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Column: It’s past time for Ryan Day to pass the play-calling sticks

There comes a time in every head coach’s tenure when they have to come to grips with being a CEO instead of mad scientist.

Notre Dame v Ohio State Photo by Ben Jackson/Getty Images

I am just a humble college football blogger. The amount of actual football knowledge that I possess could not fill up even the first few pages of a tiny Moleskin pocket journal when compared to the libraries of profundity contained in Ryan Day’s giant, football-expert brain. So, I am saying this with the utmost respect, not only for what Ohio State’s head coach has already accomplished, but also out of the acknowledgment of what I know that I don’t know.

But Coach Day, please, for the love of all things good and holy, let someone else call the offensive plays before another historically talented collection of offensive talent is wasted and conference and national title goals are left unachieved.

Saturday night’s game against No. 5 Notre Dame was the latest in an increasingly concerning long line of games in which the collective Ohio State online fandom was able to diagnose what would solve the offense’s woes long before the head coach made the same necessary adjustments. If you check out the LGHL Twitter mentions, nearly every Buckeye fan who was aggressively online during the top-five matchup was calling for — nay, begging for — Day to rely on his duo of talented running backs.

Fortunately, he finally did come to the same conclusion, and that switch — from Day’s natural passing inclinations to the bruising attack of Miyan Williams and TreVeyon Henderson — ended up being the thing that carried Ohio State to a double-digit victory. However, this pattern of being slow to adjust from the hypotheticals of his game plan to the realities of the game at hand is becoming a bit of a problem for Day and the Buckeyes, as is his reticence to take full advantage of the multitudes of talent that he has at hand by being creative, aggressive, and/or ruthless in his play calling.

Again, I recognize and admit that there is much more involved with calling an offense than what we see as fans; there are schemes and matchups and injuries and stratagems, but it’s also not nearly as complex as, say, splicing an atom. It’s football. Take what you do best and what the defense is giving you, throw it in a blender, and go from there.

With the cornucopia of talent that Day and his staff have assembled, there is no excuse for ever getting into an offensive rut or retreating into a conservative turtle shell when it comes to play calling. You have a myriad of weapons, use them all, use them unexpectedly, and use what has proven to be successful in each individual circumstance.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way saying that Ryan Day should be fired, on the hot seat, or even have a twinge of anxiety in the back of his mind over his position as Ohio State’s head coach. I don’t think that you can look at the program that he has built and think anything other than he has done a remarkable job of embracing the greatness that was already in place in Columbus and taking it to even new heights, especially when it comes to recruiting, camaraderie, outreach, and all of the increasingly shifting winds of the college football ecosystem.

But that is the exact reason that he needs to let Tony Alford or Brian Hartline or Justin Frye or Kevin Wilson call plays; he has so many other responsibilities pulling at his time, Day just doesn’t have the time to plan, research, experiment, and innovate that he did when he was “just” an offensive coordinator.

The claims on your time when you are the head football coach of a program like Ohio State are immense. I think my life is busy, and I’m just a schmoe who covers sports and entertainment for a living; I can’t even imagine how people like Day are able to accomplish everything that they need to in a given day.

So, invariably, something has to go from his busy schedule, and I’m afraid, by necessity, Day just hasn’t been able to spend the time necessary to stay at the forefront of offensive playcalling like he was when that was his primary responsibility. Gone are the days when he was able to stand in front of a dry-erase board for hours on end drawing up schemes and plays to make the most of the obscene talent at his disposal like a mad scientist experimenting with unknown substances to see what generates the most explosive chemical reaction.

Instead, Day has to spend time focusing on the business side of his job: doing regular media availabilities, press conferences, and radio shows. He has obligations within the athletic department and university hierarchies. He has management responsibilities within his football program that supersede the more fun and exciting parts of the gig that drew him to the sport and profession initially. Whether he likes it or not, Day is the CEO of the Ohio State football program, and it is time for him to delegate the duties that he just doesn’t have the time to be great at anymore.

I understand the reticence to give up what has been your personal and professional identity for the bulk of your adult life, but part of being in charge is recognizing what needs to be done and doing it, even if it is a bit painful. I still believe that Ryan Day is a brilliant offensive mind, and his teams’ offensive results back that up, but part of being a brilliant mind in a leadership position is recognizing your own limitations and picking the perfect person to take over when a change is called for.

Coach, a change is called for.

Now, lest you think that I am overreacting to a single game sample size, I assure you that I am not. I may, in fact, be overreacting, but it is an overreaction that I have had and written about for quite a while.

Unfortunately, I don’t know if the right play caller for Ohio State is currently on this offensive staff; as you can see in the article, I advocated for bringing in a new offensive coordinator during the off-season with this specific change in mind.

However, there are certainly talented offensive minds already in the building that are more capable of devoting the time, energy, and brainpower to designing a game plan, mapping out a script, and preparing themselves to make in-game adjustments than the head coach is currently able to.

Unfortunately though, I don’t think that it’s just about time management. I think that Day has lost a bit of an edge when it comes to his play calling; perhaps that is part and parcel with the promotion, but it seems as though his more innovative instincts have been ground down by the rigors of his head coaching responsibilities.

The creative, aggressive, and (dare I say) cut-throat nature that was evident in his early days calling plays for Dwayne Haskins and Justin Fields seem to be gone, replaced by a stubborn streak insistent on sticking with what he came into the game planning to do, even if the opposing defense (which is also filled with scholarship athletes) is shutting it down.

Against the lesser opponents on Ohio State’s schedule, this headstrong approach will obviously still work; the Buckeyes can simply overwhelm lesser talented defenses with the sheer force of their offensive abilities. But, against the top-tier talent that OSU needs to beat in order to achieve its goals, they cannot expect to simply rely on ability to be successful.

Notre Dame, Oregon, Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, and even That Team Up North have enough talent on the defensive side of the ball to at least equal Ohio State’s on offense, so the Buckeyes need to have play callers on both sides of the ball who are singularly focused on getting the most out of their team’s talents, but also are willing to think outside the box and routinely break the comfortable mold that they are used to.

A big part of being the best is being willing and able to make changes before you are forced to make them by factors beyond your control. I don’t believe that Day has done that in recent years. Instead, he has primarily stuck to his guns and relied on the same offensive plays and philosophies that were successful when he first got to Columbus.

College football is an ever-evolving sport, with the most successful coaches and programs actively embracing what is new, even if they try to deny it in press conferences (I’m looking at you, Nick). But it has felt since 2020 like Day’s offensive approach has stalled and his playcalling has become stale and predictable — especially in the biggest moments — to the extreme detriment of his team’s aspirations.

Now, make no bones about it, Ryan Day is a great coach who through a handful of unexpected twists of fate found himself leading one of the bluest blood programs in the history of college football; I imagine that even he would admit that he skipped a few rungs on the coaching development ladder. So, I can forgive his hesitancy to abandon the thing that has been his identity for most of his career and what got him to where he is now.

But, part of being a truly transformational leader is the ability to look at yourself in the mirror and self-assess whether or not you are doing everything possible to help achieve the group’s collective goals. I think that if Day truly takes the time to have that conversation with himself, he will realize that his football team is better served by him passing the play-calling sticks to someone new and hungry, similar to how he took control of the program from Urban Meyer.