Fear and Loathing

By Ramzy Nasrallah on November 29, 2023 at 1:15 pm
Nov 25, 2023; Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day talks to the referees in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State head football coaches age faster than American presidents.

And that's when the Buckeyes are thriving - look at our boy Jimmy Tressel back when he was hired in 2001. Now look at him in 2006 after winning a BCS title and seizing ownership of a lost rivalry with Michigan. Sometimes five years take more than just five years.

Check out Urban Meyer when he was hired in 2011. Here he is five years later after winning a CFP title and maintaining ownership of the Michigan football program. Both coaches started out scarlet, thrived and excelled - and quickly turned gray.

Distinguished gentlemen. This is the reward for embodying What Good Looks Like.

If Tressel and Urban wanted a healthier occupation or workplace environment, they could have pursued careers in North Korean coal mining instead. Last one - here's John Cooper in 1988 with his first Ohio State quarterback. Here he is in 2000 with his last one.

If you didn't know who Kirk Herbstreit and Craig Krenzel were you would have no idea those photos were taken 2-10-1 apart from each other. Coop's hair never told on him. He showed his anxiety in a far more undistinguished way.

When an Ohio State head coach meets the job's expectations and checks every possible box, he collects trophies. He wears jewelry and earns massive paychecks while enjoying parades and endless adulation, all while still graying at an alarming rate.

Tressel was 48, lived 15 years in Youngstown and still had a chestnut coif to show for it. Youthful smirk. Won four natties and kept a beleaguered city upright. Then he moved to Columbus and aged quickly while leading the Buckeyes into a renaissance.

Day inherited a program which had the conference in a two-decade headlock. Five years later, OHIO STATE IS ALL alone in 2nd place.

Stoicism and discipline are no match for Father Time in Ohio's most unforgiving arena. Meyer had already driven himself into retirement in Gainesville but still looked like his youthful and rambunctious Bowling Green self when he re-arrived in Columbus.

Two legends who understood the assignment and delivered statue-worthy performances, and they were rewarded with accelerated age. Their crippling anxiety rarely infected their performances, especially on that final Saturday. Only their follicles showed the strain.

Ryan Day is still a few years younger than either of his predecessors were when they took over at Ohio State. He already ranks sixth in program longevity - only Woody, Coop, Tressel, John Wilce, Earle Bruce and Meyer have coached more games in Columbus than Day has. He's doing almost everything right and at the highest level.

Day coached game no.63 over the weekend, and he's now 56-7 over that span. Tressel went 50-13 in his first 63 games. Urban went 58-5. Day is undefeated against every conference opponent except for the one assignment he still does not understand - and that's where the crippling anxiety that's attached to his job shows itself.

In disappointing news for Michigan message board posters, he does not color his hair. He might still be too young to be going gray. But his hair isn't what's revealing about his job stress. That should give those posters the comfort and satisfaction they crave.

Day refuses to understand the Michigan assignment. Last season his game plan was to issue a referendum on the 2021 result a full year late by pounding the ball and unleashing defensive aggression which had been absent in Ann Arbor. He spent 12 months planning to win a game he would never get to play again.

Ohio State won the analytics battle and lost The Game. Day allowed 2021 to impair 2022.

(a note for people not on Twitter or familiar with the @statsowar football analytics feed: That guy's name is Parker Fleming too. He is unrelated to Ohio State's special teams coach).

Different team. Different game. You only get one shot at the 2021 Wolverines, coach.

Over the weekend he did it again. Day made the necessary corrections to win the 2022 game a full year too late, deploying a defensive strategy fine-tuned to avoid allowing all of those big plays from Columbus last November.

It worked! His defense didn't make any big plays, either. Another dated, paper strategy.

Coaches rarely win this game on paper. The Wolverines, who have no explosive edge players, were happy to plod along at four yards per snap and dink/dunk their way down the field to tight ends being covered by one linebacker who often doesn't know where he is and another playing with only one functional arm.

