Day will find Meyer a tough act to follow

Staff Writer
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer coaches while Ohio State Buckeyes offensive coach Ryan Day calls a play against Northwestern Wildcats during the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis, Ind on December 1, 2018.

The challenge facing Ryan Day is not only to keep defeating the U of M but to keep winning like UM.

Urban Meyer, who announced his retirement on Tuesday, is about to become the rainbow reflection who sparkles even in shadow. He has won at a 90 percent clip (82-9) at Ohio State, including 100 percent (7-0) against Michigan. Meyer’s last day as coach is Jan. 2, but in some ways he still will be coaching the Buckeyes next season — in the bodily shell of Day, who will be compared to Meyer 10 million times or more.

So strong is Meyer’s gravitational pull on the stratospheric expectations of Ohio State fans — Urban is the only OSU coach with at least three year’s service never to lose more than two games in a season — that most think the program has nowhere to go but down.

And it’s not like Day gets to wade into the pool. Meyer won his first 30 Big Ten regular-season games. Egads.

“I expect it to stay at that level,” said athletic director Gene Smith, commenting on whether Day gets a dress rehearsal season. “When you have that level of talent, you should always beat people you’re better than.”

Even Meyer’s teams did not always follow that blueprint, losing to less-talented teams this year (Purdue) and last (Iowa). Still, where Day is concerned, Smith’s use of “should” really means “will, or else.”

Realistically, Day is not likely to match Meyer’s winning percentage. That is no knock on the 39-year-old, who has never served as a head coach — outside the three games he filled in during Meyer’s suspension — but a bow to Meyer, whose overall winning percentage (.853) coaching Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State ranks third all-time among coaches with at least 10 years’ experience, behind Notre Dame legends Knute Rockne (.881) and Frank Leahy (.864), who also coached at Boston College.

When viewed through the lens of Meyer’s success, it makes sense in an oddly logical sort of way why Smith chose to bypass a national search and go straight to elevating Day. I still think a search would have been appropriate, if not completely necessary, but think of it this way: if Meyer’s success rate is nearly impossible to replicate, it doesn’t matter who the next coach is. That guy wouldn’t match Meyer, either. Couched another way, if you can’t pry Nick Saban from Alabama or Dabo Swinney from Clemson (and you can’t), then what’s the difference? Day probably is as good as anyone and maybe better, having inside knowledge of Meyer’s winning system.

Essentially, Smith saw no other “Urban Meyer” out there who would be a slam dunk, so why bring in an outsider and risk undoing what Meyer has built? Hire Day and keep a good thing going.

After all, it has worked at Oklahoma, where offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley replaced Bob Stoops before last season, despite having no head coaching experience. The Sooners have made the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons.

Smith used Oklahoma not only as a template when considering Day, but also for how to handle the news conference announcing the hire.

“There were certain things I needed to understand about what (Oklahoma did), because one of my concerns was doing a press conference together (with Meyer and Day),” Smith said. “You want to give Urban his platform and his tribute. For example, you could do it Tuesday, so Urban would have his day, which he deserved; and Ryan’s on Wednesday, so Ryan would have his day.”

Smith ultimately decided against that strategy after talking to Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, based in part on not wanting to create a vortex of speculation. But Smith guessed correctly that Meyer would get most of the media questions.

“We knew Ryan would be overshadowed,” he said. “But you say to yourself, ‘He’s going to get his day later,’ because eventually he’s going to be the guy.”

More like the guy who follows the guy. Good luck, Mr. Day. I suggest you fasten your seat belt.