Year after year, Ohio State’s football coach has been penalized for being the best. But finally, no yellow flag.
Ryan Day was named Big Ten coach of the year on Tuesday, becoming the first Buckeyes coach to win the award since Earle Bruce in 1979 — the year Day was born.
As a first-time head coach, Day overhauled a shaky defensive staff into one of the nation’s best and guided the Buckeyes to a 12-0 record, No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings, a Big Ten East title and win over Michigan. The 40-year-old also has done it with a sophomore quarterback who previously never started a game.
Except for three games last season filling in during Urban Meyer’s suspension, Day had never served as head coach at any level. What he has accomplished is fairly astounding.
Yet even now, the honor comes with a split-vote caveat: the media voted for Day; the conference’s coaches voted for Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, who has led the Golden Gophers to a 10-2 season but after a loss to Wisconsin in the regular-season finale failed to get them into Saturday’s Big Ten championship game, where they would have faced Ohio State.
Once again, OSU must apologize for dominating the conference. Jim Tressel deserved to win multiple times and never did. Ditto Meyer. An argument can be made that John Cooper also deserved it in the mid-90s, but it was the same old story: Voters figured OSU coaches should win big with the boatload of talent at their disposal. That had not stopped Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler from each winning the award twice in the 1970s, but something changed.
Like a math genius passed over for the Nobel Prize despite solving in two minutes an equation that took lesser minds two months to master, Buckeyes coaches have lost the coaching award to colleagues deemed to have done more with less. And in some cases, just less.
In 2012, Ohio State went 12-0 in Meyer’s first year, one season after the Buckeyes finished 6-7. That would seem to be a slam dunk for the award. Nope. First-year Penn State coach Bill O’Brien won for guiding the Nittany Lions through the morass of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. It didn’t matter that Penn State finished with a worse record under O’Brien (8-4) than under Joe Paterno/Tom Bradley a season earlier (9-4). Voters snubbed Meyer’s perfect season, which included a 35-23 win over Penn State.
In 2014, Meyer lost out to Minnesota’s Jerry Kill, who led the Golden Gophers to an 8-5 record one season removed from taking time off for health issues.
Other examples can be cited, but let’s now focus more on Day and why the media voters got it right. It’s not just that Day has won, but how he has done it. Stepping into Meyer’s shoes could not have been easy, especially with the 7-0 record against Michigan staring him in the face. But Day took what was already working and improved on it. The offense, ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring, is more multidimensional than in 2018. And total defense also is No. 1 — one season removed from finishing 72nd.
Day deflects credit to his players and staff, but defensive co-coordinator Jeff Hafley was not shy about praising his boss.
“The way he treats these players and staff, and the way these players play for him and coaches coach for him, then combine it with the record, and I don’t think there’s a better coach in the country,” Hafley said.
Senior wide receiver Austin Mack got more personal.
“Coach Day, he's a great dude, just personally, Mack said. "His office is always open. He says, 'Come in and hang out. You don't even need to talk to me. I want to be able to be with you guys.' As a coach, he’s a fighter … a great leader and inspiration. I love being able to play for this guy.”
Too bad Big Ten coaches didn’t love being able to vote for him. Bah.