Michigan noticed the little cracks in this year's Ohio State team and picked on them for 60 minutes. They're good at this, and it works every year. Last year when Cam Martinez entered the game, Michigan immediately went after him and scored a touchdown.

Martinez got all of four snaps the whole game, but the Michigan coaches were ready and waiting for him to enter it. Yes, that staff scouts more than just play calling signals.

Sherrone Moore went for it on 4th and short three times because that's what players who choose Michigan go there to do - to shine in big moments in the biggest games possible.

Michigan was focused on beating the 2022 Buckeyes, not exorcising ghosts from past losses. On Saturday when freshman Malik Hartford entered the game, Michigan immediately went after him and scored a touchdown on that play.

Hartford got one snap the whole game, but the Michigan coaches were ready. Martinez didn't make the travel roster, and that didn't matter. Michigan was focused on beating the 2023 Buckeyes on the margins. They were the only team that mattered. The 2022 Buckeyes were not in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

Michigan's in-game coaching was orchestrated by a 37-year old assistant in an interim role. He was thoroughly prepared to win an emotional game featuring emotional college kids instead of an imaginary one being played on paper between sterile Xs and Os.

Sherrone Moore knew when valuable opportunities arose, like a wobbly true freshman entering the action, and he seized them. He didn't play it safe - he played to win. He went for it on 4th and short three times because that's what players who choose Michigan go there to do - to shine in big moments in the biggest games possible.

Compare that with Ohio State's best players, whose head coach removed from the field on Saturday in those moments. Day forfeited those opportunities on their behalf; apparently, they're too big for him. He didn't like the math. The numbers didn't look good enough. He was afraid of what might happen if his best players failed.

The Buckeyes won the analytics, again. And they lost The Game again too.

Day is not aging on the outside. Not yet. He and Coop show their nerves the same way.

A year ago against Michigan on 4th and short Day took the best receiver in college football along with the best quarterback he'll ever have off the field. He put matters in the hands of Parker Fleming, the worst special teams coach in the conference and arguably the worst coordinator-level coach in the country.

That was a not a lucid decision rooted in confidence. His nerves replaced CJ Stroud, Marvin Harrison Jr, Emeka Egbuka and his own offensive play calling prowess with Fleming - whose units cannot even reliably line up correctly - using walk-ons to try and pull off a heist. It was cowardice, overthinking and shriveling in the moment.

An elite, innovative and proud coach engaging in overthought, scared decision-making. This is what the Michigan game does to Ohio State coaches who do not understand how the rivalry works.

Fleming's unit proceeded to forget it was running a fake punt and botched the play due to a miscommunication - which has been the prevailing excuse every Saturday after Ohio State's special teams commit another basic gaffe. It messed up the same play in the Peach Bowl by having too many guys on the field.

Fleming's punt unit picked up another illegal formation penalty in Ann Arbor on Saturday - they have struggled to just line up properly the whole season. It is surreal Day keeps him employed, let alone choosing to take his offense off the field for the unit he should keep on the sideline as much as possible.

Over the weekend on 4th and 1 near midfield Day took the best receiving corps in the country and the most electric running back he'll ever have off the field to put the game in Fleming's hands again. But they didn't run a fake using walk-ons this time. Day just gave up on the drive.

Michigan was rewarded with a 33-yard punt. Ohio State's previous punt went 34 yards.

Ohio State special teams are not a weapon, a field-flipper, or a strength. They are grossly incompetent and have been a liability for years. Day repeatedly took the pride of his resumé and coaching strength off the field in ripe, convertible and legacy-defining situations in favor of the program's weakest unit because his approach to Michigan is wrapped in fear.

He got the legacy-defining part out of that decision. Scared of being great against Michigan.

Day did it again to end the 1st half at the Michigan 34-yard line. His offense had just screamed 64 yards down the field in eight plays taking barely two minutes off the clock when he stopped their momentum and allowed 39 seconds to vaporize so Fleming's unit could attempt a 52-yard field goal. You know what happened.

