COLUMBUS – A year ago anyone suggesting that in 365 days Urban Meyer would retire as Ohio State’s football coach and be replaced by a 39-year-old assistant coach with three games of experience as a head coach would have been called crazy and possibly drug tested.
Tuesday, crazy became the new normal. Meyer, whose resume finishes second only to that of Nick Saban among active college football coaches, announced he will retire after the Rose Bowl. And he will be replaced by OSU offensive coordinator Ryan Day, who served as interim coach when Meyer was suspended for three games at the beginning of this season.
Both Meyer’s exit and Day’s hiring are 180-degree opposites of the situation when Meyer was hired in 2011.
Meyer came to Columbus already a rock star in the coaching profession. He’d succeeded at Bowling Green, won 20 of 22 games at Utah and then won two national championships at Florida before walking away after the 2010 season.
And Ohio State was at a low point. It was 6-7 in 2011 after highly successful coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign, quarterback Terrelle Pryor turned pro and several players were suspended for NCAA violations.
Day had a sterling reputation as a college assistant at Temple, Boston College, New Hampshire and Florida and in the NFL as quarterbacks coach for the 49ers and Eagles when Chip Kelly was their head coach before coming to OSU in 2017. But he has almost no head coach credentials.
The program Day inherits has won 85 of the 94 games it has played in Meyer’s seven seasons. It has won 54 of its last 58 Big Ten games. Meyer’s first team went 12-0 and his lowest win total in Columbus was 11. Every one of those teams, except the first one which was banned from bowl games, was in the discussion for a national championship at some time in the season and the 2014 team won it all.
And maybe most importantly to some Ohio State fans, Meyer was 7-0 against Michigan, including four straight wins over Jim Harbaugh, hired in 2015 by Michigan to be OSU’s kryptonite.
It is probably unfair to expect anyone, including Meyer himself, to duplicate what he did in his seven seasons at Ohio State.
But that won’t stop Ohio State fans from expecting the same things Meyer did, or at least something close to them.
Day, in his second season as an Ohio State assistant, said he knows what the expectations of him are. “Number one, win the rivalry game. And number two, win every game after that,” he said.
“Every coach who ever put a whistle around their neck strives to be the head coach at The Ohio State University. I fully understand the challenge that awaits for me. And being on the same list as Paul Brown, Woody Hayes, Earle Bruce, John Cooper, Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer, it’s extremely humbling. But I’m prepared and ready for the task.”
Day knows the routine. So does Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. Second-guessing is an Olympic sport in Ohio State’s fan base.
There already have been questions about whether Ohio State should have conducted a wider and longer search for Meyer’s replacement. Some people think there should have been a national search.
Smith is convinced he got the right man for the job.
“It’s rare that you have the opportunity to create a succession plan where you have the right person in place,” he said. “I wouldn’t have him here if he couldn’t X and O. Let’s be clear, he’s got to win games. He knows that. Got to win games.
“We recognized the talent Ryan Day had early. He had an opportunity to audition in a different way, not relative to winning on the field, but how he mastered leading, not just the football staff but everyone around it,” Smith said.
It’s hard to argue with Smith’s hiring record for major sports coaches. He brought Meyer to Columbus. His hire of Chris Holtmann looks like a winner.
Smith was in a similar situation to the one OSU’s players are in now when he was in college and his coach, a legend who’d had incredible success at a legendary football program, retired at a young age.
Smith was a sophomore football player at Notre Dame when Ara Parseghian left coaching at the age of 51 and never returned.
“It was tough. It was hard because I went to Notre Dame because of Ara. That was an emotional moment,” Smith said.
“Dan Devine came in and he was different because he had a different style of leadership and how he taught. It was a challenge and I struggled with it, as did my teammates when we got that announcement. But then we realized we had each other,” Smith said.
“One of my biggest concerns was certainly our players. I had a really good session with our players about how they felt about Ryan Day and over the last month I did my own assessment of that, talking to support staff. I had a pretty good sense that he would be embraced, which he has been,” he said.
And as long as he wins them all, he will be embraced by OSU’s fans.