COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In spite of back-to-back losses to rival Michigan, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith reiterated his confidence in coach Ryan Day, telling ESPN on Tuesday that "he's my CEO" and that they've talked about everything from personnel to playcalling and what they "need to do better."
"My standards are high; our team standards are high," Smith said in a wide-ranging interview in his office. "So we talk about how do we get better and how do we make sure we are able to win the championships that we aspire to win? We look at each individual contest that got in the way of that, and we're trying to figure out what's the strategy to mitigate that. When we lose, it's highly disappointing, but I break things down and look at things objectively, and we have good conversations about what we need to do better."
After Ohio State's stunning 45-23 home loss to Michigan this past season, Wolverines defensive back Mike Sainristil planted a huge maize and blue flag in the block "O" in the middle of the Ohio Stadium turf. Fans were quick to criticize Day, although Smith said more of it comes at them through social media now than through his inbox or voicemail.
"It's really not that bad," he said.
The players have heard it, star receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. said.
"We love the coaches, so we want to go out there and protect them and do our best for them, more so than ourselves," Harrison Jr. said. "Sometimes we're just going out there and playing for them so they look good. I think that's what kind of drives us a little bit from an offense and defense players' perspective. Just going out there playing for your coaches because you're seeing the stuff that's said about our coaches, and we see them every day and we love them so much because of what they do for us, so if it anything it makes us play harder."
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Ohio State hasn't lost three straight to Michigan since 1995-97. Under Day, the Buckeyes are 1-2 against the Wolverines and 44-4 against every other opponent, with three of those four losses coming in the College Football Playoff. Day is 32-0 against all other Big Ten teams, including in the conference championship game. There is a giant countdown clock in a hallway of the Les Wexner Football Complex as part of a display titled "The Greatest Rivalry," and another one in the weight room, ticking down the days and minutes until Ohio State faces Michigan again -- on Nov. 25 in Ann Arbor for the regular-season finale. The Buckeyes' focus this spring has been on finding a starting quarterback to replace C.J. Stroud and improving a defense that allowed 16 plays of at least 20 yards over the final two games of last season (six against Michigan and 10 against Georgia).
"The rivalry game's obviously very, very important," Day told ESPN. "When you look at those games, and you see these single plays that really cost us the game. When you're talking about on defense, giving up explosive plays, certainly that's very, very important. That's how games can go sideways. And so we have to identify that, get that fixed, and that hurt us in the Georgia game as well. That was something we talked about a lot in the offseason, or we're continually talking about now in the spring, but I really like the team that we have coming back."
As part of the offseason self-evaluation process, Day said he is considering relinquishing some of the playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Brian Hartline -- a topic he broached with Smith this offseason. Day has given more responsibility to Hartline this spring in part so he can roam the field and spend more time with the defense, but it's unclear how much that will continue this fall.
"His thought process about possibly giving up playcalling, he shared that with me without me ever asking that question," Smith said. "When we hired him, I told him, 'You've got to stay in your wheelhouse and call plays. There'll be a natural point in time in your career where that changes.' So that's not for me to decide; that's for him to decide." Smith said it was the same process with personnel decisions.
"You know, we literally go down every person -- not just the coaches, but the support staff -- and say, 'OK, is our mix right? Do we have the right person here?'" Smith said. "We may talk about a deficiency here and how do we strengthen that, so we, it's a collaborative process, but I don't make the decision. I hired him to make those decisions."
And to beat Michigan.
"When you look at the roster, all you want to do is identify, OK, does this look like the teams we've had in the past?" Day said. "Do we have enough talent to reach our goals year after year? And the answer is yes. We definitely have it."