Ryan Day, after a staff overhaul, is at a crossroads at Ohio State
The early days of the Ryan Day era were like every honeymoon phase —pure bliss. For 2 years, Ohio State didn’t lose a regular season game. The Buckeyes made the national title game in 2020 and came a Justin Fields/Chris Olave miscommunication from making another in 2019.
Ohio State hadn’t just picked up where it left off post Urban Meyer — it looked better.
But 2021, Day’s third season, was bumpier. Ohio State lost 2 games for the first time in 4 years and nearly lost 3 games for the first time in a decade. Going 11-2 and winning a Rose Bowl is a great year for 95 percent of college football teams, but for Day and the Buckeyes, multiple losses is cause for concern.
To be clear, Day is undoubtedly still viewed as an elite coach in college football and will be a yearly candidate for NFL jobs, too. But he obviously still senses the urgency to fix Ohio State’s biggest issue from this season.
Day is operating as if he’s Nebraska coming off a 3-9 season. He has overhauled Ohio State’s staff with 4 new assistants, 3 on the defensive side of the ball. Per The Athletic, it’s the most turnover on Ohio State’s staff in a single offseason since 1994 (excluding years with a head coaching change).
That shows just how aggressive Day has been and how afraid he is of letting this program slip even an inch. But it also underscores the fact that Day has already run into some trouble with hiring.
Day elected not to retain 2 of his former hires, defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs and linebackers coach Al Washington. And who knows if he would’ve retained interim defensive coordinator Matt Barnes, whom he also hired in 2019, had he not accepted the defensive coordinator position on Memphis’ staff. The defense slightly improved under Barnes, but it looked helpless against Michigan and Utah to close the season, allowing 6.8 yards per play or more in 3 of the final 4 games, counting Purdue. It will be worth monitoring how Coombs and Washington fare the next few years; both were immediately snatched up by top programs, with Coombs joining Cincinnati as the special teams coordinator/cornerbacks coach and Washington joining Notre Dame as the defensive line coach. If those guys excel at their next stops, how will that reflect on Day?
Staff turnover is normal at every level of college football, but there’s a big difference between a coach getting poached, which often happens to Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama, and choosing not to retain some assistants due to underperformance. And there’s no debating that was the case. The Buckeyes ranked 9th in total defense and 12th in pass defense in the B1G this season, and that was an improvement from a 2020 season in which it was 9th in total defense and 14th in pass defense. Something had to change.
The question now, obviously, is whether this round of hires will be better than the last. For Day’s sake, it has to be. It’s hard to imagine a head coach getting to do a second staff overhaul in a few years and keeping his job.
It’s also going to be interesting to see how Day allocates resources to the defense. His expertise is offense, obviously. Should he be more hands-on with the defense? Does new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles need that? It’s worth noting that Ohio State now has a newly promoted passing game coordinator (Brian Hartline), a newly promoted run-game coordinator (Tony Alford), an offensive coordinator (Kevin Wilson) and a head coach as a play-caller in Day. Ohio State’s offense is humming. Should similar resources be devoted on the defensive side of the ball?
Offense outweighs defense in terms of importance in today’s game, yes. But if Ohio State has to score 40 points or more to win every big game it plays in, is that really a reliable formula for success? Of the 5 biggest games Ohio State has played in the last 2 years, it has held 1 opponent under 35 points (Clemson in the CFP).
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest Day is doing the right thing with this staff overhaul, though. There are several prominent examples from this year alone that illustrate how top programs must constantly be looking at ways to improve and avoid being stagnant.
Jim Harbaugh revamped his defensive coaching staff this season, namely with defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, and Michigan finally slowed down Ohio State on the way to a Big Ten title. If Harbaugh had been fired last offseason, one could’ve pointed to not replacing defensive coordinator Don Brown sooner as a contributing factor. Just 2 seasons ago, Georgia won the SEC East and the Sugar Bowl, but Kirby Smart still replaced offensive coordinator James Coley with Todd Monken, and this season the Bulldogs ended their 40-year national title drought.
Even though LSU won the Fiesta Bowl and finished the season ranked 6th in 2018, Ed Orgeron still went out and hired Joe Brady to be co-offensive coordinator, and the Tigers won a national title the following season.
And Florida fans know what happens when a coach holds onto a top assistant for too long. Despite winning the SEC East in 2020, Florida had its worst defense since 1917 — and Dan Mullen didn’t replace defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Mullen didn’t even make it through this season before getting fired.
One bad season doesn’t hurt programs like Iowa and Northwestern in the same way it does Ohio State. If it did, Iowa would not still have offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz running the show.
At Ohio State and other top programs, though, the wrong decision can sink a program.
Day’s aggressiveness in rectifying this issue is noteworthy and appropriate. But it’s clear the honeymoon phase is over, and Ohio State needs much better results on one side of the ball.