Ohio State came up a couple wins short of its ultimate goal of winning a national championship in Ryan Day’s first season as the Buckeyes’ head football coach, but that hasn’t diminished the team’s other accomplishments this year in the eyes of athletic director Gene Smith.
In an interview with Eleven Warriors on Friday, Smith described Day’s first season at the helm of the program – in which the Buckeyes won their first 13 games of the year, including every regular-season game and the Big Ten Championship Game, before suffering their only loss of the season to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals – as “phenomenal.”
“When you think about the totality of his responsibilities, he really executed well. The management of the program, the leadership he provided for all the people, the coaches, the staff, the players, he just did a masterful job,” Smith said. “When you look at the metrics, the wins and the losses, we didn’t win the national but now we got to think back about really what was accomplished. To go undefeated in the regular season, to play the last three games (against Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin) that we all tend to forget about, the way that they did and when, phenomenal.”
Beyond what the Buckeyes accomplished on the field, Smith noted the team’s continued success in the classroom in 2019. Thirty-eight football players earned Academic All-Big Ten honors, 23 members of Ohio State’s roster for the CFP were college graduates and the Buckeyes did not have any academically ineligible players this past season.
In his first year following Urban Meyer as head coach, Day kept the Buckeyes performing at a high level on the field, off the field and on the recruiting trail, all the while proving to Smith that he was mentally and emotionally ready for the responsibility of leading one of college sports’ most prominent teams.
“He understands who he is,” Smith said. “He’s comfortable in his skin. And he doesn’t panic. He just doesn’t panic. He’s self-aware of his mistakes. And I think that that’s very important for a leader is before you can truly lead others, you have to understand yourself. And he has a great awareness. Great demeanor.”
“When you think about the totality of his responsibilities, he really executed well. The management of the program, the leadership he provided for all the people, the coaches, the staff, the players, he just did a masterful job.”– Gene Smith on Ryan Day's first season as Ohio State's head coach
Now, Day faces the challenge of sustaining that success in 2020 – when expectations will be even higher for the Buckeyes after what he proved this past season – and doing so after suffering his first loss as a head coach.
Knowing how heartbreaking the season-ending loss was for the Buckeyes, Smith believes it is important to remind them how successful their season otherwise was, and Ohio State will take opportunities to recognize that success this offseason. Smith said Ohio State is planning to recognize the team during a men’s basketball home game later this month, potentially the Jan. 23 game against Minnesota, to celebrate the football Buckeyes’ accomplishments.
“We need to embrace them and remind them, as difficult as that loss was, as disappointing as it was, they achieved a lot. You think about the award winners and all that and the records, so we need to embrace them,” Smith said. “We need a couple platforms – starting with the basketball game – where we bring them out, bring the trophies out and let Buckeye Nation do the same.”
Like many Ohio State fans, Smith expressed frustration after the loss to Clemson about calls made by the replay official – particularly the defensive touchdown that was taken off the board after a Justyn Ross fumble was overturned to an incomplete pass – immediately after the game, but he says he has now “let it go”. Ultimately, Smith said, he and the Buckeyes recognized that they had many other opportunities to make plays that could have won them the game that they didn’t take advantage of, which they need to accept and remember going forward in their preparation for next season.
“When you’re a championship team and really when you look at that game in its totality, there were things that we could have done to overcome that, frankly. It should have been meaningless if we had executed like we were capable of,” Smith said. “Championship teams overcome adversities or overcome things that are not in their control, and we didn’t do that. We were in the red zone three times, we hit the punter, there’s a lot – you and I could go through and pick probably nine or 10 things that had we executed those things, it wouldn’t have mattered.
“So at the end of the day, disappointed, but at the same time, recognize that we didn’t do what we should have done. That’s the learning experience. That’s the lesson learned. That we all need to accept, and our players need to accept, and use it as we move forward. Can’t forget it, can’t deep-six it, you got to use it as we move into the fall and remind ourselves, so we’re not there again.”
Smith said he does expect to have conversations with his fellow athletic directors around the nation this offseason – likely in May, when football coaches will also be available to take part in those conversations – about possible improvements that can be made to replay reviews in college football. He also believes there needs to be continued conversations about how the targeting rule is enforced, though he says he still supports that rule “100 percent” in the interest of player safety.
“I don’t want to let one game define something that frankly, as the Big Ten, we all piloted,” Smith said in reference to instant replay. “So I want to look at it, evaluate it, then see where we can make improvements.”
One of the first orders of business that Smith and Day have had to work through since the end of the season is coaching staff changes, following the departures of Jeff Hafley to become the head coach at Boston College and Mike Yurcich to become the offensive coordinator at Texas. Because BC athletic director Martin Jarmond was previously Smith’s deputy athletic director at Ohio State, Smith actually had a hand in Hafley getting the Boston College job. So while he was sad to lose Hafley after just one year, he was happy for Hafley to get the opportunity to be a head coach at a school where Smith believes he can be successful.
“I wanted to help Jeff. Certainly didn’t want to lose him, but going to the head coach position, that’s our job is to help them achieve their personal or professional goals,” Smith said. “So I was probably more objective because I wanted to help him be a head coach. And if that was the one he felt was right for him, I told Martin he was making a great hire if he made that hire, because I really think Jeff will do a good job.”
As for the process of replacing the coaches who left, which is now halfway complete after Ohio State promoted Corey Dennis to quarterbacks coach on Friday, Smith said he has worked closely with Day on that process to ensure that he’s hiring assistants who will be good fits for the program – and so far, Smith said, Day has done a great job with that.
“My role is to challenge him. The way it works, he’ll bring a, say ‘Hey, look, this is what I’m thinking, what do you think?’ And then we’ll sit and I’ll challenge him a little bit on it,” Smith said. “Like when we hired Al (Washington) and Greg (Mattison) and Jeff last year, my whole question was, ‘OK, how will they mesh together in the room? How will that work?’ And it worked excellently. So it’s the same thing here as we make our changes, and just kind of make sure that the people fit. That’s important. We all have to remember that they live together a lot. So we got to make sure that the people fit.”
Smith wasn’t ready to say on Friday whether Day, who made a salary of $4.5 million for his first season as head coach, will be in line for a new contract this offseason, as those conversations have not yet taken place.
He expressed nothing but excitement, though, about the trajectory in which the Buckeyes are headed under Day’s leadership.
“He’s never missed a beat,” Smith said.