Taking on Saban, Ryan Day has chance to establish elite status in only second season
When the Ohio State football team last played Alabama, the game was a clash of coaching titans.
Nick Saban had already won one national championship at LSU and three for the Crimson Tide. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer, his former Southeastern Conference rival, had won two at Florida.
Ohio State’s victory over the Crimson Tide in that 2014 College Football Playoff semifinal in New Orleans — and its subsequent victory over Oregon — cemented Meyer’s status as one of the game’s all-time elite.
When the Buckeyes won that title, Ryan Day was a 35-year-old offensive coordinator for Boston College, about to be hired as quarterbacks coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. Day’s football mentor, Chip Kelly, hired him three weeks after the OSU-Alabama game.
Now Day, in only his second full year as a head coach at Ohio State, will lead the underdog Buckeyes against Saban’s No. 1 Crimson Tide for the CFP championship.
At 69 and 41 years old, this year's coaches are a generation apart in age. Unlike Saban and Meyer, who actually had a good relationship, Saban and Day don’t know each other well.
“I think he's an outstanding coach,” Saban said. “I think they do a fantastic job with their team, the way their team competes, the way their team plays, the discipline, the togetherness that they have, the way they execute.”
Saban also praised Day’s play-calling and scheme on offense.
“I think he's taken advantage of a great opportunity and certainly done an outstanding job with it,” he said.
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Day is 23-1 as head coach, the only loss coming in last year’s playoff semifinal to Clemson. He has had to do far more than coach X’s and O’s this year. He fought to persuade the Big Ten to reinstate the season after the conference postponed it because of the pandemic.
Day then had to navigate his team through three cancellations and numerous player and coach absences due to COVID-19. He missed the Michigan State game in early December after contracting the coronavirus himself.
No one could have foreseen the challenges Day faced this season, but defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs knew Day was special as soon as he arrived at OSU as offensive coordinator in 2017.
“When he showed up and we started doing 7-on-7s and things like that in spring ball and training camp, there was a completely different feel to the passing game,” Coombs said. “He brought elements of the passing game that were really, really challenging.
“It was like cold water in your face. That was the very first year, the very first day. You could feel it.”
Day filled in as head coach during Meyer’s suspension in 2018 and then succeeded him. It has been a smooth transition. Sixth-year linebacker Justin Hilliard praised Meyer for instilling the full-speed-ahead culture at Ohio State.
“Then I think coach Day even more so brought an atmosphere of love, an atmosphere of brotherhood to Ohio State that's special right now,” Hilliard said, “and I think that only enhanced our culture in the last couple years.”
Day has been so immersed in preparation for Alabama that he hasn’t allowed himself to think about anything but that.
“I think when you start to take a step back you get distracted,” he said. “Every minute of the day, I tell the players, should be spent on Alabama. That's it.
“Certainly, I’m very, very honored to be in this situation — don't get me wrong. (But) it's really about the players, the fact that these guys have an opportunity to go play in this game and do something that would just be amazing.”
Only after the season will Day give himself permission to think about his rapid rise and let it sink in.
“I’m looking forward to finishing this thing the right way and then taking a deep breath and decompressing and trying to reflect on what just happened this year,” he said.