How Ryan Day leaned on unconventional roots to keep Ohio State a contender
If you’re looking for the most unlikely places to unearth a college football coach, Manchester, New Hampshire, would have to be somewhere near the top of the list.
This is Patriots, Dunkin’ Donuts and Noreaster country. It’s a far cry from Tuscaloosa, Athens, Norman, Lincoln, Eugene, Ann Arbor and Columbus geographically, meteorologically and culturally.
And yet from the largest city in the nation’s fifth-smallest state have arisen a trio of prominent FBS coaches, including Ryan Day.
This is where the Ohio State coach’s journey to near-unprecedented success began.
The text messages of support with 603 area codes pouring in have lit up Day’s phone all week following his team’s 49-28 Sugar Bowl victory over Clemson.
“The reason I think that I understood what it meant to be a Buckeye here was because of where I was raised, where people are so proud of being from New Hampshire and being from Manchester, I got that immediately when I came to [Ohio State],” Day told WMUR-TV in New Hampshire this week. “What makes me happy is thinking maybe there were some people in New Hampshire who were watching that game the other night, just really excited and got a chance to think about something else for a little while and got to enjoy the win with us, because maybe they felt a little bit a part of it.”
Day actually called the TV station to offer his gratitude to folks back in his home state via an interview.
For a guy who took over for a legend just two seasons ago, there’s certainly a lot to be thankful for. Two College Football Playoff appearances and a national title game berth later, Day has orchestrated one of the best follow-up jobs in the game’s history.
Now, against one of the sport’s giants, he’ll try to do something that’s rarely been done.
Win it all just two years after taking over for a national championship coach.
Since the first Associated Press poll title was given out in 1950, Dennis Erickson at Miami in 1989 is the only coach to take over a program from a national title winner (Jimmy Johnson) and bring it back to the top within two seasons.
Fitting that Day will try to do so in Miami when the Buckeyes take on No. 1 Alabama on Monday at Hard Rock Stadium.
“You’re going against the best in the world, and certainly Alabama is,” Day said Tuesday. “When you get to this level, you know it’s going to be hard no matter how you shake it.”
Getting there required following fellow New Hampshire native and career-long mentor Chip Kelly — first as a quarterback and linebacker at the University of New Hampshire from 1998-2001, then later as a quarterbacks coach in both Philadelphia and San Francisco.
In between, Day served as offensive coordinator for Temple and Boston College. He’d previously received his master’s in administrative studies from Boston College — which perhaps helps explain why Day was able to so seamlessly take over years later when he was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach in the wake of Urban Meyer’s retirement.
“The only place that I would go in college football would’ve been Columbus, Ohio; I wanted to be a Buckeye,” Day, who served under Meyer as a graduate assistant at Florida in the mid-2000s, told his former boss in a Big Ten Network interview before last season. “The good news is it was two years of me being in the program and building relationships with these guys. But what [Meyer] and [athletic director Gene Smith] did there in terms of that infrastructure is unreal.
“It’s been ‘let’s not change things just to change things.’ ”
Day joined Meyer’s staff in 2017 and led some of the best offenses in school history. He coached Heisman Trophy finalist Dwayne Haskins and Davey O’Brien Award finalist J.T. Barrett.
He also went 3-0 as acting head coach in 2018 after Meyer — who coached Florida to a pair of national championships and Ohio State to another in 2014 — was placed on administrative leave. Day kept the rudder straight while the program dealt with Meyer’s knowledge of events surrounding domestic abuse allegations against former assistant Zach Smith.
It was no surprise, then, when Meyer famously placed a whistle around Day’s neck after Ohio State’s Jan. 1, 2019 Rose Bowl victory.
The torch had officially been passed.
Reaching last year’s Playoff and this year avenging a season-ending loss to Clemson have earned Day even more respect around the college football world. He already had plenty of cache, along with fellow Manchester native Dan Mullen.
“I think he’s an outstanding coach,” Alabama coach Nick 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. And offensively he does a good job of trying to manage and control the tempo of the game. And they do a really good job of executing, which is all about coaching your players to know what to do, how to do it, and why it’s important to do it that way, and they do it extremely well.”
Saban, on the other side, is aiming to surpass Bear Bryant with a record seventh national championship.
It took Alabama 13 years to win it all after Bryant retired in 1979. Nebraska coach Tom Osborne spent 23 years trying to match his predecessor Bob Devaney’s back-to-back titles in 1970 and 1971. After Barry Switzer left Oklahoma, the Sooners went more than a decade without another national championship.
What Day’s trying to do isn’t just difficult. It’s almost unprecedented.
His innovative offensive mind forged under Kelly has helped set him part. So has a CEO-like approach that combines unassuming humility with a furious drive to produce results.
You see it in Justin Fields when he plays through injured ribs to throw 6 touchdown passes against Clemson. You see it in the staff Day has built — some new faces, some holdovers from Meyer’s regime. And you see it when an entire group of players, parents and administrators stands up to the Big Ten and demands it reinstate college football during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even this week, Ohio State has dealt with reported virus cases and swirling rumors of a national championship game postponement.
“It’s toughness,” Day told Meyer and FOX over a year-and-a-half ago. “When I go back and I watch films of Woody, I listen to Earl Bruce and Coach Tressel and Coach Cooper, then being around you, this thing’s been built on toughness.
“We have to be … tough if we want to go where we want to be.”
How prophetic that proved to be a year before college football was played during a tumultuous 2020.
But Day will tell you it’s also about love.
“The love is the love for your brother … the love for your coaches, the love for your university, for your team. And with that, I believe, is the greatest motivation. When you think about some of the most passionate and inspirational stories in the history of mankind, it’s been over love.”
Long-term, time will tell how sustainable this is. Day is currently benefiting from a bevy of Meyer recruits.
But 247Sports ranks Ohio State’s past three classes second, fifth and 14th nationally.
Of course the Buckeyes aim to be a contender for years to come. But the now is about finishing the job started all those years ago in a Northeastern hamlet called Manchester.
“There’s so many people that helped me get to where I’m at right now,” Day said in his local TV interview this week. “There’s so many people. It’s such a unique journey and a long journey to get here. It’s all those people that helped me back growing up and just showed me the way.”