Ryan Day sat in a room at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on August 11 and delivered the crushing blow to his team.
In a meeting he called “one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had to have,” he looked in the eyes of players like Jonathon Cooper, Justin Hilliard, Shaun Wade, Justin Fields, Josh Myers, Pete Werner, Tuf Borland, Baron Browning and Sevyn Banks and told them that what they had been working for over the past eight months was now gone.
That pain they had felt in the loss to Clemson was already going to linger forever, but when the Big Ten canceled the fall season, there was now going to be no chance for redemption in 2020. A “once-in-a-lifetime” team’s shot at winning a national championship had been undercut and stripped away by forces out of their control. Day called the entire meeting “devastating.”
“There’s just so many guys who have put so much time into this program, and that was just an awful meeting,” Day said on August 12.
The following week he would later call the most difficult of the entire process. Emotional discussions with those players face-to-face, calling their parents on Zoom to talk about the absence of a season, telling his son that there would be no football.
“All those things were really, really hard,” Day said.
But Day proceeded to channel his inner Al Pacino to the group, giving a damn near word-for-word speech of his own from the Pacino speech in Any Given Sunday:
When you get old in life, things get taken from you. That’s a part of life. // We can stay here and get the shit kicked out of us. Or, we can fight our way back. Into the light. We can climb outta hell.
“The message was that, in life, things get taken from you,” Day said on August 12. “And this kind of got taken from us right now. And although it’s hard, they’ll draw back upon this as a way to use it as a reference point. When things go bad in their life, we learn a lot of life lessons in football, and we’re gonna have to learn how to work through this. And while we don’t understand it, we’re going to have to be strong and work through adversity and stick together in the end. And our culture’s all built on fight. And we’ve got to fight to stay strong.
“But you don’t just wake up the next morning and everything’s fine. Not when you invested this much time and effort into it, it’s not fine. It’s devastating. So it’s gonna take some time to heal. But as we keep putting one foot in front of the other, we’re gonna get going again.”
In the end, Day told his players they needed to keep their composure. Even though the rug was pulled out from under them, they still had to fight. Had to keep swinging. He called it “faith without results” and said they had to push through it because “sunny days will be coming soon.”
“Our team is stronger today than it was on August 11 after going through this, and our young guys have seen what true leadership is.”– Ryan Day
Well, that sun peeked its head out behind a cloudy Wednesday morning in Columbus.
Big Ten football is back, and Ohio State’s leader delivered a message that was simultaneously joyful and businesslike.
“What I talked to the team a lot about over the past couple weeks is you’re gonna learn a lot of life lessons through this,” Day said on Wednesday. “The life lesson I talk to them all the time about is life is all about ups and downs. When things go well, go enjoy it and go get all you can get. But when things aren’t going well, just hang on. You just manage through it and you hang on and you trust the people that you’re around. Because, eventually, it’s gonna turn and it’s gonna start going back up. And that’s all that we were doing. We were just hanging on. And now it’s turning. We’re not there yet. We’re just starting to move back up. But there’s life, and this thing’s starting to turn. I hope they can use that as a life lesson moving forward.”
Because of that fighting mentality, Day believes his team is even more cohesive and even more of a cast-iron skillet than it was when the season was shut down. But true to form, Day was already in midseason mode as if he had beaten Penn State heading into Michigan Week.
“Our team is stronger today than it was on August 11 after going through this, and our young guys have seen what true leadership is,” Day said. “Now, to get back on the field and be able to play is an amazing feeling. But now we’ve gotta get back to work. We’ll enjoy this for a day, but then we’ve got a huge task ahead of us. We’ve gotta get back on the field and go play.”
Uncertainties and challenges still lie ahead. Eight games in eight weeks isn’t at all perfect. If Ohio State’s players don’t do everything they can to stay safe and COVID-free – or if players from other Big Ten teams don’t – it could result in a canceled game or multiple canceled games.
So much of the Buckeyes’ rigor to get the season restarted was built on a chance to win a national title. Would a 7-0 (or 6-0) Ohio State team get into the College Football Playoff if multiple games are canceled? Remains to be seen.
But today, the two most important words that Day said about the Big Ten’s season is certainly being felt and echoed by coaches and players around the entire conference.