COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ryan Day has never before been a head football coach, but his family keeps him grounded as he prepares for the start of his first season fully in charge at Ohio State, where the pressure for success can be overwhelming.
As their extended stay at their idyllic lake house in New Hampshire was ending this summer, Nina Day gathered her three young children to impart some advice.
On Saturday, her husband started his first season as Ohio State’s full-fledged head football coach when the Buckeyes opened at home against Florida Atlantic. This is an exciting time for the Days, but it is not without anxiety.
Day — a Manchester Central High School graduate, former New Hampshire Gatorade Player of the Year and record-setting UNH quarterback under Chip Kelly — is a first-time head coach, and Ohio State is no entry-level job. The perks are great. So is the pressure, especially as the successor to Urban Meyer, who was 83-9 as OSU coach and won the 2014 national championship.
So after several weeks relaxing at Winnisquam Lake, Nina used a sailing analogy when she spoke with 11-year-old RJ, 8-year-old Grace and 6-year-old Nia.
“I said I need you to remember three things this fall,” she recalled. “First, we need to stay steady in the boat — not get too high, not get too low. We’ve just got to stay grounded, no matter what happens.
“Second, you need to lean on your support system that you can trust, because a lot of people will have a lot to say about the program and about Daddy. And third, try to enjoy the season and embrace it, because we’re at a great program and Daddy’s got a great job.”
The Days have been straddling the line between maintaining normalcy and adjusting to their new situation. They moved into a house in Delaware County that gives them more space and privacy. The Days don’t go out in public as an entire family as frequently as they once did because of the attention Ryan gets. They have to be more guarded.
“You can’t just fly under the radar like we used to,” he said.
But in other ways, the status quo mostly remains. The Day children are still in the Olentangy public school system. Nina said Ryan is the same doting father he has always been.
“Things haven’t really changed too much in the walls of our home,” she said. “Dad’s dad, and he hasn’t changed at all. He’s dealing with the pressure and the responsibility, I think, great.
“He doesn’t take anything home. Good or bad days, we don’t know. We don’t know what goes on at the practice facility because he never brings it home or puts it on us.”
Nina is the daughter of a college basketball coach — her father, Stan Spirou, was a legend at Division II Southern New Hampshire — so she understands the coaching life.
“People ask me, ‘What is the No. 1 advice to give to a coach who wants to get into this profession?’ ” Ryan Day said. “I said to make sure you have a wife who understands what this profession holds, because it’s unlike really any other profession. The military may be similar, but that’s about it.”
Pressure and instability are inevitable in high-level coaching. Ryan Day’s longest stint in one place was at Boston College from 2007-11. Most have been much shorter. Through it all, all the Days had were each other.
When Meyer hired Day to be offensive coordinator after the 2016 season, Nina and her husband figured Ohio State would be just another pit stop. But after a year and a half, Columbus began to feel like home.
They hope their stay is a long one, and they are putting down roots. This summer, Ryan and Nina established a partnership with Nationwide Children’s Hospital with an “On Our Sleeves” initiative to promote pediatric and adolescent mental health. Their goal is to remove the stigma of mental illness. Day’s father died by suicide when he was 9, so this is personal for him.
Because Ryan is busy with coaching duties, Nina is taking the lead with “On Our Sleeves” this fall. It is a rare foray into public life for her. She isn’t comfortable in the spotlight.
“I’m kind of the behind-the-curtain-type person,” she said. “But I realize now that I have a platform that I didn’t have before, so I have to just be strategic in what I do with it.”
The Day children are enjoying their father’s new role. Ryan often brings RJ to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and says the team treats him like a little brother. His parents joke that RJ thinks of himself as the Buckeyes’ unofficial general manager.
“He just loves being around the team,” Ryan said. “He notices things. He’s very perceptive.”
Nia is still too young to fully grasp everything, but Day likened Grace to the character of the football-crazed coach’s daughter in the movie Remember The Titans.
“She gets into the game,” he said. “She knows what’s happening.”
The Days got a taste of this last year when Ryan served as head coach for three games during Meyer’s suspension. But this is different.
“They’re all very excited for their father and the opportunity that he has,” Nina said. “They’re excited for the games to start. All three of my kids are very resilient kids just because of the life they grew up with. It amazes me the strength that they have, and a lot of times they give me the strength.”
Nina knows there will be bad days as well as good. She steels herself for the tougher times.
“You’ve just got to get mentally prepared for it because to think he’s not going to get criticized and people are not going to become unhappy with him at some point is unrealistic.
“It’s part of the game, even though it’s tough, but you really do have to get thick skin and kind of just block out the noise.”
If times get tough, the Days will rely on each other. Ryan and Nina grew up near each other in Manchester, though their relationship was more close friendship than romance until their college days.
“We really just enjoy being around each other,” Nina said. “At the heart of it, we’re really truly still best friends. We still laugh all the time about stuff. I don’t know life without him, and I don’t think I could ever picture my life without him, from an early age.”
Now, they’re ready for the latest step in their journey. Nina admits that occasionally she gets jolted by reminders that Ryan is really the head coach at Ohio State.
“When I go to the Woody Hayes and I see his picture up on the wall, it kind of hits me every time I walk by it,” she said. “It kind of gives me chills, like, ‘Wow, you know, he did it.’”
And now the biggest chapter in their journey is just starting.