How Ryan Day rocketed from New Hampshire to Ohio State coach

Ryan Day had a quick rise from New Hampshire to Ohio State, but friends and coaches are not surprised by his success. Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire

Bobby Swigert was scrubbed in and standing beside a tray of orthopedic surgery utensils one day this winter when the conversation veered, as it often does in central Ohio, toward college football. The surgeon was part way through drilling a routine hole in some poor sap's tibia when Swigert, now a medical device salesman, casually mentioned that he played for Ryan Day years earlier at Boston College.

The surgeon's head snapped up. The drill stopped spinning.

"Really?" he asked. "What's he like? Is he ready for this?"

Swigert laughed. The former wide receiver is one of the many people who know Day well enough to assure Buckeye fans that the new head coach at Ohio State is a hire they will come to appreciate. Day sprung from relative anonymity to landing one of the most coveted jobs in football in just a few short years. After a three-game audition last September, he was officially named as Urban Meyer's replacement at the end of the 2018 season.

A few months shy of his 40th birthday, Day was a head coach for the first time. He takes over a program that has won three of the past five Big Ten championships and finished ranked in the top five nationally in four of those years. He is stepping into the shoes of one of modern football's most accomplished winners. He inherits a well-oiled machine with the unenviable task of making it his own without messing it up. His margin of error? Non-existent.

"You beat the rival," Meyer told him. "Every other game you have to win as well. Every player has to get drafted in the first two rounds. No off-the-field issues, and never lose to that rival." Then the old coach wished him luck and flashed the smile of a downhill-bound trekker at a trailhead greeting.

Former players such as Swigert, mentors such as Meyer, Chip Kelly and Steve Addazio, and Day's closest friends have all given him the same message Swigert gave the surgeon: He is ready. Winning and leading have defined Day for as long as any of them can remember. Cut him open, it's in his bones.

Day grew up in the bleachers of Manchester, New Hampshire. He and his two younger brothers were part of a group of kids who all had one reason or another for regularly attending the Division II basketball games at New Hampshire College (later renamed Southern New Hampshire University). The little games they concocted to keep themselves entertained always had winners and losers, and Day was almost always the former.

Maybe it was watching the Penmen, who won six conference titles starting in the early 1990s and averaged nearly 20 victories a season during the 33-year coaching career of Stan Spirou -- a man who has served as a father figure for Day for the past 30 years. Maybe it was the desire to seem invincible in his brothers' eyes or in the eyes of the coach's daughter -- a year older and a pretty good athlete herself, Day adopted the philosophy early that in basketball, foot races, fights and myriad other competitions there was nothing worse than a loss.

"It was on a different level from the very beginning," says Jim Statires. "It was constant."

Statires' father was close friends with Spirou, and so he too ended up in the bleachers frequently. He and Day met Matt Dufour, the son of one of Spirou's assistants, at the games. The three boys were soon inseparable. They spent summer days battling with each other at a local pool. In the evenings, they ate chicken tenders at Puritan Backroom, the restaurant Statires' family ran for generations, until they were old enough to bus tables or scoop ice cream for customers.

Winters remained reserved for basketball. Together the boys won regional Catholic Youth Organization championships in grade school and eventually a state championship at Manchester Central High School during their junior year. Day emerged as the star guard as much because of his intelligence and his athleticism. He was the catcher for the high school baseball team and the quarterback for its football team, another group that won a state title for Manchester Central.

"He was always a leader," Dufour says. "He's the person you want taking the last shot. He had the ability to will himself to be good, it seemed. He made everyone feel like they were part of something bigger than ourselves."

By the time they were wrapping up high school and preparing to ship off in different directions, Dufour figured his friend would end up as a coach. Day and Dufour were the friends that found each other for heart-to-hearts when busy days and nights were winding to an end. Dufour remembers plenty of those campfire-burning-low conversations in which Day laid out his plans for their future. Ry, Doof and Jimmy would all find homes in some nice neighborhood around Manchester, fill them up with kids and sit in the bleachers together watching their next generation in Little League games and CYO tournaments.

