.