Ohio State and other schools in College Football Playoff didn't have to look far to find coaches
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith brought a visitor to meet university president Michael Drake in the summer of 2018.
It was Ryan Day, who had spent one season with the Buckeyes as their offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Smith viewed him as a rising star.
After Day received job offers earlier that offseason, Smith recalled a conversation with then-coach Urban Meyer about the importance of keeping the assistant on staff.
“We've got to do everything we can to retain him,” Meyer said, “because he is a guy that is special and can do it here one day.”
The exchange captured Smith's attention. He sometimes brought aspiring head coaches to chat with Drake to “understand the big picture of the university.” But he saw it as particularly necessary to usher Day into the president's office, hoping he might come to familiarize himself with the inner workings as a prime future candidate to lead the powerhouse football program.
“I thought he was a guy that could eventually take over for Urban,” Smith said, “either if he stayed here or went somewhere else.”
The rest of the story is well known.
Months later, Day was installed as acting head coach for preseason practices and the first three games after Meyer was suspended for his handling of domestic abuse allegations involving a former assistant. Day led the Buckeyes to three blowout wins. As health issues related to an arachnoid cyst prompted Meyer to retire by the end of the season, Day was tapped as the successor. In his first full season at the helm this fall, he returned Ohio State to the College Football Playoff amid an unbeaten regular season in which the Buckeyes torpedoed opponents.
Day's pathway to the top job is not an outlier. All four coaches leading teams into the playoff this month were promoted from within their programs.
LSU removed the interim tag from Ed Orgeron after he took over following Les Miles' firing in 2016. Oklahoma elevated Lincoln Riley, its hot-shot offensive coordinator, when Bob Stoops retired the following year.
The coach pitted against Day in the semifinals in the Fiesta Bowl is Dabo Swinney, a forerunner of a series of promotions.
Since taking the permanent job a decade ago, Swinney has built Clemson into a modern juggernaut, capturing two of the past three national championships and winning 28 straight games, a testament to the level of success possible from an internal hire.
“It's just a good way to do it,” former Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips said. “You don't have to spend a gazillion dollars to go out and find somebody if you got a good, solid program. You can work within that program.”
In interviews with The Dispatch, athletic directors who promoted assistants to head coaches said they benefited from up-close observation.
When Phillips hired Swinney after his interim stint in 2008, certain instances struck him.
Though Swinney was a wide receivers coach for the Tigers, he knew everyone on the team, and many players visited him in his office at the team's facility. It looked like a gathering place. Phillips considered it as evidence of a magnetic leader.
“There was something about Dabo that attracted these players to just come in and talk with him, not necessarily about football,” Phillips said. “He had such a relationship with players at all positions.”
Had they not shared a workspace, Phillips never would have noticed.
He furthered watched Swinney charm boosters at Clemson Club gatherings across South Carolina and be ruthless enough to make critical decisions for the program to improve. On the same day that he was named interim coach, Swinney fired offensive coordinator Rob Spence.
The events turned Phillips into a firm believer.
Smith valued similar firsthand assessments as he watched Day inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center or at Ohio Stadium.
In his first game as the Buckeyes' acting head coach in 2018, Day made his biggest impression.
He looked calm each time TV cameras captured a glimpse of him, a sideline demeanor that Smith admired.
“Obviously, he's the play-caller, so he's got to be cerebral,” Smith said, “but he doesn't yell at players.”
The Buckeyes also tallied 77 points against Oregon State in an onslaught, piling on three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
It was an unrelenting approach that allowed Day to gain even more favor.
“Your players want to be aggressive,” Smith said. “I really think players love to connect with a culture and environment where you're going to get after it. And if you demonstrate that as a leader, players gravitate to that.”
Watching the checkbook
In an era of skyrocketing salaries in college football, with schools on the hook for paying coaches multimillions of dollars each season, familiarity with candidates has become valued by administrators.
A lot of money is on the line, including hefty buyout payments, if the hires don't pan out.
“A lot of athletic directors are rethinking how they should be doing things, betting more on a guy that they know who is a good leader,” said Scott Roussel, president of FootballScoop.com, a website that covers the coaching industry.
The salaries for promoted assistants are also often lower, at least in the early goings.
In their first full seasons in 2017, Orgeron's LSU salary was $3.5 million and Riley's compensation was $3.1 million at Oklahoma.
By comparison, Tom Herman, who was hired by Texas during the same offseason hiring cycle and was widely seen as a top up-and-coming coach after two successful seasons at Houston, made significantly more at $5.25 million.
Riley has since been given a sizable raise.
After leading Oklahoma to playoff berths the previous two seasons, his annual salary is nearly double, reaching more than $6 million.
Swinney is the nation's highest-paid coach at $9.3 million, according to USA Today's database of coaching salaries, following a series of raises.
“If he does what you hope he can do, which you've seen the potential of, if that materializes, then you reward him,” Roussel said.
As Day considered his own ascendance last week, he held appreciation for Smith's decision, noting the veteran athletic director had taken a chance on him.
“It was a little risky,” Day said. “Call it for what it is.”
Day knew he had been named a first-time head coach five months before his 40th birthday, rare at a blue-blood program that had not hired anyone without prior head-coaching experience for its top job since 1946.
Paul Bixler, elevated as a former assistant at Ohio State more than seven decades ago, lasted only one season.
But Smith framed his decision in opposite terms.
While Meyer's health worsened late last season, Smith conferred with Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, who had promoted Riley. He also considered other possible candidates from other schools. Though Smith declined to reveal those candidates or acknowledge if he spoke with any of them, he made pros and cons lists to contrast with Day.
He determined it wasn't much of a gamble to tap the assistant who had been a part of recent success late in the Meyer era, someone whom he had watched for two seasons.
“The risk with Ryan was less than the risk of bringing in somebody else new,” Smith said. “I'd already assessed his talent and felt comfortable with that. And the other piece was we have a culture, we have a system, we have a structure, that doesn't need blowing it up.
“I've brought in a lot of different coaches in a lot of different sports. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, they want to change something. Ryan knows how we operate.”
Unlike other prospective outside candidates, Day benefited from an audition. And he passed.