The only snag was that Day still had a lot of winning in front of him and no idea where that would lead him.

Brian Mallette watched Day's first media conference as Ohio State's head coach from his office in Naples, Florida, and could swear it was 1999 again. The rosy-cheeked adult staring back at him on the screen was the same 20-year-old kid who tucked his hands into the collar of his shoulder pads and answered questions from the New Hampshire Union-Leader after winning the starting quarterback job for the UNH Wildcats.

Mallette, a wide receiver, was living in an off-campus house with Day by the time both were competing for starting jobs as redshirt sophomores in the spring of 1999. Day was struggling with a back injury at the time, and Mallette remembers the brace his buddy had to wear was inhibiting his ability to let it rip.

The Wildcats' new offensive coordinator, a fellow Manchester Central graduate named Chip Kelly, stood and watched during practice one day as first-year head coach Sean McDonnell barked at Day for coming up short on one pass after another. Tempers flared. Day missed another receiver. McDonnell connected with another verbal jab. Day had enough. He tore off the back brace in the middle of the practice field and spun a dart to Mallette down the sideline.

"How's that coach?" Day screamed. "Is that good enough for you?"

His teammates were sold. Day battled with a senior for the starting job the rest of the spring and into fall camp. When it came time for McDonnell to pick his first starting quarterback in August it was Day's leadership that helped him win the job.

"He just had a way of getting people to be their best selves," McDonnell said. "He's always had a presence, a quiet confidence, with the guys."

Day started for the next three seasons. He set passing records as a willing guinea pig in the infancy of an offense that would reshape college football. Day and Kelly sequestered themselves in front of a chalkboard or in the film room for long nights. Day and his roommates kept a dry-erase board near the kitchen door of their off-campus house. Statires and Dufour, who were off to school at Colby-Sawyer and Brown, respectively, were both regular weekend visitors to the house on Young Drive and remember the dry-erase board well.

In theory it was to leave messages for each other about missed phone calls or house chores. In practice, they often found Day standing alone in the kitchen scribbling down X's and O's with a tweak to the playbook or some odd new idea. Mallette says he missed a lot of messages.

Day's competitive streak, and his willingness to compete in anything, didn't dwindle in college. Mallette remembers a Friday afternoon when the guys were planning to head north for a ski trip along with their girlfriends and a few other friends. Day suggested they stop by the rec center on campus before they picked up their weekend dates to check out a Wiffle Ball tournament in the gym. Once they were there, Day couldn't resist playing a game. Once they got a win under their belts, Day couldn't leave.

Some six hours later, their dates were still waiting to head to the ski lodge while Day was diving on hardwood floors to catch fly balls. The ski weekend was getting a late start. There was, after all, an "Intramural Champs" T-Shirt at stake.

"That didn't go well," Mallette says. "We didn't have cell phones at the time so they were just kind of sitting there waiting for us. But we got up there. It was important to get that T-shirt and win that thing."

Mallette doesn't recall what became of his date for that weekend. He does remember Day's date was Nina Spirou, the same coach's daughter who grew up with the boys at basketball games in Manchester. She took the delay in stride.

They, of course, did win the thing. Mallette and Day found a lot of success together during their time at UNH. No game stands out more, though, than the comeback against No. 2 Delaware in November 2000. Day connected with Mallette on a hook-and-ladder play that completed a 28-point second-half comeback. Two decades into his successful career as head coach at New Hampshire, McDonnell still has a picture of that day prominently displayed in his office.

Day's first call when he got off the bus back in New Hampshire that night was to Dufour. "Dude, you're not going to believe how we pulled this off," Day yelled into the phone.

