Ryan Day seeks to turn Ohio State from ‘really good’ to ‘absolutely great’ in 2024

Several of Ryan Day’s teams at Ohio State have been on the doorstep of a national title.

Ohio State was a snap away from taking down Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal in 2019. The Buckeyes were a snap away from beating Georgia, the eventual national champion, in 2022. They were across midfield on the final possession against Michigan on the road last year before the Wolverines won the Big Ten title.

So, Day and the Buckeyes reloaded this offseason. Several key players opted to remain in Columbus and forgo the NFL Draft. Several of the best players in the transfer portal made their way to Ohio State. Day also relinquished playcalling duties, hiring Chip Kelly to become the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator.

In the latest episode of “Big Noon Conversations,” Day walked me through his thought process on each of Ohio State’s big moves this offseason, stating a clear purpose for why the Buckeyes did what they did.

Here’s a snippet of my conversation with Day: 

(Read more from “Big Noon Conversations:” Sherrone Moore, Steve Sarkisian, Deion Sanders, Matt Rhule)

You and I talk a lot about the expectations here. You know, I used to talk about it with Coach [Urban] Meyer, the expectation is to win every game, every single one you play. Knowing you as well as I do, I’m sure that you love the expectations because of your competitiveness, and it’s probably part of the biggest challenge of being here. Is that correct?

C.J. Stroud says it the best. He says pressure is a privilege – and that means you’re relevant. That’s kind of the way I’ve always lived my life, you want it all on the line. It’s on the line every week here. It’s on the line every day here. It’s just how it goes. We bring in guys who want it that way. We bring in players that want it that way because we know how much it means. There’s so many people in the state of Ohio. Every year you identify the things you’ve got to enhance. Then, you know, the things you have to tweak and change, you got to do that.

I think I’ve realized that more and more every year that this job is not for the faint of heart. Yeah, you got to make hard decisions. For somebody who takes relationships very, very seriously, you got to make some hard, hard calls. But there’s a lot riding on it, and you got to make those hard calls.

You made a giant decision. You’re one of the best playcallers that I’ve ever been around. You decided to step away from that role and bring in an offensive coordinator. Take me through the decision to step away from playcalling duties.

One of the other challenges at Ohio State is you’re constantly chasing this 1 or 2%. In the last couple of years, it’s been a drive or it’s been a play. We have to identify the things that are working really well and enhance those. But then, identifying and being accurate about the things that you need to improve and then being self-aware enough to make those decisions.  I think as you move up, you’ve got to give up and that wasn’t easy for me. I feel like the time is right now with the transfer portal, NIL, there’s more and more energy and time that needs to be focused on the players in those areas. I also think that it’s going to allow me the opportunity to be more present with the team, especially later in the season. 

That’s the thing, you’re trying to go from really, really good to absolutely great. I saw a great interview with Coach K (former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski). He said the difference in my great teams and championship teams almost always came down to one play. I was like, “Ooh.” That hit me right between the eyes because that’s kind of how it’s been the last couple of years.

Your point about the one play, that’s a great line from Coach K, by the way, it really has been less than 1%. It’s half a percent. It’s a snap here or there, over the course of four or five years.

I’ve read a lot of books recently and one was “Good to Great.” One of the biggest things is getting the right people in the right seats on the bus. So it started with our players coming back and starting with those guys coming back. Then it went to adding a few guys from the portal. Then it was with the coaches. We’re counting on that to make a difference next year.

I love that you brought that book up. Since you brought it up, tell me what your hedgehog concept is in this particular season?

We talk a lot about how it’s not going to be the most talented team that wins at the end of the season. It’s the best team. The difference that we’ve recognized is that we want to be a team that comes together for a common purpose. It started with those guys that decided to come back and not go into the NFL Draft. Then it was the guys in a recruiting class, the guys that came in the portal, the guys that were coming up in the program and the coaches.

Our goal is to win the rivalry game and then win the national championship. That’s our purpose. That’s all of our focus for next season. We know next year that it’s gonna be a little different. It’s going to be a longer run. So we’re building toward that.

Can Ohio State snap their three-game losing streak to Michigan?

Can Ohio State snap their three-game losing streak to Michigan?

What went into recruiting those guys back? Was it an active recruitment for you?

I don’t know if I call it recruiting. I think that, for all the guys, they wanted to identify what their opportunity was in the NFL. We helped them identify what their opportunity was there. We gave them the information. I’ve never been in a situation where we talked somebody into either decision. Marvin [Harrison Jr.] had to make a decision. He decided he was gonna go take the next step. I think it was hard for him, by the way. I mean, not to put his stuff out there, but nobody’s been in the building more than him in the last month. I think C.J. would tell you, it was hard for him to leave after three years.

We’ve had such talented guys that have left after three years. But we’ve been young. So for these guys to decide to come back – it started [when] Cody Simon jumped in. Now, Jack Sawyer jumped in. I think some of those guys were really on the edge. I think they all got together as a group and said, ultimately, that’s what we’re hoping for, that they’re coming together for a common purpose. They’re not just coming to Ohio State for the NFL opportunities or when you come here to get notoriety and whatever it might be. They’re coming to reach those goals.

That was powerful and you could feel it. Certainly, as the head coach, you got to show them the vision. 

