How Ryan Day Stacks Up with His Ohio State Predecessors Entering His Fifth Year As the Buckeyes’ Head Coach

By Dan Hope on May 26, 2023 at 8:35 am
John Cooper, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer and Ryan Day
John Cooper, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer and Ryan Day

The midst of the college football offseason is a popular time for head coach rankings and debates on where Ryan Day stacks up among college football’s top coaches going into his fifth year at Ohio State.

Most national media analysts agree that Day is a top-10 coach in college football. In terms of wins and losses, he’s clearly been one of the best coaches in college football in his first four years at Ohio State as the Buckeyes have gone 42-6 – a better record than everyone except Kirby Smart’s Georgia and Nick Saban’s Alabama – since 2019.

Yet the argument can still be made that Day has underachieved as Ohio State’s head coach. While winning seven out of every eight games is a great accomplishment at almost any other school, the expectations at Ohio State are higher. In Columbus, coaches are measured by whether they win national championships and Big Ten championships and beat Michigan, and the Buckeyes haven’t accomplished any of those goals over the past two seasons.

That’s why Day dropped from sixth to eighth in a recent ranking of college football’s best coaches by CBS Sports’ Tom Fornelli.

“While not winning the Big Ten two years in a row will always be seen as a failure in Columbus, Ohio, Day has lost six games total in his four seasons and is 31-2 in the Big Ten. The problem is who those two losses have come against,” Fornelli wrote.

Given that the expectations for Ohio State coaches are higher than they are just about anywhere else, Day’s performance can’t simply be measured by how the Buckeyes have fared compared to other college football teams, but how his Buckeye teams have performed in comparison to past Buckeye teams. With that in mind, we take a look at how Day’s performance as Ohio State’s coach compares to past Ohio State coaches through their first four years coaching the Buckeyes.

Second-Best Winning Percentage

Ohio State Coaches’ Winning Percentage Through Four Years
Coach Record Win % Seasons
Urban Meyer 50-4 .926 2012-15
Ryan Day 42-6 .875 2019-22
John Wilce 21-5-2 .815 1913-16
Earle Bruce 38-10 .792 1979-82
Jim Tressel 40-11 .784 2001-04
Francis Schmidt 25-7 .781 1934-37
A.E. Herrnstein 28-10-1 .740 1906-09
Woody Hayes 26-9-2 .730 1951-54
Sam Willaman 19-9-5 .652 1929-32
Wes Fesler 21-13-3 .608 1947-50
John Cooper 27-18-2 .596 1988-91
Jack Ryder 19-17-2 .526 1892-95

(Note: The table only includes coaches who coached Ohio State for at least four seasons. Day’s three wins as Ohio State’s acting head coach in 2018 are not included in his record.)

Urban Meyer set a high standard to follow with his immediate and consistent success at Ohio State, losing just four total games across his first four seasons coaching the Buckeyes. Other than Meyer, however, no other Ohio State coach has been as consistently victorious through four years as Day.

Detractors of Day might argue that he’s been dealt an easier hand than his predecessors because he inherited the program from Meyer and therefore was set up to win right away. Still, winning with consistency is far easier said than done, as evidenced by the fact that Day and Meyer are the only coaches in Ohio State history to win at least 80% of their games in all of their first four seasons leading the Buckeyes.

Most Outright Big Ten Championships

Big Ten Championships Through Four Years
Coach Titles Years
Ryan Day 2 2019, 2020
Earle Bruce 2 1979, 1981*
Urban Meyer 1 2014
Woody Hayes 1 1954
Paul Brown 1 1942
John Wilce 1 1916
Jim Tressel 1 2002*
Francis Schmidt 1 1935*

Even though Ohio State hasn’t made the Big Ten Championship Game in either of the last two years, Day still has the most outright Big Ten titles of any Ohio State head coach through four years at the helm.

