COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sometimes in life, you have to sacrifice something you love to gain something you covet and Ryan Day has spent the last year learning that as Ohio State football’s head coach
He stood at a podium Wednesday morning discussing a busy offseason with excitement about the future but with a certain disdain about how he’ll have to get there. He is not the same coach he was back in 2019 when he was the baby-faced new kid on the block ready to take the Buckeyes into a new era. He’s older, has a beard and looks to have come to terms with the reality he lives in as a coach. And he doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself.
“I wouldn’t call anything right now fun,” Day said. “Fun will be winning next year. You adapt. You have to change.
Day is entering 2024 having finally come to terms with something that was probably always inevitable. He’s hired an offensive coordinator and given up control of an offense that he was once brought in to save in 2017 and spent the last seven years turning into a juggernaut. That includes giving up the thing that makes this job so much fun by handing off play-calling duties to someone else.
The thought of doing this first popped into his head after the 2022 season ended with losses to Michigan and Georgia. But neither he nor the current coaching staff set up was ready for a move of this magnitude. Plus the Peach Bowl proved that even in a loss he still had it. The feel, the know-how, the fire and all the other ways to describe what it means to be a good play-caller.
The problem isn’t that Day is no longer good at it. He doesn’t have the time to give it the attention it needs daily anymore. That’s dangerous and can come back to haunt you in the most important moments in the most important games which he learned in 2023.
“I know that it has to happen,” Day said. “So much that’s going on right now in college football. Do I want to? No. I love the football part of it. I love calling plays. I love being in there. But I’m getting pulled out and I’m just not on a Wednesday night thinking about what to call on third-and-four on the 21-yard line in the third quarter of a game. Those are all the things you rehearse in your mind and it takes a lot of work.”
What it means to be the head coach of a high-level college football team has changed. What’s happening on the field is often put on the back burner in favor of focusing on all the new elements that have been introduced over the past five years and seem to all be happening on top of each other.
Day has to deal with the transfer portal, NIL, a recruiting calendar that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, and staff changes and that’s just the things you can quickly list off the top of your head. There’s too much going on for him to just be sitting in an offensive meeting on Wednesday night going through every play run at practice earlier in the day.
But that’s what college football is now. It’s a chaotic machine that doesn’t allow one to ever take his foot off the gas if a coach wants any level of success. That’s what makes it different than the NFL.
“There’s a lot of guys, particularly in the NFL, who call it who are also making those decisions in-game,” Day said. “I think they do a great job. You have a good feel for what’s going on in the game and a little more control. Sometimes you can get a little bit laser-focused on what’s going on in terms of play call as opposed to sometimes the situation. Those are the pluses and minuses of that.”
Day likes calling plays. He likes being in control of what’s going on. He likes the chess matches every Saturday with opposing defensive coordinators and the Xs and Os that go into putting together a game plan. He loves what is essentially the real-life version of the Madden video game though obviously with a little more complexity.
There are few things better than designing a play, working it for hours on end then watching it succeed in real-time in a College Football Playoff game. Then having your emotions spill out only to lock back in seconds later and go at it again.
That’s what Day is giving up because college football isn’t going to allow him to keep having fun.
“I understand why I had this opportunity is because of what went on, on the offensive side of the ball,” Day said. “That’s not the role that I’m in anymore. I have to make that adjustment. Certainly understand that and embrace it.”
Day has spent the last year going from a guy who recognized what his next step needed to be as a guy who’s only ever been a head coach for five years. He just needed some time to finally accept it while also making sure he was handing off the thing he loved the most to someone he could have absolute trust in.
That concept won’t change even if Bill O’Brien chooses to head to Boston College just two weeks after getting to Columbus.
“It’s not something you just wake up one day and decide,” Day said. “It takes a little bit of time and you know what’s right. But at the same time, we’re not just gonna put somebody into that spot and say, ‘Hey, now you go take the offense.’ That is not gonna work. It had to be the right fit and that’s why we spent so much time on this and being thorough. Bill checked all of those boxes for us.”
Day showed up as an offensive coordinator in 2017 ready to take Ohio State’s offense into a new era. That started with subtle improvements in Year 1 before taking a sledgehammer to the record book in Year 2. Then he took over as head coach in 2019 and spent four years creating a new standard. That came to a halt in 2023 partially because Day wasn’t the play-caller he once was thanks to a constantly evolving sport pulling him in every direction.
He enters Year 6 as head coach and Year 8 in the program as a different person because of it.
This has not been a fun offseason for Day. It’s had exciting moments and set him up with possibly the best roster he’s had during his time in Columbus. But this is not about fun. This is about doing what needs to be done so that a year from now he can experience the ultimate joy this sport can give you.
Sometimes in life, you have to sacrifice to get to where you want to go. For Day, that meant giving up his control over an offense he built, hoping there’s a trophy’s waiting for him on the other side.
“Just because it’s a different role doesn’t mean it’s any less fun or more fun,” Day said. “It’s just a different role and everybody has to embrace their role. …I challenge our coaches all the time if you can’t do it here you can’t do it anywhere. That’s where we need a bunch of guys who are experts at their position and my job as the head coach is a little bit different than it was a few years ago.”
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