Ohio State moving from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day is akin to a big-time rock band replacing its popular front man.
Will the new man capture the crowd and lead the band to the same heights or even higher? That’s the gut check athletic director Gene Smith went through before elevating Day to replace the retiring Meyer, knowing it will have an affect the marquee value of one of the great programs in college football history.
“You take a hit,” Smith said. “You don’t have the stature and presence and gravitas of an Urban Meyer until it’s earned. We’ve just got to go and win, and get our guys to graduate, and get them jobs.”
>> Video: Ohio State football Urban Meyer retires; Ryan Day takes over
Meyer walked into the OSU job seven years ago exuding gravitas like no new Buckeyes’ coach before him, having won two national championships at Florida. He was considered along with Alabama’s Nick Saban to be the contemporary rock stars of the profession.
“You knew when Urban Meyer threw on an Ohio State golf shirt as the new head coach there was a presence about him as an individual that was very powerful, and right away got you into family rooms that not a lot of head coaches can get you into,” said ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit, a former OSU quarterback.
Meyer opted last week to call it a career, citing primarily the discomfort he has dealt with for two decades from an arachnoid cyst inside his skull. That left Smith with a challenge unlike his last coaching hire — replacing the ousted Jim Tressel after an interim season under Luke Fickell in 2011.
This time, however, there was no “Urban Meyer” out there to hire.
But already on the Ohio State staff was Day, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, whom Smith and the administration had turned to in an emergency in August to run the program when Meyer was put on administrative leave while the university looked into his handling of domestic violence allegations against former assistant coach Zach Smith. Day wound up leading the team through preseason camp and the first three games of the season (all wins) before handing the mic back to Meyer.
“He had an audition where I was able to watch him handle all of the challenges of being a head coach, both on the field and, even more importantly, off the field,” Smith said.
He was impressed by the way Day immediately built a consortium among the OSU staff, leaning on former head coaches Greg Schiano and Kevin Wilson, and on football performance coordinator Mickey Marotti, and how the team then responded.
“On top of everything else, he’s smart,” Smith said. “And IQ is huge.”
But he wasn’t naming Day the head of the Mensa chapter at OSU. He was making him head coach of one of the nation’s elite programs, and despite Day’s long career as an assistant coach on both the college and NFL levels, he had been a head coach officially for only three games.
“Day has two long-term challenges,” said Bill Bender, a national writer for The Sporting News. “The first is maintaining the off-the-charts standards through Meyer’s seven-year run. It’s not just 7-0 against Michigan. I can’t get away from the 54-4 record in Big Ten play. That’s absurd.
“The second is recruiting. … The Buckeyes will be good enough to win the Big Ten for the next three years, but it’s not just about keeping up with the Big Ten and Michigan. Day must keep up with Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Oklahoma, too. That is where the marquee value lies. That is where we’ll find out how good Day is.”
With that in mind, Smith said he already had been hitting up Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione for tips, and not just because both served on the College Football Playoff selection committee again this fall. In June 2017, Oklahoma faced the sudden retirement of longtime coach Bob Stoops. Castiglione elevated Lincoln Riley, a talented assistant with no head coaching experience, and coordinated a press conference that included the Stoops announcement and the Riley ascension in one fell swoop.
Sound familiar? Oklahoma is in its second straight playoff under the direction of Riley.
“That template, and how they handled it, did give me a decent benchmark to consider,” Smith said.
He also knew that hiring a standing head coach from elsewhere is no sure template for major success — for examples, look at Michigan between Lloyd Carr and Jim Harbaugh, or Alabama between Bear Bryant and Gene Stallings, and between Stallings and Saban.
“The brand Ohio State is bigger than any player or any coach, just because of the history,” Herbstreit said. “I think Urban Meyer, his era and his reputation, spoke for itself because of the championships he won along the way.”
Meyer enhanced the brand.
“Urban Meyer is, simply, one of the greatest coaches in college football history,” said Ralph Russo, the lead college football writer for The Associated Press. “But the previous four full-time coaches at Ohio State all ended up in the Hall of Fame. Ohio State, unlike so many other college football superpowers, has never gone through an extended period of struggles.
“But the convergence of a coach with a track record as good as Meyer’s and a program as fundamentally strong in every way as Ohio State produced results that even surpassed the Buckeyes’ high standards. To expect that level of winning to be sustained without Meyer is probably not realistic, but the fall shouldn’t be far. It’s hard to screw up Ohio State.”