Rob Oller | Ryan Day lays foundation for continued success in first season at Ohio State

Rob Oller
Ryan Day feels his biggest imprint on the Ohio State program in his first season as coach was the toughness his players displayed. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

Ryan Day was oh-so-close to becoming the legend to follow the legend. One defensive stop, one last-minute score and yes, one officiating break, and the Ohio State football coach could have been in position for books to be written about his undefeated season.

Joe Burrow would have had something to say about that, but if the Buckeyes had clocked Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl — and for 25 minutes it appeared they might — and then defeated LSU in the College Football Playoff championship game, Day would have accomplished something even his predecessor did not by winning a natty in Year One.

Meyer went 12-0 in 2012, his first season, but the Buckeyes were ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA violations committed by Jim Tressel amid the fallout from Tattoogate.

Day was on the doorstep of doing something incredible the same way Earle Bruce did in 1979 after replacing Woody Hayes. But Bruce's undefeated and No. 1 ranked Buckeyes fell 17-16 to No. 3 Southern California in the Rose Bowl, and Ohio State never lost fewer than three games in eight more seasons under Bruce.

Don't look for Day to follow Bruce's example. Although he narrowly missed on putting Meyer's departure into mothballs, the 40-year-old put his stamp on a program that should compete for championships as long as he remains in Columbus.

I asked Day on Wednesday to reflect on the 2019 season, how challenging it was to follow in Meyer's footsteps and what imprint he made.

“Any time you follow up a legend it can be overwhelming,” Day said in his first news conference since the loss Dec. 28 to Clemson. “The way I approached it was just as an opportunity, and looked at it that way because that can eat you up — especially here.”

No kidding. Bruce often said that following Hayes was no picnic, but in some ways he had it easier than Day. Much of Ohio State's fan base of the late 1970s — “Buckeye Nation” was not yet a twinkle in some marketing brander's eye — had tired of Hayes' lack of coaching creativity before he slugged Clemson's Charlie Bauman in the 1978 Gator Bowl.

Bruce arrived not as a fully evolved offensive mastermind, but compared with Hayes, his play-calling was woke, which is to say Earle was open to allowing his quarterback to attempt this dangerous thing called the forward pass.

Day did not benefit from Urban fatigue. Frustration over Meyer's fixation on having the quarterback bail out the offense with runs subsided in 2018 when the Buckeyes aired it out with quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr.

But similar to Bruce, who brought a lighter touch to the job while still holding to Hayes' values, Day presented a looser vibe than Meyer without abandoning Meyer's demand for toughness. The Buckeyes actually became tougher this season, a surprising development Day pointed to as his main imprint on the program.

“The whole focus was how hard, how tough can we possibly play,” he said. “Everyone in Buckeye Nation saw a team that played really, really hard. It was well-coached. We didn't reach all of our goals, but certainly it's a good starting point as we move forward.”

As the future unfurls, expect Day's aggressive but less stress-inducing nature to keep the Buckeyes from tensing in tight spots, a condition that struck some of Meyer's teams.

“The only way that I know how to do it is to be as confident as you can, be as aggressive as you can, and let the guys go play,” Day said.

That combo worked wonders this season. How will Day deal with having to follow his own success? Just fine, I'm guessing.


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