Phone calls became more common than late-night chats for Statires, Dufour and Day as the latter set out on a pinball rise through the ranks of coaching. Day worked as a graduate assistant for a year at New Hampshire and for two at Boston College before Urban Meyer called and offered him a position with the Florida Gators.

He decided if he was leaving New England he would at least need to bring some of the best of home with him. So he borrowed some money from a fellow Boston College assistant and asked the old coach's daughter, Nina, if she'd be willing to become a young coach's wife. Statires and Dufour stood next to Day's brothers as their childhood friends exchanged vows. The next day, the groom reported for fall camp in Gainesville.

Statires, Dufour and Mallette managed to catch a game at most of the Days' stops as he bounced between Temple and Boston College and then off to the NFL for a few years before landing at Ohio State. When they couldn't make it in person, they kept in touch with calls and texts to relive the big moments and jokingly compare them to their victories back in Manchester.

There were calls after he got his first full-time job at Temple. Then a year later, while he was at Boston College, when his buddies learned that Day had hopped a flight to Blacksburg, Virginia, despite a doctor's recommendation not to fly 12 hours after getting his appendix removed. Day coached from the sideline -- being careful not to tear open the fresh stitches from surgery -- while the No. 2-ranked Eagles pulled off a late comeback on the road to stay unbeaten. No one in Manchester was surprised to hear that Day decided he couldn't miss the game.

Fellow coaches marvel at his ability to stay in touch with his roots while dedicating so much time to his family, his profession and his colleagues. Jay Civetti, who worked with Day at Boston College, recalls calling his old friend to ask if they could talk through an upcoming job interview Civetti had to be the head coach at Tufts. Day said he'd be happy to help and suggested Civetti meet him in the gym of a different small college in Boston. Southern New Hampshire's basketball team was in town, and Day had only a couple of hours to watch his father-in-law's team before getting back to breaking down film. They chatted in the bleachers as Day kept tabs on the basketball game. Civetti got the job.

"I don't know what it is. He was always like that," Civetti says. "He could have 12 things going on at once and be great at all of them. No one ever says that Ryan Day doesn't do anything really, really well."

The Days moved six times during a seven-year span before Meyer hired him again at Ohio State. Each time, they were eager to invite their old friends to a new home at the start of a new football season.

Day had, along the way, developed a reputation as an innovative, player-friendly coach who was remarkably quick on his feet in pressure situations. He would help provide a rudder for an Ohio State offense that had lost some direction in the year before he arrived. As surprising as it may have been for outsiders when Day was named as the interim replacement during Meyer's suspension last August, those around Ohio State's program could see it coming.

Meyer pegged Day as a potential heir to the Big Ten empire he had resurrected in his seven years in Columbus. The test drive last fall came earlier than anyone expected, but now Day inherits a job that would be the envy of any first-time coach. He has a well-stocked roster, a cadre or experienced assistants and a program that has as much institutional and fan support as any in the country. His biggest challenge in replacing the man who built much of that will likely be drawing the line between following the formula left behind by Meyer without trying to be Meyer.

On the eve of his first weekend as a head coach last August, at the tail end of perhaps the most chaotic month of his coaching career, Day took a short break from his new duties to stop at a restaurant not far from campus. In the back of the restaurant he found a table full of familiar faces. The old crew from Manchester had been to plenty of games together, and they weren't going to miss Day's first as the leader of the Buckeyes.

"As we're leaving the restaurant with them, literally everybody wanted to shake his hand, pat him on the back," Statires says. "And it was like, 'Wow this is different than it was last year.'"

Day, however, was the same. The coaches, players and friends that know Ryan Day best say there's no chance he'll get lost in the big shoes he now must fill.

"He's very comfortable in who he is," Statires says. "I don't think that's going to be an issue. He believes in who he is."

Ohio Stadium may have enough seats to squeeze the entire population of Manchester inside its large walls, but if Day does ever end up in danger of losing himself in that grandeur, his closest friends will still be hanging together in the bleachers to remind him who he is.