In 2001, Ohio State moved on from John Cooper, who to that point had compiled an 111-43-4 record, and had finished second in the country in two of the previous five seasons. They hired Jim Tressel out of Youngstown State. “Tress” was even better, going 106-22 over ten seasons and winning a national championship, while appearing in the title game two other times. He got taken out by a stray tattoo, and after one year of Luke Fickell, the Buckeyes moved on to Urban Meyer. Meyer was already a proven and terrific coach, and perhaps the biggest no-brainer hire in the history of the B1G. Over his seven seasons, he went 83-9, won a national championship, and finished in the top ten every single season.
Zach Smith, an arachnoid cyst took him out, Ryan Day was anointed the head coach. Day was far from a proven coach, and his only previous head coaching experience was an interim gig when Urban Meyer was suspended. Cooper, Tressel, and Urban had long time track records, while Day had nothing. After two years, no one can really complain about the results - two seasons, two B1G championships, zero B1G losses, and two playoff appearances. The recruiting is great, the team has been great. Is there anything that could go wrong?
No matter how good a head coach is, he is a few seasons away from getting canned. Some coaches get a longer leash than others - JoePa had four losing seasons in five years and survived it. That is the exception. There is no chance Ryan Day has four losing seasons in five years, because it is unlikely he would survive one losing season, much less two.
Who is Ryan Day as a head coach? This is the year we really find out. Justin Fields is off to the NFL, and Day has his choice of four freshmen quarterbacks, all of whom he recruited. While there are still some Urban Meyer guys left over, this is by and large Day’s team now. So that raises the question. Who is Ryan Day?
Is he Larry Coker?
Larry Coker was a longtime assistant coach before landing at Miami, where he was the offensive coordinator under Butch Davis. When Davis left to roll his dice with the Cleveland Browns (editor’s note: never a good bet), Coker was elevated to head coach. The first two seasons were about as good as anyone could hope for, one national championship and one handsy cornerback away from another. Year three could hardly be called a disaster, as they finished fifth in the country. However, despite a wealth of talent, they suffered regular season losses for the first time under Coker.
The next three years were progressively worse, as Coker’s teams finished 11th, 18th, and then unranked. The memory of the final season was Miami’s bench clearing brawl with FIU. Still, six seasons, a 60-15 record, and a national championship is not exactly a resume of failure. But a failure is what he was. He did resurface UTSA for the Roadrunners and had five fairly nondescript seasons.
Is he Kirk Ferentz?
Kirk Ferentz was more experienced than Day when he was hired, but he was still taking over for a legend when Iowa great Hayden Fry retired. Ferentz did have three forgettable seasons coaching Maine, but otherwise was most notable for coaching offensive lines under Fry at Iowa. Ferentz’s tenure did not begin with national championships, or really many wins at all. His first season the team went 1-10 and second 3-9. Then the winning game, culminating with a Rose Bowl appearance in his fourth season. Iowa fans can tell you his resume from then, occasional strong seasons breaking up the mediocre to decent ones. If Day settles into an Earl Bruce routine, OSU is unlikely to be as patient as Iowa.
Is he William Swinney?
Good ole Dabo was another interim coach who got the permanent gig. He did not take over for a legend, instead he picked up the pieces after Tommy Bowden quit. Dabo got the job mostly on his reputation as a strong recruiter - he only coached wide receivers under Bowden. The results are nothing to sneeze at - after decent results the first two and a half seasons, Clemson has posted at least 10 wins 10 consecutive times, and have six straight playoff appearances and two national championships. OSU fans would probably be all right with that.
Is he Mark Helfrich?
Helfrich is the biggest cautionary tale for Buckeye fans. He took over for Duck legend Chip Kelly. For two seasons, there was little to complain about. 11-2 his first season, followed by a season where Marcus Mariota won the Heisman and the Ducks made it to the national championship game, losing by a healthy margin to our very own Buckeyes. The third season was up and down, as they finished 9-4, including a 42 point loss to Utah at home. The bottom fell out the next year, when they finished 4-8, Autzen Stadium no longer sold out, and Helfrich got shot into the sun. From the national championship game to the unemployment line in two years - life came fast for Mark Helfrich.
Is he Lincoln Riley?
Riley seems like the spiritual twin for Day. An offensive coordinator at East Carolina and then at Oklahoma, Riley was suddenly elevated to head coach when Bob Stoops decided he had enough. An offensive guy, Riley has successfully taken over the program and won plenty. His teams made the playoffs his first three seasons, and still won the Big 12 and whipped Florida in a bowl game last year despite missing the playoffs. They are a favorite to make the playoffs again this year, and everything about the program appears to be in good shape. The biggest question mark is really similar to Day’s - Year 5 isn’t miles ahead of Year 3. Plus, defense has been a constant sore sport for them, though it is one they have been working on.
I don’t know who Ryan Day is. His first season was about as successful as one can have without a national championship, and the second season was hardly a failure. There were a few cracks in there. The secondary was bad last year. Elevating Kerry Coombs to sole defensive coordinator despite him coaching that very secondary raises questions. Ryan Day had vocally talked about wanting a single high coverage, but Alabama carved them up because they weren’t able to play any other type of coverage.
But problems rear up for any team. The issue isn’t whether a team faces problems, it’s whether they can fix them. With Ohio State opening up with Minnesota and Oregon, we should find out quickly if OSU has learned how to defend the pass. Will other cracks show? Can they still score? Are the lines still strong? Will the running game be more consistent?
The recruiting has been great. Ohio State has the best players in the Big Ten. But having the best players, and organizing them into a team that works hard to get better is another story. Larry Coker didn’t suffer for talent while at Miami. I’m quite curious as to what OSU looks like this year, and while I’m hopeful for another great season, the lessons of Coker and Helfrich make me feel a bit uneasy.