The dawn of the football season in Ohio, where football matters, has reinforced the unpredictability of the coaching business given its strange links to New Hampshire, where football matters but not as loudly.
For the second straight week, somebody from a long-running New Hampshire high school and a long-running New Hampshire university from college football’s rambunctious third tier, the Football Championship Series, will play a leading role in the happenings in big old Ohio.
In Week 1 of the college football season, Chip Kelly, who played quarterback for Manchester Central and the University of New Hampshire, and later coordinated the offense at the latter from 1999 to 2006, brought his UCLA team to Cincinnati for a 24-14 loss that sustained Cincinnati’s loftiness from last year.
It will also lend further oomph to Week 2 on Saturday, when Ryan Day, who played quarterback for Manchester Central and the University of New Hampshire from 1999 to 2001, when Kelly coached him, will undergo his first major hasty evaluation. Day, the only first-year coach in the Associated Press top 25, will coach Ohio State (1-0) opposite Cincinnati Coach Luke Fickell, who once played nose guard for, played a Rose Bowl with a torn pectoral muscle for, and coached for 15 seasons for, of course, Ohio State.
He also spent 2011 with the horrifying American title “interim head coach,” also at Ohio State.
As Ohio State tries to stay near the .902 win percentage of the seven-season Urban Meyer era that closed last Rose Bowl — you might say Day showed either guts or lunacy just accepting the job offer — two former New Hampshire dudes called each other.
The Day-Kelly conversation, as Day recollected it to reporters on Monday in Ohio, provided the latest sense of the terrible tedium in which these coaches do dwell.
“You know, we didn’t talk too much about the [Cincinnati] game, really,” Day said. “We talked about my college coach going through a tough time right now, and a few other things. Wished him luck against San Diego State [this week] and we talked about those kinds of things. Talked about his team. Talked about our team, kind of where things are going, and that was it.”
Way back down the landscape to 2000, Kelly and Day helped New Hampshire overcome a 31-3 deficit against No. 2-ranked Delaware and spring a 45-44 overtime upset. Their Wildcats did not soar back then. They went 15-19 during the three Kelly-Day years even with Day’s 7,670 passing yards. New Hampshire’s stock rose since, and their head coach from then, Sean McDonnell, remains in the role just as seven playoff quarterfinals and two semifinals will allow.
When Oregon coach Mike Bellotti chose Kelly to coordinate the offense in winter 2007, even Kelly remarked about the oddity of plucking an FBS coach from 2,548 miles away. When Meyer chose Day to coach Ohio State’s quarterbacks and help coordinate the offense in winter 2017, Ohioans had to cram in studying his past and its stops with Kelly in Philadelphia (Eagles) and San Francisco (49ers).
There went their quiet.
By going 46-7 at Oregon in four seasons (2009-12) after succeeding Bellotti, Kelly built enough stature that his return to college coaching at UCLA can serve as a barometer: How much did the game catch up to him while he was away in the NFL? So far, it has caught up 10 times out of 13 games, with his offense muddled.
It got 12 first downs and 218 total yards against Cincinnati. When a reporter asked on Monday in Los Angeles for something quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson needed to improve, Kelly said: “You ask the same question all the time and I saw the same thing. There’s not one thing where [for example] if he throws with his left foot opened it’s fantastic and everything’s fixed.”
Day went 3-0 filling in for Meyer during Meyer’s suspension in September 2018, then kept his record spotless last Saturday with a 45-21 win over Florida Atlantic. In the official handover last December, Meyer called Day “elite.” Justin Fields, the transfer from Georgia and Dwayne Haskins’ successor as the Buckeyes’ quarterback, emerged from the transfer portal to debut with four touchdown passes and one rushing touchdown.
Off they all go again, with a swell piece of scheduling ahead this week, calling to mind 2002, when Ohio State’s national championship run included an early 23-19 scare in Cincinnati.
Then there’s Fickell, tucked amid all this and preventing his players from media interviews this week in the name of concentration. “I don’t think about who we’re playing,” he told reporters in Cincinnati. “I think about it being, Hey, this is a great program, a great team, and this is a challenge to us, as opposed to it being, you know, an in-state [program] a hundred miles away. Maybe a lot of our kids grew up as Ohio State fans. You know, try to put all those things aside.”
That’s Fickell, going back to the Horseshoe at Ohio State to play the second of two weeks opposite two guys who once engineered New Hampshire’s 45-44 upset of Delaware. It’s all some crazy concoction, almost as if nobody knows where any coaching hire or path might lead, almost as if investing any emotion into such things might be irrational.