Long before he’d climbed the ladder for his serendipitous chance to be the interim head coach at Ohio State, Ryan Day was a 20-something graduate assistant at Boston College who carried a quiet confidence.
Former Eagles coach Tom O’Brien recalled his young graduate assistant approaching him amid a chaotic moment in the fourth quarter of the Continental Tire Bowl in 2004 after Boston College’s starting quarterback broke his leg. “Coach, how about the fake field goal here?”
With Boston College clinging to a three-point lead against North Carolina, O’Brien was attempting to rally the team on the sideline as Paul Peterson was being carted off on a stretcher. O’Brien seized on his young GA’s advice, and a back-up quarterback named Matt Ryan handed off to kicker Ryan Ohliger on a fourth-and-2. Ohliger scooted 21 yards for the touchdown that sealed a 37-24 victory.
“It was the perfect call at the perfect time,” O’Brien said in a phone interview on Thursday. “Ryan was always thinking ahead.”
This summer, Day, 39, has found himself in the middle of different type of frenzy. With Ohio State coach Urban Meyer missing for all of summer camp and suspended for Ohio State’s first three games, Day has inherited perhaps the highest-profile interim coaching job in recent college football history.
Those who know Day best describe him as an effective leader with a passionate style – competitive yet composed, demanding without being demeaning and much more of a teacher than a screamer. His intensity defined his successful three-sport high school career, his record-setting run as New Hampshire’s quarterback and noon pick-up hoops games at BC, where he’d often wrap his calves in ice after spending an hour barking out screens and switches.
Those who know him best along the way say he has spent a lifetime preparing for this moment.
“He’s ready, he’s built for this,” said UCLA coach Chip Kelly, who was Day’s offensive coordinator at New Hampshire. “He’s always been the captain and the leader. He’s unique. There’s always a sense of calm when you’re around him. I don’t think people will see a guy drunk with power. He has the ability to make everyone else feel calm.”
Day’s early actions as interim at Ohio State give a window into his personality. He has operated as head coach out of his own office in the assistant coach wing of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. Meyer’s centralized office has remained empty. Day also has continued to coach the quarterbacks during practice, not taking the overseeing role of a walk-around head coach. Logistically, Day is expected to call plays from the sideline instead of his typical perch in the box. He’s expected to head back upstairs when Meyer returns.
Day, who declined comment for this story, has told those around the program that his main goal has been as little disruption as possible. He’s comfortable enough in himself to lean heavily on seasoned veterans – defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, co-offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, defensive line coach Larry Johnson and strength coach Mickey Marotti.
“He’s an old soul,” said Boston College coach Steve Addazio, Day’s former boss at Temple and Boston College. “It’s going to be a team approach, that’s the way Ryan is wired. There will be no agendas or egos, it’ll be about keeping the team moving forward.”
To see how Ohio State will move forward, it’s instructive to walk back through Day’s path. That road winds through New Hampshire, where Day grew up in Manchester and spent the first half of his life. Friends recall that he played tee ball on the same team as his wife, Christina, at age 6. They went to the junior prom together, started dating seriously in college and have three kids – Ryan Jr. (10), Grace (7) and Nia (5). Day’s father died when he was 9, and friends credit a strong community of support – his mother, grandparents, uncles, brothers, coaches, community members and his in-laws for mentoring him. (Day’s father-in-law is Stan Spirou, a Division II basketball coaching legend at Southern New Hampshire, which named the Field House after him in honor of his 640 wins).
Early on, Day developed a reputation as a leader and a winner: “He was the point guard, the catcher and the quarterback,” Kelly said. “He controlled the game. He was always the guy in the middle of everything.”
In high school at Manchester Central, Day played protagonist in what former rival Matt Bonner calls “one of those all-time legendary New Hampshire basketball stories.”
In the winter of 1997, Day led his Manchester Central high school basketball team into the New Hampshire Class L semifinals as heavy underdogs. They’d lost by 36 earlier in the season to a Concord team led by Bonner, who wound up playing 12 NBA seasons, and Syracuse power forward Ethan Cole.
With no shot clock, Day and backcourt mate Jimmy Statires deftly executed a four-corners gameplan that gave Bonner “a feeling of helplessness” as the time bled and Central led for a majority of the game.
“Ryan was the quarterback of the team,” Bonner recalled in a phone interview on Sunday. “Making sure everyone was in the right spot, yelling ‘Kick it!’ and ‘Pull it out!'”
Concord took the lead, 30-29 in the final minute, which led to Day attempting the potential game-winning 3-pointer. Day got a clean look, and the ball appeared to go halfway down the rim before popping high out at the buzzer. A video clip of the shot, provided by Bonner, shows Day’s Little Green teammates leaping in celebration before collapsing in agony after the ball rattled out.
“I still can’t believe it didn’t go in,” Bonner said.
Have a profile coming out on @OhioStateFB interim Ryan Day (@ryandaytime.) Story centers around his path to perhaps the highest profile interim gig in recent football history. @mattbonner_15 passed on this video from their epic NH high school duel in 1997. How didn’t that go in? pic.twitter.com/1SSLO5qcvu
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) August 27, 2018
Bonner’s pride in New Hampshire rippled through the phone, as he rattled off the Manchester Central starting five and quizzed this reporter on the school’s most famous graduate (Adam Sandler, not Chip Kelly).
“For me, being from New Hampshire and competing against him in high school, there’s definitely pride in him representing New Hampshire,” Bonner said. “I know everyone in New Hampshire is excited about that.”
Day exhibited his competitiveness early on as a quarterback at UNH, as coach Sean McDonnell vividly recalls a practice early in Day’s career when he struggled throwing because of a bulky back brace. With McDonnell razzing Day for missing targets on air, Day ripped off the brace, threw five consecutive darts and glared knowingly at his coach.
“He was so ticked off at me,” McDonnell said with a chuckle. “A lot of guys from Manchester have that quiet fire, especially [Chip Kelly] and Ryan.”
That steely spark defined a record-setting career, which finished with him graduating as UNH’s second all-time leading passer. Day remains mostly tied in public with Kelly, who he played for as a coordinator at UNH, worked with for a year on the staff and then later served as a quarterback coach for both the Eagles (2015) and 49ers (2016). But in between his stints alongside Kelly, Day hopscotched around football and learned from a variety of mentors. He worked for seven different head coaches before connecting with Kelly in the NFL – McDonnell at UNH (2002); O’Brien at Boston College (2003-04); Urban Meyer at Florida (2005); Al Golden at Temple (2006); Jeff Jagodzinski and Frank Spaziani at Boston College (2007-2011); and Addazio at Temple (2012) and Boston College (2013-14).
Along the way, a style emerged. Day’s players appreciate his demeanor, as former Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy recalls Day’s deft touch at “explaining the why” to help quarterbacks understand decision making. Former Eagles and 49ers quarterback Thad Lewis appreciated Day’s “poker face” in the quarterback room as San Francisco endured a 2-14 season in 2016.
Fair or not, Day’s three games as the interim coach – Oregon State, Rutgers and TCU on a neutral field – will be a referendum on Day’s coaching future. Last year, Day emerged as a top target to be the head coach at Mississippi State and had a chance to be the Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator. Those opportunities resulted in Day getting a raise – from $400,000 to $1 million – and the role of play-caller at Ohio State.
While the scale of Day’s head-coaching debut is vast, those who’ve seen him arrive here have no worries how he’ll handle it.
“He’ll steward that program for three games,” Kelly said. “He’s not going to come in and do anything radically different. They have a system that’s been successful from a football standpoint, and I’m sure Ryan will adhere to that.”
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