He does not have gray hair. This is how Day shows his anxiety. He cowers in the moment in the one game on Ohio State's schedule where you cannot coach from a place of fear.

DAY takes The Game out of his best players' hands - the NIL guys, the program marquee guys, my-kid-has-your-jersey guys. It's not a glitch, it's His Default Michigan Game behavior.

The best players in the country go to the best programs in the country to play in the most important games of the season. Day guides one of those programs to the precipice of immortality every year because he's very good at recruiting, scheming and defeating 95% of FBS programs. He will continue to do this.

But then he takes The Game out of his best players' hands - the NIL guys, the program marquee guys, my-kid-has-your-jersey guys. It's not a glitch, it's default Michigan game behavior. It's what Cooper would repeatedly do.

He's losing to Michigan in the exact same excruciating manner, and it sure feels like he would rather figure this out his own way rather than consult with 100 years of brutal, invaluable and publicly available lessons at his disposal. Those lessons aren't obsolete or outdated. Michigan is using them to humiliate him.

The danger in losing rivalry containment is what it does to your health, not your hair. Woody lost three straight and punched a Clemson linebacker. Coop lost three straight twice, though just once while not in a full post-Earle rebuild - and that cost him his legacy.

The legendary 1995 and 1996 Ohio State teams were coached into losses to inferior Michigan teams. Coop went 1-3 from 1997-2000, but he didn't lose any those by puckering. He finally solved the puzzle after 1996 but the Buckeyes were in decline while Michigan was soaring.

Those Ohio State teams weren't as good. Played their asses off and lost while Coop coached bravely in his final three shots at the Wolverines. Day has been in Columbus seven years. He is nowhere close to grasping what Coop finally learned once it was too late.

Rich Rodriguez never had a shot at rivalry containment or keeping the Michigan job. Lloyd Carr lost rivalry containment and retired. After losing five straight, Harbaugh said Michigan would beat Ohio State or die trying and immediately went to extraordinary lengths to maximize every possible advantage, one of which kept him off the field the past three weeks. He got it.

But he nearly left Michigan more than once while losing for a half-decade to the Buckeyes.

Michigan went exactly three seasons misunderstanding The Game, and all three were RichRod's. Bo obviously got it, Carr always got it, Brady Hoke got it. Harbaugh gets it and he made damn sure on Saturday his staff did too.

Day does not get it. Michigan was prepared to bleed this game with a roster of receivers Ohio State would never allow in its receiving room. It attacked the Buckeyes' feint weaknesses without mercy, abandoning every other option in the bag to exploit the one area it saw as exploitable.

Ohio State’s head coach - who calls plays - did a little of this. Then, a little of that. A little more of this. A little more of that. Kicked on 4th and short every time there was a 4th and short. Devised a pristine, proven and winning plan to beat Penn State again. He does not get it.

Day arrived in Columbus as Meyer had lost his own play calling edge - he had gone from being one of the sport's great innovators to losing all of that juice, but he still had command as a program steward.

And Meyer understood that Michigan isn't just Penn State with a better QB coach.

He outsourced the offense to Day, who proceeded to elevate the unit to new heights - especially against Michigan. But once Meyer left, Day took his job while keeping his previous one. It could not be clearer that he needs to do one or the other. Both of those jobs are exhausting. One man cannot do them both at the level required.

Which means Day doesn't have a choice - he either needs to give up play calling, take a demotion or continue losing to Michigan. In the meantime, his refusal to learn anything from the wisdom which existed long before his arrival has resulted in the Buckeyes being demoted on the last Saturday of the regular season.

He has his hair. He's doing an exceptional job, mostly. He's not listening or learning.

Day inherited a program which had the conference in a two-decade headlock. Five years later, Ohio State is alone in 2nd place. This is the consequence of refusing to understand The Game, and that's a lesson grayer men have understood for a century.

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