SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The letter to Santa Claus was sent days ago, as is the Day family’s tradition.
The job used to be RJ’s, but Ryan and Nina Day’s 11-year-old son has passed it on to 9-year-old Grace. In years past, the letter was tinged with poignancy. Ryan Day is Ohio State’s football coach, and continual transition is a fact of life for families in the coaching profession.
The Days’ youngest child is 6-year-old Nia, and every Christmas has been spent in a different place. The annual letter to Santa wasn’t merely a wish list of gifts. It was to inform him where they would be. Christmas for the Day family was one of instability as much as celebration.
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“We've never been in this situation before as a family,” Nina Day said. “It's his first year as a head coach. It's Christmas, and we're counting our blessings because this season has been pretty spectacular. So we’re just taking a moment and being grateful for where we are.”
On Saturday, Day will coach Ohio State against Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl. Day is 16-0 as the Buckeyes’ head coach, including three victories last year as acting coach filling in for the suspended Urban Meyer.
Day was named Meyer’s successor last December, and he took over after the Rose Bowl win over Washington. The Days’ excitement about his promotion was tempered by uncertainty and trepidation about how his new role would affect the family.
But that was preferable to previous years when the Days would find themselves on the move constantly. Five years ago, Day left Boston College to work for Chip Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles. A year later, Kelly was fired and brought Day along to the San Francisco 49ers. That also lasted only one year. Then Meyer hired him at Ohio State.
All of the moves happened around the holidays.
“The only thing my youngest knew for a long time is we move right after Christmas, and the minute she would open presents, things would just go right into boxes,” Nina Day said. “So there was a lot of anxiety around Christmases because one chapter was ending and a new one was beginning.”
It was far different than the Christmases that Ryan and Nina experienced growing up in Manchester, N.H. Nina would go to her aunt’s house; Ryan would go to his grandparents’. If it was a white Christmas, as it usually was, they’d play in the snow. If the weather was nice, Ryan would play football.
Once Ryan embarked on his coaching journey and the Days had kids, their Christmases would be much different.
“I still have really all my family back in New Hampshire,” Ryan said. “So does Nina. So, this was new for us. It's something that we've gotten used to but certainly don't exactly love, because when you're having Christmas away from home, that's not ideal. Over the years, you just manage it the best you can.”
During the tough times of Day’s coaching journey, he and Nina had serious discussions about whether it was all worth it. They plugged away, hoping for a chance like the one that came at Ohio State.
“There were times,” Ryan said, “where you look at each other, like, ‘What are we really doing?’ Especially for two people who grew up with big families and no one really left (home). Nobody was really in this world. This was all new to us from the beginning, but we trusted each other. We had faith in each other.
“We're just so happy we saw it through because you get to enjoy something like this. This is what makes it special.”
Now the Days intend to put down roots. They moved from Powell to a new home in Delaware in the spring. The kids embrace their new role. RJ considers himself the team’s unofficial general manager.
When Zach Harrison was a prized uncommitted recruit at Olentangy Orange last year in the Days’ school district, RJ approached him and told him that his dad was recruiting him. It helped form a bond that resulted in Harrison signing with the Buckeyes.
“I actually think that was a great moment for Zach to realize who I was — that I'm so close to my family and a family person, and I thought that mattered to him,” Ryan said.
He said that RJ chimes in with his opinion on various topics. He’s treated like a little brother by players.
“He’s one of the guys,” Harrison said.
That continued for the newest Buckeyes who signed letters of intent last Wednesday.
“He texted some of our recruits after they signed, congratulating them,” Nina said, “and then we had a little bit of a Christmas recruiting party Wednesday night. He's like, ‘Mom, I have to go. I'm a big recruiter for this program.’ I'm like, ‘OK, buddy.’ He attended the party.”
Grace is a football junkie who cried during the first half of the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin because the Buckeyes trailed. Nia had been the one football holdout in the family, showing little interest in the sport. But she watched the entire Wisconsin game.
“That was a good start,” Ryan said with a laugh. “But she's still young. She's getting there.”
He didn’t want to become too reflective about his past year, because his team has unfinished business. But he does cherish what this year has been and the stability it has, at long last, brought his family.
Day said he believes he has the best coaching job in the country, with unsurpassed resources and administrative and fan support. He has grown to love Columbus.
“It’s an awesome city that’s a great place to raise children,” Day said. “What's so exciting about this for us is that we feel like now that we've established ourselves a little bit this first year, there's going to be stability here for a long time. And that's what the most exciting thing is I know for Nina and for me.”
Coaches tend not to stay too long in any one place. After so many moves, Day wants Columbus to be home for many more Christmases.
“As many as they’ll let me stay,” he said.