The CEO head coach adjusts the business plan, makes difficult decisions and sets a new course to win when it matters so he can avoid late-season and postseason embarrassment.
After several deep breaths, some time to enjoy the holiday break from teaching and another recommitment to healthy eating, it’s time to analyze the rebranding of the Ohio State football program.
As my friend, G, said to me the other night, this is not our fathers’ Ohio State Buckeyes or their fathers’ Ohio State Buckeyes.
Indeed, it is not. Ohio State now lives completely in the new era of college football. They have put their money where their ambition is.
The Buckeyes fully embrace NIL income opportunities for players and the transfer portal, those innovations you might have said are ruining college football. Maybe those changes aren’t for the best, but the Buckeyes – more than any other program – have used them aggressively to make themselves a legitimate national title contender.
That is what you want, right?
Then come along for the ride because to lead the pack on the field you must lead the pack off the field. Hold your nose now and then if you must, but you don’t get it both ways. NIL and the portal are here to stay, and your Buckeyes finally are fully invested.
Being above it all doesn’t work. This is the Dodgers and the Yankees trying to buy championships. This is akin to Nick Saban exploiting every advantage he saw to leave a legacy at Alabama that may never be matched by another coach anywhere.
This evolution at the Horseshoe is about winning it all as many times as they can.
Ryan Day is holding nothing back in pursuit of what he knows is necessary at Ohio State – that losses are unacceptable, losses to Michigan are especially unacceptable and national championships are expected more than once every dozen years or so.
Ryan Day the CEO
The transformation from the we-can-still-do-it-the-old-way model to the we-can’t-be-left-behind model made its turning point the moment Day told Kyle McCord he had to compete to keep the starting quarterback job. When McCord said his next move was into the transfer portal, Day didn’t buckle even if he knew it might cost him a bowl victory. I wrote then it was the return of the ruthless Ryan Day who recruited transfer Justin Fields and ran off the rest of the quarterback room, and the Ryan Day who quickly canned the failed experiment of Kerry Coombs as defensive coordinator.
Since the Cotton Bowl fiasco, Day and the football program at large have been on a mission to never allow another 2023 Cotton Bowl to happen. Embarrassment creates a resolve to reassess and a hunger to be great. And now the Buckeyes are using all the new rules of NIL and the transfer portal, plus some good old-fashioned firing and hiring, to say, “We’re Ohio State. We’re done with this.”
The most marketable and it’s-been-a-long-time-coming change for fans is Day’s job description. He’s no longer the play caller. He gave that job to Bill O’Brien. Letting go of being primarily an offensive mastermind, makes Day’s year-long conversion to CEO complete.
Day’s decision doesn’t mean he couldn’t cut it as a play caller. Knowing how to call effective plays this past season wasn’t the issue. Day didn’t suddenly forget how to do that part of the job. He had a quarterback who was limited and an undependable offensive line. In no way could Day call the game he wanted to.
Day also didn’t have veteran offensive savant Kevin Wilson as his eye in sky reading the minds of defensive coordinators. Day gets that back with O’Brien, a proven master of running offenses and a quarterback developer. Sure, pick apart O’Brien’s resume, but with his experience and successes, Day can concentrate on watching his son play quarterback on Friday nights with less to worry about the next day.
The necessary offensive tools
Presumably Ohio State will field a better quarterback this season with Kansas State transfer Will Howard, an improved offensive line (up is the only place that group can go), a solid receiving crew thanks to the return of Emeka Egbuka and a backfield stacked with TreVeyon Henderson and Ole Miss transfer Quinshon Judkins.
That all sounds great, but you still have to block people. That’s up to line coach Justin Frye and the guys he coaches. They have to want to be nasty. They have to want to not be the unit holding this team back. Keeping Donovan Jackson and getting Alabama transfer Seth McLaughlin are good starts.
But, of course, quarterback is the more interesting discussion. The room is suddenly loaded with five talented players, including Julian Sayin who portaled out of Alabama before he had a locker. Howard, though, is the only one with any real college tape to examine. Barring injury, he’s the opening day starter.
However, how many of you knew who Will Howard was before he was mentioned as a possible transfer to be Day’s next starting quarterback? How many of you are excited about it?
I knew the name, but I didn’t know his game. So after returning home from the Cotton Bowl debacle, I decided to do a little scouting to see if this QB is good enough to satisfy not only Day, but the legion of demanding fans.
I took advantage of my YouTubeTV subscription, its unlimited DVR space and my foresight to – with one click of a button on the remote – record every televised college football game this season. I watched Howard play against Missouri in an early-season game.
Howard can run, that’s for sure. He’s not Fields, but he can get first downs when you need them. Of course, we all know QB runs are found only in the appendix of the playbook. But O’Brien is the play caller now. Howard might run the ball more than Fields did. Day might hold his breath every time, but a CEO has to know when to let his employees take an idea and run with it.
How good will Howard be? A lot depends on the line. Don’t know if he’s an upgrade as a passer, but the mobility, experience and playing in close games can’t hurt. In some ways he’s McCord with faster legs who will force the ball now and then. More interceptions could be a thing.
Best defense money can buy
The NIL money people came through on offense for Egbuka, Henderson and Jackson. And the money spent on defense might have challenged the NFL salary cap.
It’s not just returning starters in Denzel Burke, J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer, Tyliek Williams, Lathan Ransom and Jordan Hancock. Cody Simon played enough as the backup linebacker to certainly peek at the draft. The transfer acquisition of safety Caleb Downs, who as a freshman led Alabama in tackles, also wasn’t free.
The money that alumni and donors contributed to the collective was always there. It just took some convincing that even Ohio State, with its history, resources and facilities, needed to spend as much or more than others to compete.
Jim Knowles, the head coach of the defense, must feel like coaches of old when they built the core of a defense to last more than one year. Without NIL dollars, most, if not all the ones who stayed, would be prepping for the NFL Draft instead of going to class.
Funny how an unintended and happy result of NIL is players staying in school longer.
The long offseason
Now you must wait until August 31 when the Buckeyes open the season against Akron to see what all these changes amount to. Of course, a home game against the Zips will only confirm the talent level.
A home game against Iowa on October 5 will, presumably, be an indicator of how far the offense has truly progressed. The trip a week later to Oregon will reveal much more.
Based on recent seasons the conventional wisdom says Oregon, at Penn State and home against Michigan are the only tough games on the schedule. That might prove to be true.
In the meantime, offensive discussions will revolve around quarterback, line play and how carries will be divided between Henderson and Judkins. On defense, will Downs start at safety and Sonny Styles at linebacker? How much will linebacker C.J. Hicks play? Will Larry Johnson rotate more on the defensive line with another year of experience for the non-starters? Will special teams play improve?
But there are questions you no longer must ponder. Ohio State supporters with enough wealth to spend on NIL will spend it. The portal in Columbus is open for business. And Ryan Day is doing what every good CEO does. He’s surrounding himself with the best people he can find.
And that’s a business model that will win in the regular season, win its share or more against Michigan and make its share of runs through the 12-team playoff.
In the end, Ohio State wins because Ohio State is doing what it takes to remain Ohio State.