Ryan Day's leadership helps Ohio State return to playoff in tumultuous season

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

NEW ORLEANS — Serving as Ohio State’s acting head football coach for three games in 2018 while Urban Meyer was under suspension, Ryan Day received an early introduction to crisis management.

But little could have prepared him for what awaited in 2020.

Guiding the Buckeyes in his second full season as coach, he faced a litany of challenges following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March.

Between a spring shutdown, months of uncertainty over the fate of the 2020 season and virus outbreaks that led to interruptions in their schedule throughout the fall, it was no small feat that Ohio State returned to the College Football Playoff.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day begins to hoist the Big Ten championship trophy after the Buckeyes beat Northwestern on Dec. 19, one of the highlights of a challenging 2020 season.

While the Buckeyes continue to aspire for their first national championship since 2014 — they played Clemson in a Sugar Bowl semifinal on Friday night — it is worth noting that the playoff appearances in Day’s tenure already match those of his predecessor.

Reflecting on the past nine months this week, Ohio State’s players credited Day’s leadership amid the adverse conditions.

“He’s been for the players first,” senior linebacker Pete Werner said. “We can talk about so many obstacles getting in our way. Adversity is what he’s challenging us with. He’s just a guy who’s going to be there for you. He asks the players consistently what he needs of them and what we can do for him. He’s just a guy you want to be next to, surrounded by his leadership through times like this.”

The last month of the regular season was particularly trying for the Buckeyes. Three games in the final six weeks were canceled.

In the Big Ten, only Ohio State and Maryland failed to play as many as six regular-season games because of coronavirus-related cancellations. Twice, OSU games were called off due to outbreaks among the teams they were scheduled to face. On Thanksgiving weekend, a rise in cases in Ohio State’s program prompted a game at Illinois to be called off.

Day himself tested positive for COVID-19 in late November and missed the Dec. 5 game at Michigan State.

Still, the Buckeyes remained unbeaten in the conference to remain in the national title hunt. It has been more than two years since they have lost to another Big Ten team.

Their chances of contending with Alabama or Clemson were in jeopardy in August after the Big Ten called off the season, while three of the other five major conferences moved ahead with their seasons.

“Coach Day has been amazing throughout this,” senior defensive end Jonathon Cooper said. “I couldn’t ask him to do anything more. He’s been a tremendous leader to all of us, talking to us, guiding us, making us stay strong and together as a unit, honestly. Our key word is fight, and with all the challenges we had to face this year and overcome them, we had to fight and keep pushing through them.”

The hardest part for Day was dealing with the uncertainty that hung over the team for months. What do you tell players or staff about the road ahead?

Day didn’t have all the answers. Playing through a pandemic came with little clarity. But he tried to be honest with his team and forge ahead.

“The fact that we didn't have a season, that we did have a season, we have games, we don't have games, that wears on you,” Day said. “Not being able, as the head coach and the leader of the program, to look people in the eye and let them know what's coming next (was difficult). They have to keep putting one foot in front of another, that's the biggest challenge.”

A day ahead of the semifinal rematch with Clemson, which had knocked the Buckeyes out of the playoff 12 months ago and handed Day his first defeat, he felt he had gained a new outlook after the bumpy road of 2020.

Through it all, he appreciated the opportunity to come full circle.

“The thing I have learned the most is just perspective,” Day said. “That's what this is all about. You can't take anything for granted. Although it wasn't exactly the way we wanted the season to go, we're still very, very fortunate to be where we're at.

“We're right back where we started, and have an opportunity to play in this game, playing for a great university, playing against a great team in Clemson.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman