CHICAGO — At any minute, I half expected Ryan Day to reach under his chin and slowly pull off a rubber mask, revealing Urban Meyer underneath.
This coaching transition is going to take awhile — maybe not so much internally, but outside the football offices and practice facilities Meyer remains front and center. His specter hovers.
Three national writers approached me during Big Ten media days on Thursday and Friday wanting to know if the contingent of Ohio State football writers think Meyer will return to coaching. (I can’t speak for my colleagues, but I put it at 60% that Urban wears the whistle again; I had it at 75% soon after he retired, but Meyer’s family considerations and staffing issues — would Meyer go-to guys strength coach Mickey Marotti and recruiting coordinator Mark Pantoni leave Columbus to join him elsewhere? — have lowered the odds.)
The Ohio State news dominating the two-day media event at the Hilton Chicago was not related to Day, but an ad nausea analysis of Jim Harbaugh’s podcast comment about controversy following Meyer wherever he goes. When the Michigan coach was not filibustering about his roster and coaching staff — it's a common trick for coaches to talk in boring detail about a lot of nothing; for example, the third string tight end’s love of lifting weights, to shorten the interview time and decrease the number of reporter questions — he was fielding questions about what prompted the jab at Meyer.
Day had to feel at least a little relieved to fly above the petty Harbaugh-Meyer milieu. Compared to a year ago, when the cave-in began for Meyer with tough questions about when he knew what about the Zach Smith domestic violence allegations, Day barely needed to break a sweat.
On the flip side, more Meyer meant less Day, whose ego is not so large that he would ever sulk over such a thing. The first-year Ohio State coach has too much respect for Meyer to complain about being asked yet another question about his predecessor.
The comparisons to Meyer that Day gets bombarded with are natural and even instructive. Personal growth can come from speaking out the strengths of a winner — in this case, a three-time national champion.
Or, to paraphrase six-time national champion Nick Saban: Success leaves a trail.
Day provided an example when a reporter inquired whether he might prepare for Michigan differently than Meyer did.
“No. It worked,” he said to laughter. “It worked just fine. The thing I learned from Urban the minute I got there was you work The Game every day.”
Still, is there not a human tendency to want to put your own stamp on things?
Day addressed the issue.
“When people ask the question, they say, ‘What have you changed from Urban Meyer?’ That’s a hard question to answer at times, because you’re talking about one of the most successful coaches in the history of the game,” Day said. “I try not to focus on what have I changed, but I do think if you ask some guys on our team or our staff, there’s a lot that’s different. Because he’s not there, and I am.”
Wide receiver K.J. Hill explained one change he's noticed.
“Coach Meyer is more of an old-school, demanding coach,” Hill said. “Coach Day is going to ask for the same thing, but it’s kind of more in a laid-back way.”
Day also spoke about the practical implications of staying the course.
“The more changes you make, the more energy you can take away from something else,” he said. “If they’re worried about learning a new core value, it takes away from their ability to get on the field.”
Eventually, Meyer’s fingerprints will fade and Day’s imprint will take over in both private and public. For now, however, this is Day’s team but still mostly Meyer’s program.