Ben Hartsock wasn’t convinced, and he wasn’t alone.
The former Ohio State star and Jets tight end watched with concern as the coaching transition from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day took place in Columbus. Hartsock, who won a national championship with the Buckeyes in 2002, was worried that Ohio State was trying to force Day into becoming a Meyer clone.
“I thought the university was saying, ‘All right Buckeye Nation, everything is going to be the same. It’s coach Meyer’s system, we are just going to have coach Day operating it,’ ” said Hartsock, now a host on Sirius XM’s Big Ten Radio channel.
“I felt like that kind of hamstrung Ryan Day because he couldn’t be his own man and Urban Meyer was going to stay in the building and have his own office.”
Meyer left the program after last season amid health concerns, but he wasn’t going far. He was named an assistant athletics director and is the centerpiece of Fox’s new pregame show, which has aired before several Ohio State games and will do so again on Saturday before the showdown with Michigan.
Day, who was previously the offensive coordinator, has delivered with an 11-0 start to the season and the top spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. Hartsock noted how Day weathered the “baptism by fire” start to his tenure by deftly handling the Justin Fields transfer from Georgia and putting his more laid-back stamp on the program.
“Urban Meyer lived every down like it was fourth down,” Hartsock said. “Day wants his office to be like a living room, everyone is welcome. Urban was well known to have everyone uncomfortable, in competition, every second is going to be the last second we have. He had a lot of success with that but Ryan Day has taken a different approach.”
And it has put Ohio State in position to win a national title. That is not what Saturday afternoon is about, though. Ohio State could lose to Michigan and still be a given for a playoff spot with a win in the Big Ten title game over Wisconsin or Minnesota. This is about keeping Michigan down.
Ohio State has won four 14 of the past 15 matchups in the legendary rivalry, with Michigan’s last win coming in 2011, a year before Meyer arrived.
“Michigan is living in a state of doubt that has been around now for over a decade,” said Hartsock, who will nervously be tracking the game as he calls South Carolina against Clemson on ESPN Radio.
“I was part of an Ohio State program at the end of the John Cooper era that lived with that same doubt. Cooper was 2-10-1 against Michigan, so I know what it was like to be a in a locker room that was talented, trying hard, running appropriate schemes, but there was an element of doubt in that Michigan game. … If Michigan wins, they’ve changed the trajectory in a series that has been so lopsided.”
Jim Harbaugh would love nothing more. The Wolverines coach has successfully turned the program around in his five seasons, but has a scrutinized lack of success against the Buckeyes. Harbaugh’s job was starting to be questioned when a season that began with high expectations — including being preseason favorites to win the Big Ten — started with disappointment. A nail-biting win against Army was followed by a crushing 35-14 loss to Wisconsin.
But Hartsock has seen a different Michigan team since a second-half rally fell just short against Penn State in mid-October.
“His personality is good for college football. The story, the narrative, he’s quirky. He’s had a lot of success,” Hartsock said. “It’s simply, he hasn’t gotten past Ohio State and to the true grown-up’s table of college sports.
“But he has multiple 10-win seasons, has put guys in the NFL and seems to be running a clean program. I want the rivalry to matter and I think Jim Harbaugh is the right guy. … He’s one of those guys who is so eccentric that anything he does people really take him to task on it.”
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