On the surface, Ryan Day’s rise to become Ohio State’s next head football coach looks charmed.
Despite having no full-time head-coaching experience and being only 39 years old, Day will ascend on Jan. 2 to one of the most prestigious jobs in college football.
He knows it is rare for any coach, regardless of age, experience or expertise, to get the opportunity he has. Day also knows what a pressure cooker the Ohio State job is. Current coach Urban Meyer is the first coach in more than 70 years to leave voluntarily, and his three predecessors are in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Yet Day and those who know him best believe he is up to the challenge. They marvel at his intelligence and football acumen, at his maturity, at his people skills, at his self-confidence.
Those qualities have been enhanced by necessity. Contrary to what might seem true at first glance, Day’s path, both personally and professionally, has been anything but easy.
• • •
Ryan Day grew up quickly. He had no choice. When he was 9, his father died. His mother, Lisa, worked several jobs to provide for Ryan and his brothers, Chris and Tim, who are two and four years younger than he is.
The Days had a strong support system of friends and family in Manchester, New Hampshire, a mill city of just over 100,000 people. His maternal grandparents, Joan and Paul McGaunn, were particularly helpful. But Ryan became the man of the house at 96 Bayberry Lane.
“He literally stepped into that role as father figure for me and Tim,” Chris Day said. “Multiple times at a young age, he would discipline us verbally.”
Ryan accepted that responsibility.
“I think any time you’re thrust into that role, you’re forced to grow up quickly,” he said. “It’s like anything else. God has a plan for all of us. Sometimes you’re not sure why. But when you work through it, usually you’re stronger for getting through some adversity.”
He believes that having to tend to his brothers made him mature quickly.
“I understand what it means to have responsibility and learned at a young age what it meant to be a leader,” he said.
Day channeled that largely through sports. The love of competition was the strongest bond among his brothers. From morning until evening, the Day boys were outside playing baseball, basketball, football or anything that produced a winner and a loser.
“It didn’t matter growing up what the game was — cards, ping pong, whatever — we used to compete,” Ryan said.
Often, the competition boiled over. During the summer, Lisa Day would drop her boys off at the Sudden Pitch complex, which had a swimming pool and courts for various sports. Nothing was at stake on a hot day except the need to win.
“By the end of it, we were all fighting,” Chris said. “We’ve got bloody noses, broken teeth. It was no joke. Balls in the mouth or fighting because we wanted to win.”
All three brothers became three-sport stars at Manchester Central High School. Tim was probably the most-gifted athlete. But Ryan compensated with his intelligence and intangibles to become all-state in baseball, basketball and football. Baseball was perhaps his best sport. He was primarily a catcher, a natural position for someone who craved to be involved on every pitch.
In basketball, he helped lead Central to the state title game. His three-point attempt as he was bumped rimmed out at the buzzer in a one-point loss to Concord, which was led by future NBA player Matt Bonner.
“I can still see it,” Paul McGaunn said of the last shot. “He was disappointed, but I was outraged. I thought it was a foul, as a lot of others did.”
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In football, Day led Central to the New Hampshire championship in 1995, his junior season. He set numerous state passing records in his career and was named New Hampshire’s Gatorade player of the year as a senior.
Even with those credentials, he had to walk on at first at the University of New Hampshire, a Division I-AA (now FCS) school in Durham. Wildcats coach Sean McDonnell remembers perhaps the seminal moment of Day’s early college career. Day was near the bottom of the depth chart and was wearing a back brace because of an injury. As quarterbacks made deep post throws in practice, Day had trouble cutting loose.
McDonnell was unsympathetic.
“By the time I got on him enough — 'You’ve got to do this; you’ve got to do that' — we had a couple of choice words with each other,” McDonnell recalled. “He ripped off the back brace and started throwing and driving the ball.”
Day turned to McDonnell and barked at him.
“Is that good enough for you, Coach?” McDonnell remembered Day saying. “’Is that good enough for you?”
Yes, it was. Day earned a scholarship and became a starter in his junior year under innovative offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, another Manchester Central graduate just starting his rise in coaching. UNH went only 10-12 in Day’s final two seasons, but he had his moments. Against No. 2-ranked Delaware, Day led the Wildcats from down 31-3 late in the third quarter to a 45-44 overtime victory.
