How Ryan Day’s First Three Years at Ohio State Compare to Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel and Other Past Buckeye Coaches

By Dan Hope on May 20, 2022 at 8:35 am
Ryan Day and Urban Meyer
Matthew Emmons – USA TODAY Sports

If there was any doubt that Ryan Day’s first three years as Ohio State’s head coach should be considered a success, OSU made it clear this week just how highly it values its fourth-year leader of the football program.

Day became the highest-paid coach in Ohio State history when the Board of Trustees approved a new contract that will pay the Buckeyes’ head man $9.5 million this year on a deal that now runs through 2028. That contract makes Day one of the five highest-paid coaches in college football and ties him with Michigan State’s Mel Tucker for the highest-paid coach in the Big Ten.

There’s little question Day deserves to be compensated as one of college football’s elite coaches, considering Ohio State has been one of the top six teams in the country in all of his seasons as head coach so far. Day has continued to be viewed as a candidate for NFL head coaching jobs, too, giving Ohio State more incentive to ensure he’s completely happy in Columbus.

Day has said publicly he has no plans of leaving Ohio State any time soon, and that certainly looks to be true now that he has a new contract in hand. Given that Day has now been rewarded for what he has accomplished with the Buckeyes thus far, though, it seems like an apropos time to take a look at how the start of Day’s Ohio State tenure has compared with his predecessors.

For the most part, Day’s first three years compare favorably.

Day hasn’t yet won a national championship at Ohio State – as three former Ohio State coaches did in their first three years with the Buckeyes – and his record as a head coach in the Buckeyes’ all-important rivalry game currently sits at just .500. But only one Ohio State coach has ever had a better winning percentage through three seasons, and no Buckeye coach has been more dominant in the Big Ten to start his coaching tenure.

(Note: The tables below only include coaches who were Ohio State’s head coach for at least three seasons.)

Second-Best Winning Percentage

It’s hard to top what Urban Meyer accomplished in his first three seasons as Ohio State’s head coach, considering he won his first 24 consecutive games as the Buckeyes’ coach before losing even one. Despite inheriting a program that went just 6-7 the year before, Meyer went 12-0 in his first season in 2012, when Ohio State was ineligible for postseason play. The Buckeyes lost both of their postseason games in 2013, but lost only one game in Meyer’s third season, when they won the national title.

Aside from Meyer, no other Ohio State coach has won more consistently in his first three years than Day, who lost just one game in each of his first two seasons – both in the College Football Playoff – before losing two regular-season games last year. He’s earned 31 wins in his first three full seasons as Ohio State’s head coach – not including the three wins he earned as OSU’s acting head coach while Meyer was suspended in 2018 – even though OSU played only eight games in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Jim Tressel won one more game in his first three seasons than Day did, none of those seasons were shortened by a pandemic. He coached in four more games and suffered three more losses in his first three years than Day did – though he inherited a program that had gone just 14-10 in its previous two seasons, whereas Day took over a program that had won at least 11 games for seven straight seasons under Meyer’s leadership.

Ohio State Coaches’ Winning Percentage Through Three Years
Urban Meyer 38–3 .927 2012-14
Ryan Day 31–4 .886 2019-21
Jim Tressel 32–7 .821 2001-03
John B. Eckstorm 22–4–3 .810 1899-1901
Earle Bruce 29–8 .806 1979-81
Francis Schmidt 19–5 .792 1934-36
A.E. Herrnstein 21–7–1 .741 1906-08
John Wilce 14–5–2 .714 1913-15
Paul Brown 18–8–1 .685 1941-43
Sam Willaman 15–8–2 .640 1929-31
Woody Hayes 16–9–2 .630 1951-53
Wes Fesler 15–10–3 .589 1947-49
John Cooper 19–14–2 .571 1988-90
Jack Ryder 15–13 .536 1892-94

Most Outright Big Ten Championships

Since Ohio State joined the Big Ten in 1912, Day is the only Buckeye coach to win conference championships in each of his first two seasons leading the program.

That accomplishment is made even more impressive by the fact that winning the Big Ten championship now requires winning the Big Ten Championship Game, eliminating the possibility of co-championships. While Earle Bruce won two Big Ten championships in his first three seasons, only one of those championships was an outright championship; the Buckeyes went undefeated in conference play in 1979, and tied with Iowa for the conference crown in 1981.

