Rob Oller | Ryan Day travels winding road from NFL sideline to COVID sidelined

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra

Ryan Day keeps his NFL pedigree the same place he will keep his person on Saturday now that he has tested positive for COVID-19 and Ohio State canceled its game against Illinois — out of public view.

The Ohio State coach prefers to focus on his 17-year college coaching career rather than the two seasons he spent with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, in 2015-16.

“I was only in the NFL two years. The rest of the time was college,” Day said. “(The NFL) was more of a learning experience for me.”

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There is good reason for Day to downplay that experience, mostly to douse speculation that he is destined to return to the NFL, but also because promoting his professional coaching ties might give the impression he is not interested in the finer points of the college experience.

Name-dropping the NFL to recruits and families, who think beyond unpaid college internships, is best done behind closed doors, where Day can better control the message. Advertising his NFL ties to the world could give off the impression that academics matter only as a means to an end.

Ryan Day has made clear that he harbors no aspirations to be coaching in the NFL any time soon, but his two seasons of NFL experience certainly guide his principles and how he handles his players.

Why risk upsetting the parents of future recruits who value a college education as much or more than a future NFL paycheck, especially when the NFL remains only a reach for most?

Despite his best intentions, however, Day’s NFL vibe comes across loud and clear, perhaps because he is the only coach in Ohio State history — and there have been 24 before him — with previous NFL coaching experience. (Aside: none has ever left OSU directly for an NFL head coaching job, either).

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To these ears and eyes, Day’s brief stint in the NFL rubbed off on him in a big way; or else maybe he is more of an NFL coach at heart? If so, that still does not mean he is looking to leave the Buckeyes anytime soon.

“Obviously I believe this is the best place and best job in America,” he said again last week. “It is a blessing to be here every day.”

Take the man at his word, but also know that his NFL tenure greatly influences how he conducts business with the Buckeyes, and how he views the expectations. After Ohio State routed Nebraska 52-17 in the season opener, Day wondered why more people weren’t happy with the outcome.

In the NFL, every win is celebrated like New Year’s Eve, even if the owner always wants something more.

“That league is brutal, because no matter what, you’re designed to go 8-8,” Day said. “Then when you go 8-8 the owner wants to know why you’re 8-8. ‘There’s got to be a reason.’ Well, it’s because everyone is supposed to go 8-8.” 

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Far from being a negative, I find Day’s straightforward approach refreshing. It is not that prior Ohio State coaches were unprofessional, but Day better balances collegiate rah-rah with NFL bottom line.

For instance, he mostly dispenses with lengthy commercials pitching the value of college life. That does not mean he undersells the importance of a college education or of training young men to become prepared adults. Just last week he spoke of how much growth he has seen in his players as they have navigated through the coronavirus pandemic.

Ryan Day is among nine Big Ten coaches with some level of prior NFL coaching experience.

“They’re more mature and stronger than they were one month or six months ago,” Day said. “As hard as it’s been, they’re learning a lot.”

Day is an educator as well as coach. That said, he calls his players “student-athletes” less often than those who coached before him. Woody Hayes and Jim Tressel constantly linked athletics to academics. Urban Meyer, no-nonsense to the core, often connected field to classroom.

My sense is that Day believes just as strongly in the importance of athletes doubling as students, but he also spent two years coaching men in their 30s who finish work and go home to families, not take study breaks to play TikTok.

Day brings that piece of professional league perspective with him, much like Illinois coach Lovie Smith (Bears and Buccaneers), who joins Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh (49ers) and Rutgers’ Greg Schiano (Buccaneers) as Big Ten coaches who also were NFL head coaches.

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Five other Big Ten coaches besides Day have experience as NFL assistants: Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (Browns, Ravens), Michigan State’s Mel Tucker (Browns, Jaguars, Bears); Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck (Buccaneers), Penn State’s James Franklin (Packers) and Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst (Chargers).

Illinois defensive back Sydney Brown told the London (Ontario) Press that Smith treats his players like pros.

“That’s a big thing having an NFL-style coach,” Brown said. “He brings that culture with him, treats you like a pro and expects you to act like a pro.”

I get the same feeling from watching and listening to Day, who treats players and media as professionals with a job to do.