Most football coaches would dream of having as much success in their first two seasons as Ryan Day has had as Ohio State’s head coach.
In his first two years as a head coach at any level, Day has lost only two games and made back-to-back trips to the College Football Playoff. He still hasn’t lost a regular-season game. Even though Ohio State almost didn’t even have a season last year, he led the Buckeyes to a fourth consecutive Big Ten championship, a memorable playoff semifinal win over Clemson and a berth in the national championship.
Day knows he’s lucky to be in the position he’s in. But he also knows he can’t get satisfied now.
“I try not to think about that too long, because there’s too many other things at hand. But I pinch myself sometimes. I do,” Day told Eleven Warriors during a one-on-one interview Tuesday. “There’s a lot of hard work that goes into this. It doesn’t just happen. It takes great people. We have great people here, we really do … We’ve got great people here who care a lot about the program.
“So yeah, I think there’s some days that I wake up and you pinch yourself a little bit, but just know that it’s year to year, and you gotta keep winning, to have the opportunity to be at a place like this.”
By any measure, Day’s first two years at Ohio State should be considered nothing but a tremendous success. Yet they’ve only raised the extremely high expectations that come with being Ohio State’s football coach. Now that he’s gotten Ohio State to the College Football Playoff twice and to the national championship game last year, the next step is to win it all.
Urban Meyer won the national championship in his third season as Ohio State’s head coach. Jim Tressel won the national title in his second year coaching the Buckeyes. With one of the most talented rosters in the country at his disposal once again this year, anything less than a national championship could be viewed as a disappointment.
Day’s been shouldering the weight of those expectations ever since he took the job, though.
“I knew that coming in,” Day said. “It’s like, how do you follow up Urban Meyer? I’ve been dealing with this now for a while.”
Step one of handling those expectations, Day believes, is making sure his program is one that Ohio State fans can be proud of both on and off the field.
“You balance the expectation of winning every game, but also here, building a first-class program and doing things the right way and keeping up that ideal of what the Block O means, and I think that means just as much to Buckeye Nation as winning,” Day said. “And we’re doing that. And so I think that allows me at least peace of mind to know that hopefully 15, 20 years or however long they’ll keep me here, people can say, ‘Well, they’ve won a lot of games, but they also did things the right way in a first-class manner.’ I think that’s just as important to the people of Ohio, so I try to grab onto that a little bit, and know there’s certain things I can’t control. But we’re gonna compete fiercely, and if we keep recruiting great people and put great schemes on the field and play really, really hard, we’re gonna win a lot of games.”
“I think there’s some days that I wake up and you pinch yourself a little bit, but just know that it’s year to year, and you gotta keep winning, to have the opportunity to be at a place like this.”– Ryan Day on being Ohio State's coach
Day has talked about focusing on what he can control throughout his tenure as Ohio State’s coach, but that mantra was tested in unprecedented ways last year due to COVID-19. At one point, the entire Big Ten football season was canceled; the season was ultimately reinstated, but the Buckeyes dealt with multiple coronavirus outbreaks within the program over the course of the year, including one in the week leading up to the national championship game.
The buildup to this season has been more normal. Ohio State has gotten back into its usual routine through spring practices, summer workouts and preseason camp, and it’s set to begin its 2021 season in just nine days with fans back in the stands. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, the Buckeyes have been able to get back to operating in a more standard fashion because over 90% of their players are vaccinated.
Nonetheless, that’s been something the Buckeyes have had to adjust to.
“For a 19-year-old, 20-year-old, a year-and-a-half is like 5 percent of their life, and then when you think about what they really remember, it’s had a big impact,” Day said. “So what’s normal? Normal for the last year-and-a-half was what they experienced. So kind of reprogramming them has not been that easy. I think for an adult, it’s like, ‘OK, we can go back to what normal was.’ But for them, this is kind of normal with what happened with the last year-and-a-half. So it’s been great to get back on a routine, go through camp and I’m sure there was times where they were really trying to figure out where they were at in this whole process. But it’s been good.”
That said, Day believes everything the Buckeyes had to overcome to make a playoff run last year – and just to have a season in the first place – provided valuable experience they can use to their advantage this year and moving forward.
“There was just so many things thrown our way last year that we couldn’t control that made things really, really hard. In the middle of practice, guys getting taken off the field or shutting down practice or having virtual meetings or just so many crazy things that we couldn’t control,” Day said. “For our guys to work through that for a year and know that there’s just certain things along the way that are gonna happen, and how do we respond to them? Hopefully, when we do hit adversity, whether it’s in-game or however things shake out this year, there will be some sort of adversity along the way – I don’t know what it’ll be – we’re able to handle it like pros.”
As the Buckeyes have prepared for the 2021 season, the landscape of college sports has changed in several major ways. College athletes are now able to profit from their name, image and likeness. They’re also now allowed to transfer once without sitting out. Conference realignment conversations have resumed with Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, while the College Football Playoff is also moving toward expansion later this decade.
Day acknowledges that it can be difficult not to allow all those changes to become distractions. But once again, he’s continuing to focus on what he can control – which starts on the recruiting trail, where he’s assembled a roster that’s loaded with potential stars, including a highly touted freshman class that he believes has a chance to be special.
“I think that during this time of uncertainty, the thing that we’ve tried to do is bring in great staff, great people but bring in great recruits and great families,” Day said. “Because the easy thing to do when everything’s changing in college football is to just throw up your hands and be like, well, I can’t control all these things and what am I gonna do, what’s coming next with name, image and likeness? What can you control? You can control the people you’re bringing into this building. That’s been our focus. And making sure that they’re the right people. Really good people who understand what this place is.”
While Ohio State came up short of its ultimate goal of winning a national championship last season, suffering a 52-24 loss to Alabama in the playoff final, the returning Buckeyes have a taste of what it takes to reach the sport’s mountaintop. Day believes that experience will be beneficial for the Buckeyes if they can get back to that point this year, much like the playoff semifinal loss to Clemson two years ago helped them get back to the playoff and beat Clemson last year.
If the Buckeyes are going to get back to that point, however, they have to win all – or at least almost all – of their 12 regular-season games first. So Day wants his team to be focused on the task at hand, which starts with next week’s trip to Minnesota, rather than looking ahead to what it could accomplish in January.
“If we think about that now, we’re gonna get ourselves jammed up,” Day said. “We’ve got some really hard games here. Obviously the first one at Minnesota’s gonna be a big challenge on the road, new quarterback. So we can’t be focused on the cherry on top. We’ve gotta make sure that we’re taking care of all the stuff that we need to early in the season. And I think we’ve done a great job making our staff do a good job of that, our leaders have done a good job of that.
“We’ve gotta win the first game, and then maybe as we get down the road, if we’re lucky enough to be in the championship game for the conference and then who knows down the road from there, that experience will allow us an opportunity to have some perspective. We’ve been in those situations before, so I think that’s a positive. But we have to get there first.”