“He had a certain thirst to understand what was going on,” McDonnell said. “Between his junior and senior year, you could see the confidence that Ryan had in his ability to understand offense and understand defenses, and most importantly, communicate that to other guys on the team.
“He was a guy who had everybody stay connected all the time. He was great as a team leader that way.”Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
McDonnell gave Day his coaching start when he hired him as New Hampshire’s tight ends coach in 2002, after Day had graduated with a business degree.
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Day did not embark on his coaching career alone. He and Nina Spirou were close throughout their childhood, starting when they were on the same T-ball team.
“My daughter was a better T-ball player than him, and I think my daughter would verify that,” said Stan Spirou, who was the longtime men’s basketball coach at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett.
Day would not verify that.
“No, she wasn’t,” he said. “No, no, no, no. She was not better than me.”
The Days and Spirous lived near each other, and their families were close. Ryan and Stan Spirou share a March 12 birthday.
“He would ring the doorbell every year and give my dad a birthday card,” said Nina, who’s a year older than Day. “We might have been 8 or 9. I remember saying, ‘Dad, the kid with the red cheeks is here with your card.’”
She appreciated how he listened during their conversations, admired how he never got rattled, and loved how he could make her laugh. She did wonder about this hyper-competitive nature, though.
“Even when we went on dates, he would never let me win at mini-golf or anything,” she said. “I remember him out on the playground yelling about a certain play because he thought it was or wasn’t a touchdown.”
Though Ryan took Nina to prom, their relationship was more friendship than romance then, even if both suspected otherwise long term.
“We always kind of knew in the end we’d end up together,” Nina said. “I know that’s weird. I wrote a note to someone in middle school and said that.”
Nina was a star basketball player — Ryan does vouch for her overall athletic ability — and enrolled at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, to play the sport. But she was unhappy and transferred to the University of New Hampshire.
They each dated other people in college, but soon after Day graduated, they became a couple for good.
“I was working in Boston and had a job offer in Chicago,” Nina said. “I was about to consider moving out there and trying a new thing. I remember him calling me and he said, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I want you to stay.’ I did, and the rest is history.”
As a coach’s daughter, Nina understood the sacrifices required of a wife in the profession. But her father, for the sake of family stability, had turned down opportunities to coach at bigger programs.
That wouldn’t be the Days’ path. After two years as a graduate assistant at Boston College, Day was hired in 2005 for the same job by Meyer, who was in his first year at Florida.
The Days got married that year.
“We got married on a Saturday and he had to report the next day. I still yell at Urban about that,” Nina said, laughing.
It was there that Nina really began to understand the grind needed to advance in coaching. Several nights a week, her husband slept in his office.
“I remember a lot of nights alone in Gainesville thinking, ‘Is this going to be my life?’” she said.
But she strongly believed that Day would be successful. So many coaches she’d encountered had told her that, and she knew how determined and intelligent he was. In college, she remembered taking the same class as Day. She said she would study four hours for a test. Day would look at notes for 15 minutes and get a better grade.
The next year, Day got a job coaching wide receivers at Temple in Philadelphia. He went back and forth between Temple and Boston College through 2014, working for three years under Steve Addazio, one of Meyer’s closest friends in coaching.
Then Kelly, who’d become the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, offered Day a job as quarterbacks coach. In Nina’s mind, that was a turning point. All three of their kids — R.J., Grace and Nia — had been born. She knew if Ryan went to the NFL, he would be taking a shot at the coaching brass ring.
“I knew when we left Boston College, it was going to start to become a little bit of a roller coaster,” Nina said.
It did. Kelly was fired after that season in Philadelphia. The San Francisco 49ers hired him, and Kelly brought Day along. Their only season in San Francisco was a 2-14 disaster, and Kelly was dismissed there, too.
The Day family had moved three times in as many years, and it had taken a toll.
“To be honest, there have been a few times the last 12 or 13 years when we’ve pumped the brakes a little bit and said, ‘Is this really what we want to do?’” Nina said. “We’ve had honest conversations through the years. He always tells me, ‘Do you want me to get out of coaching? Do we need to do this for our family?’”
San Francisco may have been the nadir.
“We were in kind of a downward spiral at one point, and we did consider him getting out of coaching,” Nina said. “But at the end of the day, I knew it was his passion, and I knew our family was strong enough.”
• • •
Still, Day’s career was in limbo at the end of 2016. He had told R.J., then 8, he was thinking about going back to the college game. Ohio State, Washington, Clemson and Alabama were in the College Football Playoff that year.
