I don’t think that he’s done it on purpose, but Ryan Day has kind of painted himself into a corner... of course, Kirk Herbstreit helped a little bit too.
By now, we all know that — thanks to the loose-lipped Buckeye turned ESPN analyst — following the season, the Ohio State head coach said that he was open to turning over play-calling duties to whomever his offensive coordinator would be for the 2023 season. Since then, Day has named former wide receiver coach Brian Hartline as the team’s new OC and has been open to — but ultimately noncommittal on — following through on plans to hand over the reins.
However, Day has already decided to let Hartline call plays this season, whether he knows it or not. As I said on last week’s “Buck Off Podcast,” by publicly saying that he was going to give Hartline the opportunity to call plays during the spring before reevaluating the situation ahead of the fall, the head coach has essentially ensured the fact that he has no choice other than to let the best position coach in the game take on the added responsibility once the season rolls around.
I started beating the drum for Day to give up play-calling duties nearly a year and a half ago, not because I didn’t think that he was imminently qualified to do it, but rather that he had too many other things on his plate as the head coach to do it properly. The case and point of that was how well he called plays in the Peach Bowl against Georgia when he had a lot more time to prepare and focus on it during the five weeks in between games. But that’s not a luxury a coach has for every game in the season, so that’s where Hartline comes in.
At the team’s scrimmage last Saturday — which was open to the media — Hartline got his first opportunity to call plays in something approaching a game-like situation; in fact, Day didn’t even wear a headset during the scrimmage, so those responsibilities fell completely to the first-time OC in a very obvious and public way.
While reporting since then has indicated that much of the offensive gameplan was scripted for the scrimmage ahead of time and that Hartline was as much rehearsing the play-calling mechanics as anything else, he did at least handpick the plays toward the end of the practice when the offense was working in the red zone; a good first step to what is to come down the road.
I think that anyone who has watched as many Ryan Day press conferences as I have probably feels like I do that the head coach doesn’t really want to cede control of the offense to anyone else and, in a perfect world, would prefer to keep calling plays moving forward. But, he appears to be reluctantly self-aware enough to know that that is not what is best for his team anymore. So, he is grudgingly, and cautiously, open to the switch.
However, thanks to Herbstreit spilling the beans about the plan on national television — long before a replacement for former OC Kevin Wilson had been named — that set a chain of events in motion that will ultimately force his hand, whether he’s ready to pass the torch or not.
I had originally believed that Day would name offensive line coach Justin Frye as offensive coordinator, because he has experience as an OC and calling plays, and it would balance out Day’s pass-focused approach. However, by instead going with perhaps the most successful and popular position coach in Ohio State history — not to mention a beloved former Buckeye player — Day has given himself very little wiggle room to not follow through on the oft-discussed transition of power.
From Herbie discussing what was likely supposed to be a private conversation on “GameDay” to Day making it clear that Hartline was in charge during the first scrimmage of the spring — in front of the media hordes, no less — if he eventually decided not to let Hartline call plays this fall, it would read as almost an insult against the new OC and an admittance that he made a mistake in promoting the wide receiver coach in the first place.
Of course, ultimately, Day’s job is to put his team in the best possible position to win, so “insulting” an assistant coach or “admitting” that he made a mistake is something that absolutely should be done in situations where the alternative would be disastrous for the team; but nobody expects a guy who played seven years in the NFL and in his six years on Ohio State’s staff has become one of the best recruiters and talent developers in the sport to be a disaster calling plays.
Will he be as good as Day right off the bat? Almost certainly not. The head coach has far more experience, so his floor is going to be much higher than Hartline’s, but I would assume that the new OC will be at the bare minimum competent to start off, with the chance that he could just be naturally excellent at it like he seemingly has been at many of the other aspects of being a college coach.
So, short of his calling plays being ruinous for the team’s chances this fall, I don’t think Day has any choice but to follow through on bequeathing play-calling responsibilities to Hartline. After all, there are few people as popular in Columbus as the former Buckeye receiver, and it would not look great for Day to dangle that carrot in front of him, give him very public chances to do it, tease the media with glimpses into what Hartline can do in that role, and then to snatch it back out of fear, uncertainty, or comfort.
How would Hartline — who clearly loves Ohio State, but has a seemingly endless number of options should he want to coach elsewhere — take what would essentially amount to a demotion, even if the responsibilities were never officially his? Could something like that lead to the end of his tenure at OSU? I hope not, but if his goal is to eventually become a head coach (at Ohio State or elsewhere), he might see calling plays as an imperative to taking that next step and decide that if he can’t do it for the Buckeyes, he will go somewhere else where he can.
Now, to be clear, I don’t think that Day would throw Hartline under the bus if that happened, and I don’t believe that he would do it out of ego, but Day knows what he’s capable of when given every opportunity as a play-caller, but that confidence has also bitten him in the butt at times in recent years. How often have we seen him stubbornly stick to a game plan even though it clearly wasn’t working? How often have we seen the offense look stuck in the mud because it didn’t appear that they had anything uniquely prepared for that week’s opponent?
Calling plays appears to be a bit of a security blanket for Day, and understandably so, because he is one of the best in the business at doing it. But he publicly committed to at least the possibility of giving it up — thanks to a little push from Herbie — and having hesitantly and warily begun going down that road this spring, it would seem to say all the wrong things if he didn’t finish that journey.