The only other Ohio State coaches to win an outright Big Ten championship in their first three seasons leading the Buckeyes were Meyer, who led Ohio State to its first Big Ten Championship Game in 2014, and Paul Brown, who led the Buckeyes to an outright conference title in 1942 – when the Buckeyes also won their first national championship. Tressel and Francis Schmidt each won Big Ten co-championships in their second year at Ohio State, while Wes Fesler led the Buckeyes to a shared conference title in his third year on the job.

Big Ten Championships in Ohio State Coaches’ First Three Years
Ryan Day 2 2019, 2020
Earle Bruce 2 1979, 1981*
Urban Meyer 1 2014
Jim Tressel 1 2002*
Wes Fesler 1 1949*
Francis Schmidt 1 1935*
John Cooper 0  
Woody Hayes 0  
Sam Willaman 0  
John Wilce 0  

No National Title Yet

There aren’t many schools where a coach is expected to win a national championship in his first three years on the job, but Ohio State is one of them.

Each of Ohio State’s last two full-time head coaches before Day were able to accomplish that feat, as Meyer won the national championship in his third season leading the Buckeyes and Tressel won it all in his second year at OSU. Paul Brown also won the national title in his second season as the Buckeyes’ coach.

Day hasn’t won the sport’s biggest prize yet, but he’s come close, already leading the Buckeyes to the national championship game once and the CFP twice. If he can lead Ohio State to a national title this year, he’d match Woody Hayes – the only Ohio State head coach to win multiple national championships, and he won five of them – by winning his first national championship in his fourth season as head coach.

Ohio State Coaches Who Won National Championship in First Three Years
Paul Brown 2nd (1942)
Jim Tressel 2nd (2002)
Urban Meyer 3rd (2014)

Something to Prove in The Game

If there’s anything that will make some Ohio State fans question the timing of Day receiving a raise, it’s the fact that the Buckeyes lost to Michigan last year. As a result, Day is just 1-1 against the Wolverines.

That’s not entirely his fault – the Buckeyes would have been favored to beat Michigan in 2020 if the Wolverines hadn’t bowed out of that game due to a COVID-19 outbreak – but nevertheless, the pressure will be on for Day to get back to a winning record in The Game this year.

His predecessor couldn’t have set a higher standard in The Game, not only in his first three years but in his entire Ohio State tenure, as Meyer went a perfect 7-0 against Michigan. Tressel was also dominant against the Wolverines, though he too suffered a loss against Michigan in his third year as coach before going on to win seven in a row to finish his Ohio State tenure with a 9-1 record in the rivalry.

While losses to Michigan have been rare in recent history, Meyer and Schmidt are the only Ohio State coaches to ever start their tenures 3-0 against the team up north. Although Hayes would go 16-11-1 against Michigan over the course of his 28-year tenure leading the Buckeyes, he won only one of his first three rivalry games.

Ohio State Coaches’ Records vs. Michigan in First Three Years
Urban Meyer 3–0
Francis Schmidt 3–0
Jim Tressel 2–1
Earle Bruce 2–1
Sam Willaman 2–1
John Wilce 2–1
Ryan Day 1–1
Paul Brown 1–1–1
Woody Hayes 1–2
John B. Eckstorm 0–1–1
Wes Fesler 0–2–1
John Cooper 0–3
A.E. Herrnstein 0–3

Consistently Elite Recruiting

While the success of Day’s Ohio State tenure will ultimately be judged on how many games and championships he wins, another important factor when considering whether to give a coach a new contract is how well he’s recruiting to set up the program for the future. Day has done that as well as any of his predecessors.

Since recruiting has evolved substantially since the start of the 21st century and recruiting rankings were not widely available before then, we can only truly compare Day to Meyer and Tressel as a recruiter. Going off of Rivals’ recruiting rankings, Day is the only one of those coaches whose first three full recruiting classes – not including the classes they signed immediately after becoming head coach – have all ranked in the top five nationally.

It still might be a stretch to say Day has recruited better than Meyer, as he’s built off the foundation laid for him by Meyer, who expanded Ohio State’s recruiting reach compared to Tressel’s typically Ohio/Midwest-heavy recruiting classes. But he’s certainly proved he can recruit at an elite level, signing 12 composite five-star recruits in his first three full recruiting cycles.

Recruiting Rankings in First Three Full Recruiting Cycles
Coach Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Ryan Day 5 (2020) 2 (2021) 4 (2022)
Urban Meyer 2 (2013) 3 (2014) 9 (2015)
Jim Tressel 5 (2002) 40 (2003) 9 (2004)
*Recruiting rankings per Rivals
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