As it became clear to him over the past month that Urban Meyer was preparing to step away from coaching, Ohio State AD Gene Smith considered going outside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center to find the Buckeyes’ next head coach. He admitted as much in the Dec. 4 press conference that would announce Ryan Day as Ohio State’s next head coach.
But, according to Dave Briggs of the Toledo Blade, Smith told a colleague that, with arguably the top job in college football set to come open, he wondered if he had an obligation to put the job on the open market just to see who he could get.
Smith admitted on Dec. 4 that he let his mind wander down that path far enough to develop a list of possible outside replacements, and according to Briggs those coaches were:
Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell
Syracuse head coach Dino Babers
A current NFL coach
While the NFL coach went unnamed, it’s widely assumed that coach is Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, a former Buckeye player under John Cooper and a Buckeye assistant under Meyer.
Two of those names are obvious.
Stoops, of course, is a future Hall of Fame coach and a Youngstown, Ohio native. The allure of coaching the flagship team of his home state is pulled Urban out of retirement after all, so why wouldn’t Smith kick the tires on Stoops?
And Campbell was an obvious choice as well. A Massillon, Ohio native, Campbell played and coached at Mount Union, then rose the ranks at Bowling Green and Toledo. So impressive was Campbell at Toledo that the Rockets named him their head coach when he was just 32 years old. He went 35-15 in four seasons at Toledo before leaving for Iowa State, where he’s taken a team that hung out with Kansas in the Big 12’s basement to hanging out with Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia atop the conference standings.
Babers has only a fleeting connection to Ohio, but he was a successful candidate nonetheless. A Hawaii native and a well-traveled assistant, Babers has proved himself as a head coach three times over after going 19-7 in two seasons at Eastern Illinois, 18-9 in two seasons at Bowling Green and now 9-3 in his third season at Syracuse.
Smith made his list and researched each candidate, watching their games and talking to his contacts in the industry about them.
But as Smith did his due diligence, his mind eventually settled on Day as the safest choice — and an interesting coincidence helped make it happen.
Smith spent the first part of each week through November traveling back and forth to Dallas as part of his duties on the College Football Playoff selection committee. So too did Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione.
Castiglione was not only a confidant of Stoops, he went through a similar transition Smith was now facing just a year and a half ago. Stoops retired abruptly in the summer of 2017 and passed the baton to his whiz kid of an offensive coordinator in Lincoln Riley, and the transition wasn’t just smooth, the program actually got better afterward.
In his two seasons as OU’s head coach, Riley is 24-3 with two Big 12 championships, two College Football Playoff appearances and two different quarterbacks collecting their own Heisman Trophy.
“I asked him a lot about it,” Smith told the Blade.
So, while publicly denying our report that he was planning for Urban’s imminent departure, Smith privately decided what seemed like the riskiest play — to hand one of the biggest jobs in college football to a 39-year-old with all of three games of experience as a head coach — was actually the safest move.
“When I looked at our organization, the things we have, and the respect the players have for Ryan Day, compared to possibly bringing in somebody from the outside that’s been a head coach and sat in the seat, the risk was less with Ryan Day,” Smith said.