Ryan Day wasn’t born in scarlet and gray.
The Manchester, New Hampshire-born ball coach had no midwestern roots, no first coaching job in Columbus, no predestined return and no sworn allegiance against any teams up north.
But after accepting a job opening from his old boss to rejoin the college ranks, Day received a crash course education.
“It started when I first got here. My son R.J. went to the bus stop on the first day, and there’s a kid wearing a blue shirt on, and they start getting into it,” Day told Urban Meyer in August. “The first day of school, and I’m like ‘OK, we’re in it now.’”
Day’s in it now more than ever, as he and Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh assume the figurative roles of Ryan Jr. and his navy blue adversary on the biggest stage in college football for the first time.
Day has exceeded all expectations to this point, leading a team that looks as impenetrable as any that Meyer fielded, but history’s shown the grade for a Buckeye coach takes a drastic curve based on the outcome of one week in the season.
That’s a lesson Day learned from his predecessors.
“I think the thing I learned from Urban right from the minute I got there was you gotta work The Game every day,” Day said. “And the way to honor the rivalry and respect the rivalry is to work it every day, and we do.”
The first time he worked The Game, Day was in a similar situation –– heavily favored in the Big House: the largest stadium in the country, packed with the opposing fans of one of sport’s most bitter rivalries.
Then-co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Day’s passing attack was a weak spot early. J.T. Barrett had minus-1 yards down 14-0 after the opening quarter and finished 3-for-8 before leaving with an injury down six in the third quarter.
The run game and an efficient performance from Dwayne Haskins in relief led the Buckeyes back for a 31-20 win, and Day’s crossing route-heavy offensive game plan the following year sliced the No. 1 Wolverine defense to the tune of a 62-39 upset win.
As a head coach, though, Day faces a heightened sense of ownership over the Buckeyes’ wins and losses, and none more so than against Michigan.
But that authority is what he’s been reaching for his whole career.
“Growing up as a captain, growing up as a coach, growing up as a coordinator, as you work your way up the profession, you start to take on that responsibility more and more, and I’ve always wanted that,” Day said. “I’ve always wanted to have those decisions. That’s the way I’ve always lived my life. I want the ball in my hands.”
With the ball in his hands, Day and the Buckeyes have been downright dominant — and historically prolific. Ohio State’s 51.5 points per game not only lead the nation. They’re the most in the program’s 108-year history.
But the offense was already top-tier when Meyer handed Day the whistle off his neck after the 2019 Rose Bowl. The program’s worst-ever total defense was the concern, and with an offensive mind in Day taking the reins, there was no guarantee it would improve.
Instead of staying complacent, Day looked north to remedy the biggest Buckeyes’ biggest Achilles’ heel. Day poached two defensive coaches from the Michigan staff in Greg Mattison and Al Washington in a move that could only serve to feed into the rivalry narrative.
But the hires weren’t just to fire up the Buckeye constituency: Ohio State’s defense ranks No. 1 against the pass, gives up the least total yards in the country, and its 9.8 points allowed are its fewest in 44 years.
“[Ryan Day] is a stud,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “I think I may have shared this before. All the things that we thought he was capable of have come to fruition. The things that I just wasn’t sure of –– managing the staff in this building –– off the chain.”
He’s making Ohio State history, but Day has made sure to pay homage to it as well.
“When I walk down the hallway, saw the guys, I don’t know if you saw the new picture up there, again, I go through the names of Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel, Earle Bruce, Woody Hayes, then you see your picture up there, it takes you to your knees a little bit,” Day said prior to the season.
Those coaches went a combined 37-16-1 against Michigan, and Day has the challenge of following the longest Ohio State win streak in the rivalry.
Few have seen that pressure first hand for as long as Larry Romanoff, a 43-year Ohio State athletics employee who’s worked alongside every Ohio State head coach since Woody Hayes and attended every rivalry game since 1969.
“If he doesn’t win that game, everybody’s gonna go, ‘Oh, my God, Urban won every time. Tressel only lost one time,’ which isn’t really fair to [Day], because he’s done an unbelievable job so far,” Romanoff said. “The pressure in that game is great. That’s why you’ve been practicing all year. That’s why there’s clocks all over the Woody Hayes center counting down to that game. You can go 11-0. You lose that game, you’ve got a crappy winter.”
But Meyer’s protege may just have the blueprint for success. At Big Ten Media Days, Day minced no words when asked if he would modify his forerunner’s approach against the maize and blue.
“No. No. That worked. 7-0. 7-0 worked just fine,” he said.
With each passing moment, the countdown clock ticks down to noon Saturday, when Day will seek to extend Meyer’s unblemished run.
He may not have been born a Buckeye, but if Day comes out the victor in his first Game, he’ll be Ohio’s favorite adopted son.