“R.J. said that we can only go to one of those schools,” Day said.
If only it were that easy, he thought. The next day, after a suggestion from Addazio, Meyer called him about being the Buckeyes’ quarterbacks coach.
At Ohio State, Day had finally joined a powerhouse program. The Buckeyes’ record in Day’s first two seasons in Columbus is 24-3. His teams’ combined record at his other coaching stops was 99-97. This is not a coach blessed by working for elite teams with a glide path to promotions.
“When you may not have as many resources as some other competitors, you have to work a little harder and try to figure out ways to get the job done,” Day said.
In recruiting, he said, that meant he had to work harder to develop relationships. It meant he had to prod harder and more effectively to maximize his players’ potential.
“When I’ve watched the quarterbacks interact with him, they know he’s knowledgeable and that he cares about them,” McDonnell said. “He’s going to demand an awful lot of him, but nothing he wouldn’t demand of himself or he wouldn’t do or hasn’t done.”
Chris Day remembers his brother scribbling football plays on napkins at an early age. He has watched him diagram plays in coaching rooms. He likens it to the scene in the movie “Good Will Hunting” when Matt Damon computes complex math problems in his head.
“One coach just said, ‘Hey, your brother has it — the ‘it,’” he said. “You can’t explain what ‘it’ is, but it’s something some people just don’t have.”
Addazio scoffs at the notion that any coach is a schematic genius.
“There’s no secret sauce,” he said.
But he raved about Day.
“He’s like family to me, and I think the world of him,” Addazio said. “I love Ryan. I love him because he’s got toughness. I love him because he’s a sharp guy. He’s a tremendous person, a great family man — husband and father. He cares about people, and I think he does a great job relating to people. I like to say he’s got a little bit of an old soul to him.”
Addazio said Day understands that success doesn’t come just from mastery of the X’s and O’s but from relationships with and development of players.
“That takes experience, and Ryan has had great experiences coming up,” he said.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said that Day’s IQ and what he calls his emotional intelligence — the ability to develop a rapport with people — were driving forces in his decision to offer him the top Ohio State job.
Meyer has repeatedly described Day as one of the best coaches with whom he has worked. The Ohio State offense under Day and fellow offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has set numerous records the past two seasons, first under senior quarterback J.T. Barrett and this year under first-year starter Dwayne Haskins Jr. The Buckeyes ranked second nationally this year in total offense.
Haskins likened Day to 32-year-old Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, the latest NFL wonder boy, in terms of his feel for the game.
“And just his personality, people like being around him,” Haskins said. “He has a great mind, and I knew he’d be a great head coach.”
• • •
Day drew raves during his stint as acting coach when Ohio State placed Meyer on administrative leave and then suspension during training camp and the first three weeks of the season. When Meyer began contemplating retirement because of health reasons, Smith came to view Day as the best option to succeed him.
For the Day family, it was a surreal time. Ryan and Nina knew he could become coach but didn’t quite believe it. Ryan said he simply concentrated on helping the team prepare to beat Michigan and then Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game.
Even on the morning of the announcement, Nina wasn’t sure her husband would be named head coach until he called her from the office.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “I cried. I just kept thinking, ‘Wow, he did it.’ It was very surreal.”
During the news conference, all she could think about were the sacrifices and uncertainties all the way, the times when they discussed Ryan quitting coaching, and the realization that her faith in him had been rewarded.
The Days know that expectations at Ohio State are immense and intense. Nina said his biggest concern about the job is how criticism might affect her and their kids if there are bumps in the road. She describes Ryan as a devoted father who leaves his work at the office when he arrives home and is immersed in his kids’ lives.
Nina has faith that their family can handle the ups and downs. She has no doubt about that regarding her husband.
“I know Ryan is at his best when his back is up against the wall, and there’s a lot of adversity,” she said. “Just when I think that he’s down, he’s not down. He comes back stronger.”
That has been the story of his life, starting from the time he lost his father as a boy and continuing throughout his coaching journey.
“One thing about this job is that at times it will take you to your knees,” Day said. “We’ve been down before, but we’ve gotten off the canvas and kept going.”
He believes that with the foundation Meyer is leaving in place, he has every chance to succeed.
“I’ve prepared my whole life for it,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to be around some great leaders. I’ve been in some great situations, and so I knew when this opportunity presented itself, I’d be ready.”