I’m interested because motivation, even for the guys that are coming back, plays such a key role. What makes rivalries in college football so great is they drive each other to greatness. I don’t believe Michigan goes on the run that they did unless Ohio State was doing to them what Ohio State was doing to them in the previous eight seasons. 

Now I look at this offseason here in Columbus, I’m like, “Man, this feels a lot like a drive and a passion that was lit watching your rival win a national championship.” Is that accurate?

I don’t think that any year you’re any more or less motivated. I think every year, every team is a little bit different. Not to say that those games haven’t stung, of course they have. Those are bad weeks in Columbus when you don’t win that game. Whether it’s the guys deciding to come back, being strong about making strong decisions in those moments, I can say that you have to figure out what needs to get fixed to win “The Game.” That’s the bottom line, and then that’s what we did.

I would say you guys got three of the biggest prizes in the transfer portal: Quinshon Judkins, Caleb Downs and Julian Sayin. How much did that give the locker room a jolt of energy when these guys decided to join and say, “Yeah, this is our common purpose now as well.”

Any time we’re talking about the portal for us, it’s been that we’re gonna fill a need or a hole. We typically don’t just bring guys in from the portal. We brought six guys in and really, it was to fill needs. Chip Trayanum and Kyle McCord decided to transfer. We needed to fill those holes. We felt like we had a hole at safety.

Ryan Day speaks on veteran players returning & additions from the transfer portal

Ryan Day speaks on veteran players returning & additions from the transfer portal

But also, when Coach [Nick] Saban retired, some of these guys entered the portal and it was a unique opportunity. I think these guys, it’s happening in recruiting, but it also happened in the portal, they see what Ohio State is, they see the opportunity. [You] get the city of Columbus, the brand Ohio State has and it’s exciting.

The other thing is for our guys … take for example, Quinshon. When Quinshon entered the portal, the first person I called was TreVeyon Henderson. I said, “Trey, you gotta give me some feedback on this.” He said, “Coach, can I call you back the next day?” I said sure. He called me right back and said, “Coach, if it’s best for the team, let’s do it. I’m good.” Then I talked to Quinshon and said, “Trey’s not going to the NFL. He’s going to be there.” He said, “Great.” They’ve gotten along great. They want to be a one-two combination. There has to be the right fit there. If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t work because the team and the culture is most important.

Chip Kelly is your new offensive coordinator. It’s such a unique time. He leaves a head coaching position to come here to be your offensive coordinator. How did that come about?

When the decision was made to hire an offense coordinator, I had an A list, a B list and then kind of a C list. Chip was on the A list, so was Bill O’Brien. The timing wasn’t right. I kind of reached out to Chip and said, “I know this is kind of a crazy idea, but what do you think?”

I don’t think it was easy for him. I think there was a lot going on. He’s got his team. He’s got a staff. There’s just a lot going on there. But he did share with me that he was able to coach the quarterbacks in the bowl game and I think it rekindled that love for just coaching football – being in the room and just coaching ball. It had been a while since he had done that. I thought maybe we had a chance, but the timing wasn’t right. We had to make a decision because we were recruiting, so it was great to have an opportunity to hire Bill. But then he turned around and had an opportunity to go to Boston College.

Because another head coach went to be a coordinator, your old coordinator, Jeff Hafley.

Right? Wild, unbelievable. So, then I tried [Kelly] again. I called him one more time. I said, “You got the opportunity to do this.” He said, “Yeah, I think so. I think I’m more interested.” Then, we talked a little bit longer. 

But it wasn’t that easy for him because there was a lot going on there. That being said, he really wanted to just get back to coaching football. It allows me to handle some of this other stuff.

Are we going to notice a difference watching the Buckeyes with Chip Kelly calling plays vs. Ryan Day calling plays?

I think so. I don’t think it’ll look drastically different, maybe just to someone watching the game. But you’ll see schematically some different things and Chip’s history of running the ball speaks for itself. We got some really good running backs. He’s creative in what he does. What we’ve done passing the ball here kind of speaks for itself. So, I think there will be a combination of those things.

Chip Kelly leaves UCLA to become the new Ohio State offensive coordinator

Chip Kelly leaves UCLA to become the new Ohio State offensive coordinator

When Coach Saban retired, and then came out with the comments that he made about what it was like trying to handle his team after the loss in the Rose Bowl, what were your thoughts?

I felt that pain because I’ve gone through some of those similar things. Coach Saban’s past, history and what he’s done is unbelievable. So, to hear somebody that’s been through all these different things and these changes in college football, kind of recognize that as a big challenge right now, it gives you some pause, makes you really think. 

But I also am trying to really put perspective on it all because, and I know this sounds a little bit deep, the truth is, the order of the entire universe is chaos. That’s kind of the way life is, it’s chaotic. I know there’s a lot of chaos right now in college football, but the product’s never been better. I think it’s a little bit of a tumultuous time right now, but if we can just kind of steady the boat a little bit and work through this, we’re going to come out the other end and that’s what we’re looking to do.

For more of my conversation with Day, head over to Spotify, YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Joel Klatt is FOX Sports’ lead college football game analyst and the host of the podcast “The Joel Klatt Show.” Follow him on X/Twitter at @joelklatt and subscribe to the “Joel Klatt Show” on YouTube.

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