The 2021 football season was a strange one for the Ohio State Buckeyes. An immensely talented, but painfully flawed team lost twice during the regular season; in Week 2 to Oregon and in the regular season finale to their rivals. Along the road, there was tumult on the coaching staff, players entering the transfer portal, and endless amounts of angst from an already incredibly angsty fanbase.
However, in two weeks’ time, that will all be in the past (perhaps except for the angst), because on Sunday, Jan. 2, the Rose Bowl will have been won or lost and the offseason will have officially begun, signaling a the first major inflection point in Ryan Day’s tenure as Ohio State’s head coach.
Now certainly Day has had some adversity during his first three seasons; there have been painful playoff losses, underachieving defenses, and let’s not forget that he (along with a bunch of his players) tested positive for COVID last year as well.
But, despite all of that, they pale in comparison to what he has to deal with now — and has presumably been dealing with for weeks — because the current mess that his team finds itself in is all of his making. Throughout this season, I have been critical of parts of Day’s decision making, especially as it relates to his staff, play-calling, and which players have been getting on the field.
But by far the biggest issue is that when it comes to the assistants that he has hired coming into this season, aside from the one-and-done Jeff Hafley, none of his picks have been especially inspired and far too many have come from the increasingly rotting Urban Meyer tree. With the inevitable changes that have to come in the next month, Day absolutely must not only fix his past mistakes, but has to use these hiring opportunities to set his program up for the foreseeable future.
We already know that in 2022, the Buckeyes will have a new defensive coordinator as Jim Knowles will take the position after most recently serving in that capacity for one of the other OSUs in college football, Oklahoma State. And while that is the only staff change that we are currently aware of, we know that there will be others, because the hiring of Knowles will necessitate at least one other move to keep the Buckeyes at the mandated 10 assistant coaches limit. So, someone’s gotta go.
It’s not yet clear whether that person will leave due to a rumored retirement, a new job, or an outright firing, but there will be at least one change as a result of Knowles’ hiring, and it most likely will come on the defensive side of the ball. If Day has learned his lesson, he will allow his new DC to make the call on who stays, who goes, and who comes in. You do not hire someone of Knowles’ experience, expertise, and mad schematic scientist vision to then micromanage his staff. We all know that Day is an elite offensive coach, so he needs to trust that he has hired an elite defensive coach and stay out of his way.
From there, I will let the new defensive coordinator pick his staff, but I have my thoughts in case he’s interested (Jim, email me). If Knowles makes some of the moves that I absolutely believe that he must, his aggressive style should be a perfect fit for the young, athletic defensive talent that OSU has amassed in the last couple of recruiting classes — a necessity after a couple classes full of misses on the defensive side.
Then there is the offense, a unit that I am completely comfortable with Day micromanaging, at least when it comes to staff and personnel. I have said many times before that head coaches calling plays has a limited shelf life generally confined to the first few years of their tenures. So, I say again, I think that it’s time for Day to hand those particular sticks over to someone who can focus on that full-time. I know that’s hard for a coach who is still young and is excited about that particular challenge, but play-calling isn’t just about play-calling. It’s about extensive studying of your opponent and your team, keeping up with the latest trends and wrinkles on your side of the ball, and constantly innovating to the point where the coaches trying to stop you have no idea what you are going to throw at them next. All of that takes far more time than a head coach should have to devote to it.
Obviously Day did all of that as OSU’s offensive coordinator, and to a certain extent in his first year or so as head coach. However, at times, it was painfully obvious that his preparation as a play-caller was not where it needed to be to have the Buckeyes’ offense functioning at its highest possible level this season. There were games in which it appeared that he did no opponent-specific game-planning and was content with allowing his team’s talent to win the day. More often than not it did, but that is not how things should be done at any level of college football, especially not at Ohio State.
So, in my humble opinion, for the Buckeyes to fully capitalize on the absurd level of talent that they currently have packing their offensive meeting rooms, Day needs to turn over the play-calling duties to someone new, and, in turn, I believe that means hiring a new offensive coordinator.
I was initially uncomfortable when Meyer hired Kevin Wilson to be the OC hot on the heels of him being run out of Bloomington, but Wilson has been a solid addition to the Ohio State staff for the past five seasons, and while I am not completely convinced that his reputation has been completely rehabilitated, he certainly should be a competent candidate for lower-level head coaching opportunities that might pop up after the bowl season; we know that he was at least considered for the Akron job that eventually went to Joe Moorhead.
Now would be a perfect time for Wilson to find one of those jobs and jump at it — completely of his on will and volition and of course with no prodding from Day, of course — allowing Day to hire a young, cutting-edge offensive mind to run that side of the ball (with the head coach’s regular input, of course). Day needs to find someone that he can turn the day-to-day (no pun intended) operations of the offense over to so that he can focus on the big picture issues of his program, something that I get the sinking suspicion has been overlooked as his tenure has gone on.
Again, I get it, no one gets into coaching for the administrative parts of the job, you do it because you love the sport, you love working directly with players, and you have a competitive side that needs constant feeding. But, as the head coach of one of the bluest of blue blood programs, focusing hyper-intently on one aspect of the program more often than not leads to not seeing the forest through the trees.
Day is responsible for so much more than just what play is called on 2nd and 8 from the plus-37 yard line in the third quarter of an 11-point conference road game, and I feel like it’s time that he focused on those things a little more (ok, a lot more) than the more fun aspects of being the de facto OC.
I think that Ryan Day is an excellent coach and that we — as fans — would be lucky if he is at the helm of the Buckeyes for another decade or two. But, still in the infancy of his tenure as Ohio State’s head coach, this is a moment that he simply cannot miss on. Whether it is just one more coaching change, or wholesale changes on both sides of the ball, Day needs to take a long, hard look at what he wants his program to be and who the people are that can most help him achieve that vision.
Coaching, like football itself, is not a solitary activity. In both, your teammates push you to get better, they make up for your deficiencies, and the help you form a more productive unit than you could ever achieve on your own. Day needs to surround himself with the coaches who best fit what he is trying to do; personal relationships, connections to his predecessor, familiarity with OSU be damned. If Day wants to take Ohio State’s program to the heights that it is very much capable of, now is the time to make bold, visionary, sometimes difficult decisions; otherwise his team very well might continue to fade further and further from the peaks of its sky-high potential.