Quick pivot to Chip Kelly shows Ryan Day is embracing CEO mentality at Ohio State

The last time Ohio State head coach Ryan Day held a February news conference, he was peppered with questions about the possibility of relinquishing his play-calling duties for the 2023 season. And while he was loath to do so after building a reputation as one of the sport’s supreme offensive minds, Day explained to reporters that it might be necessary for him to cede that responsibility to someone else if the goal was to maximize his impact on the program late in the year when it mattered most.

His plan was to structure the Buckeyes’ spring practices in a way that afforded newly promoted offensive coordinator Brian Hartline a chance to earn the play-calling role. There would be plenty of chances for Hartline to match wits with defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who went on to oversee the No. 3 defense in the country, as Day assessed the options.

“Then we’ll come up for air at the end of the spring,” Day said last February, “and kind of figure out what that dynamic looks like going into the preseason and then into, obviously, the season. We won’t decide any of that now, but [I will] certainly give [Hartline] an opportunity to call it this spring and see how that goes.”

Roughly six months later, when push finally collided with shove, Day’s decision validated the skeptics who were reticent to believe that one of the best play callers in the country could turn his back on the very skill that positioned him to become former head coach Urban Meyer’s successor at Ohio State. Day continued calling plays all season, even as the rapidly changing world of college football tugged and tore his attention in numerous directions at once: game planning, coaching, recruiting, fundraising, roster building, transfer monitoring and more.

But after another season in which the Buckeyes failed to defeat Michigan, failed to reach the Big Ten Championship game and failed to win a national title, Day understood the moment for change had arrived. It was time to become the program’s CEO instead of its de facto offensive coordinator and play caller. So he swung big and hired the impressively accomplished Bill O’Brien — the former Penn State head coach, the former Houston Texans head coach, the former Alabama offensive coordinator and, most recently, the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots — to run the show on that side of the ball. The move was made in mid-January.

“At Ohio State, we’re chasing that 1 or 2 percent,” Day said when asked about hiring O’Brien in a news conference earlier this week. “We’re chasing that last couple drives of a game, or whatever that is. And I felt like in that particular situation, for me to really be able to hand over a lot of the duties that I was doing, I really was looking for somebody who had great background in the NFL, the SEC, he was a former head coach, he had been a head coach in the league, and the experience of developing quarterbacks was there. And then the fit, culturally, was the right fit.”

It was the right fit until it wasn’t — not because of anything Day and the rest of his staff did or didn’t do, and not because of anything O’Brien did wrong during the three weeks he spent learning Ohio State’s offense and beginning to inject his own ideas into the operation. Rather, it was a late and unexpected turn on the coaching carousel that snatched O’Brien away from Ohio State to become the head coach at Boston College, a move that was first reported on Friday morning and was made official by Friday evening. Suddenly, the man who was reticent to give up play calling in the first place was given the chance to reconsider, to reverse course and avoid subjecting himself to the thing football coaches hate the most: ceding control to someone else.

What felt like an application of the Monty Hall problem was resolved in a matter of hours when Day, who referenced potential contingency plans during a news conference prior to O’Brien’s departure, swung big again and hired the impressively accomplished Chip Kelly — the former Oregon head coach, the former Philadelphia Eagles head coach, the former San Francisco 49ers head coach and the current UCLA head coach — to fill the same role. He stood firm in his belief that the best thing for Ohio State was hiring someone else to run the offense. The school announced Kelly’s hiring shortly after 8 p.m. on Friday night.  

“We are extremely excited to have Chip and his wife, Jill, joining our program,” Day said in a news release issued by the athletic department. “His experience as a head coach at Oregon, UCLA and in the NFL will bring immediate value to our entire team. I am really looking forward to reconnecting with Chip, introducing him to our staff and team and chasing a championship together.

“I would also like to wish coach Bill O’Brien and his family well as he takes over at Boston College.”

In pivoting from O’Brien to Kelly, whose move from being the head coach at UCLA to being the offensive coordinator at Ohio State will come with a significant pay cut, Day is reuniting with a mentor, a friend and someone who coached him during his own playing career at New Hampshire from 1998-2001. He later joined Kelly’s coaching staffs with the Eagles (2015, quarterbacks coach) and 49ers (2016, quarterbacks coach) before the Buckeyes hired him as their co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach seven years ago, toward the latter stages of Meyer’s tenure. Day and Kelly have remained close, and in close contact, ever since.

As with O’Brien, who counts Tom Brady, Deshaun Watson and Bryce Young among his quarterback pupils, Kelly is revered for his offensive acumen across all levels of football. At Oregon, where Kelly finished 46-7 overall and won three Pac-12 championships, his offenses finished among the top three nationally in scoring for three consecutive seasons from 2010-12, terrorizing opponents with what was, at the time, a revolutionary use of tempo. He won the NFC East during his first season with the Eagles, in 2013, and rebuilt UCLA into a respectable program by winning at least eight games during each of the last three years. Twice in that span, the Bruins ranked among the top 15 in scoring at better than 36 points per game.

No one can quibble with Kelly’s resume when it comes to running an offense or calling plays, two things that should make a difficult transition more palatable for Day.

“I know that my energy and time and all that stuff needs to be in other areas,” Day said last week. “Especially with everything going on right now across the board, just with the team and the portal and NIL and just all those types of things. I know that’s the right thing to do. But now making sure the right person is in place was critical, and I hired Bill.”

And then, when presented with a chance to change his mind, Day doubled down with Kelly instead. All he needed was a year, from one February to another.   

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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