The only other Ohio State head coach to win two Big Ten championships in his first four years coaching the Buckeyes is Earle Bruce, and Bruce’s second conference title was a co-championship in 1981, when Ohio State tied Iowa at the top of the standings and there was no Big Ten Championship Game.

Day will need to lead Ohio State back to the conference championship this season if he wants to maintain that distinction through five years, as Meyer won his first of three straight Big Ten championships in his fifth year coaching the Buckeyes while Hayes and Wilce also won outright titles in year five (and Tressel won a co-championship in year five).

Substandard Results in The Game

Ohio State Coaches vs. Michigan in First Four Years
Coach Record Years
Urban Meyer 4-0 2012-15
Francis Schmidt 4-0 1934-37
Jim Tressel 3-1 2001-04
Earle Bruce 3-1 1979-82
Woody Hayes 2-2 1951-54
Sam Willaman 2-2 1929-32
Ryan Day 1-2 2019-22
Wes Fesler 0-3-1 1947-50
John Cooper 0-4 1988-91
A.E. Herrnstein 0-4 1906-09

The biggest black mark on Day’s résumé is his record against Michigan, which is arguably the most important measure of an Ohio State coach’s performance. In the past seven decades, the only Ohio State coach to start his career with a worse record against Michigan was John Cooper, and those struggles in The Game became the defining trait of Cooper’s Ohio State tenure.

Day would probably be 2-2 in The Game if Michigan hadn’t withdrawn from the 2020 game due to a COVID-19 outbreak, but nevertheless, Day enters his fifth year as head coach with a losing record against the team up north. That makes this year’s game in Ann Arbor a vital one for Day’s reputation, as the heat on Day will undoubtedly turn up in Columbus if he falls to 1-3 in the rivalry.

Day has had the challenge of going up against Michigan’s first two College Football Playoff teams ever over the last two years, but the Wolverines are projected to be one of the best teams in college football again this season. That won’t be an acceptable excuse if Day can’t improve to .500 in The Game this November.

No National Championship Yet

National Championships in Ohio State Coaches’ First Four Years
Coach Year
Paul Brown 2nd (1942)
Jim Tressel 2nd (2002)
Urban Meyer 3rd (2014)
Woody Hayes 4th (1954)

The four coaches who have led Ohio State to national championships all did so within their first four years leading the Buckeyes, putting Day behind Ohio State’s greatest coaches in that regard as well.

Day’s Buckeyes haven’t been far off, making the College Football Playoff in three of his first four seasons, but they have yet to ascend to the mountaintop, falling in the semifinals in 2019 and 2022 and the national championship game in 2020.

While Hayes went on to win four more national championships after his first, Day will look to become the first Ohio State coach to win his first national championship in his fifth year or later.

Recruiting As Well As Anyone

Recruiting Rankings in First Three Full Recruiting Cycles
Coach Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4
Ryan Day 5 (2020) 2 (2021) 4 (2022) 4 (2023)
Urban Meyer 2 (2013) 3 (2014) 9 (2015) 3 (2016)
Jim Tressel 5 (2002) 40 (2003) 9 (2004) 12 (2005)
*Recruiting rankings per Rivals  

While it’s true that Day’s best years so far have come with rosters that were largely built by Meyer, Day has consistently brought elite talent to Columbus as all of his first four full recruiting cycles as Ohio State’s head coach have ranked within the top five nationally.

Recruiting rankings weren’t widely available before the 21st century, so it’s hard to compare Day’s recruiting to coaches before Meyer and Tressel. Compared to them, however, Day is the only one who’s started his tenure with four straight top-five recruiting classes (not including the 2019 class, as Day was promoted to head coach just two weeks before the early signing day for that class).

Now entering his fifth season with a roster that’s down to just three players from the Meyer era (Xavier Johnson, Matt Jones and Josh Proctor), Day’s roster-building will be fully put to the test in 2023 as it’s on the players he’s recruited – and the coaches who are developing them – to turn that talent into results by beating Michigan and winning championships.

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