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How basketball reveals a lot about Ryan Day's success with Ohio State football

Pete Thamel

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – On a recent frigid December afternoon, a dozen folks converge on the floor of Conte Forum at Boston College. They flash the familiar trappings of “Noon Ball” games that play out across America – knee braces, long-sleeved dry fits and body types that range from six packs to beer bellies. There’s over-muscled football graduate assistants, an equipment guy nicknamed “Murph” and a law professor who’ll show up on CNN on occasion talking about the Supreme Court.

The Boston College version of Noon Ball has been played in some form since the early 1970s, with everyone from Doug Flutie to Ray Allen to Tom Coughlin jacking up jumpers over the years. These days, the guy who generates the most headlines is current Ohio State football coach Ryan Day, who moonlighted as a pickup point guard at BC during his three stints – graduate assistant (03-04), WR coach (2007-11) and offensive coordinator (13-14) – on The Heights.

The game at Boston College doubles as one of the university’s nerve centers. It’s filled with graduate assistants in their 20s, administrators in their 30s and professors in their 40s. The pickup game is reflection, in many ways, of the university itself. And that’s why Day’s popularity among the noon-time grunts forecasted his success as a head coach.

“You see the personality of a guy who just went about his business,” said former BC basketball coach Steve Donahue, who is now the coach at Penn. “He played really fricking hard, and yet was unassuming. You respect it. It’s awesome for a guy to be rewarded who did it the right way. And he did.”

Much of what Ryan Day displayed playing pick-up basketball at Boston College informs his success as Ohio State head coach. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)
Much of what Ryan Day displayed playing pickup basketball at Boston College informs his success as Ohio State head coach. (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)

Day is 13-0 as a full-time head coach heading into No. 2 Ohio State’s College Football Playoff semifinal match-up with No. 3 Clemson. There’s myriad factors that have contributed to his early success – most notably, as he’s quick to point out, inheriting a loaded team from Urban Meyer. But Day has navigated the new job with considerable deftness in elevating from relative anonymity to one of college football’s most high-profile jobs.

This comes as little surprise to the swath of the BC community that saw Day run point on countless afternoons at Conte Forum or Power Gym. He shared the ball, hogged the blame and showed the uncanny ability to coach up teammates without tearing them down.

“Basketball is really a revealing sport,” said Kent Greenfield, the BC law professor who is a noted constitutional law expert. “It reveals who you are. Do you play hard? Do you share the ball? Do you make crappy tick-tack calls? Do you talk trash?

“Ryan was a great guy to play with, on the same team and against. You know he’d be competitive and tough, but not mean-spirited.”

With no one watching, Day exhibited all the same intuitive qualities that have served him well at Ohio State this season. He showed toughness without acting like a tough guy, flashed a rare competitiveness without losing his cool and shared the ball but never the blame. (The only moderate derision came when he’d ice his legs postgame in the BC football office, prompting snickers from fellow coaches.)

Day played high-level high school basketball at Manchester (N.H.) Central, including a memorable duel with future NBA player Matt Bonner. Day left hoops behind to play quarterback at the University of New Hampshire, where he displayed his athleticism and skill set on a higher level of noon game.

On Thursday in Arizona, Day perked up when this reporter mentioned he’d played in the BC Noon Ball game. He wanted to know who still played, and held strong opinions more than five years after his last run about who took too many shots or called too many fouls.

“I’d be more upset if we didn’t win the game at noon than anything else for that day,” Day told Yahoo Sports. “Just because you’re competing.”

BC interim football coach Rich Gunnell played wide receiver for Day at BC and later traded jumpers with him when Gunnell joined the Eagles’ staff. These days Gunnell can be found running point during Noon Ball in the offseason and noted that Day’s on-court actions reflect the leadership qualities of a self-aware coach.

“He made a lot of shots, but he wouldn’t shoot them all the time,” Gunnell said. “He was smart the way he did it. He wanted to involve people, not be a ball hog. But when it was time to win the game, he took over.”

As Day’s profile has risen, so has the lore of his trademark in-game quirk. Day never complained about a teammate missing a shot or barked about a missed assignment. But he’s perhaps best remembered by the Noon Ball veterans for only directing his ire at one person.

“Ryan, you’re so fat!”

“Ryan, that’s a terrible shot!”

“Ryan, you’re God awful!”

A typical sequence, as recounted by BC head equipment manager Kevin Murphy – aka “Murph” – involved Day prodding others to shoot more. “He’d never yell at anyone else,” Murphy said, “and if he did it was because they weren’t shooting enough.” Murphy recalled Day saying: “You shoot the ball, Murph! I suck! Shoot it, you’re better than me.”

Boston College interim coach Rich Gunnell knows has played in plenty of Noon Games with Ryan Day. (Photo by Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Boston College interim coach Rich Gunnell knows has played in plenty of Noon Games with Ryan Day. (Photo by Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

These types of recollections prompted rounds of laughs last week when Warren Zola, the business professor who is the game’s unofficial commissioner, invited this reporter for an afternoon run. Zola has played in the game since the early 1990s and sends the emails out to a listserve to run the game. “Ryan came for camaraderie, exercise and to compete,” Zola said. “And he did all of those well. He had a fire to win, but also recognized that it was just pickup basketball.”

Veteran BC associate athletic director Matt Conway pointed out Day’s ability to communicate with teammates who often spanned ages and wildly varying skill levels. He called Day “competitive without being a jerk” and saw his ability to criticize constructively a transferrable coaching skill. “He could help a teammate during the course of a pickup game and not have the teammate upset about how he’s being communicated to. That’s what you see in his coaching, not everyone has his skill. Sometimes, it’s something you are born with.”

Day admits with a grin that he’s passed the competitive gene on to his three kids, as his son, R.J., will argue while playing cards and video games. This drives his wife, Nina, crazy. “They have the same sickness,” Ryan Day said.

While Day, 40, is retired from pickup hoops for fear of an Achilles tear, he’s taken the same demeanor from the court to help form his coaching style. “I’ve always believed in having a quiet confidence and having an edge and just how fun it is to compete,” Day said. “I think the way that translates to coaching football is that a team can feed off of that.

“In today’s world, what really matters? What really matters? What matters is how hard they play, how hard they practice. That’s critical to coaching a team. I think this team feeds off that a little bit.”

The only time anyone remembers Day losing his cool at Noon Ball came when dueling with BC basketball coach Al Skinner, the game’s longtime alpha who played professionally for eight seasons. Skinner was known to keep calling fouls until his team won, much to annoyance of those who played in the game.

Day raved about Skinner’s competitiveness, although still had questions a decade later about a few of his foul calls. “I vaguely remember a basketball getting thrown across the gym,” Day said, with the smile creasing his face, hinting the memory may not have been vague. “And a bunch of curse words thrown at each other.”

It came as a surprise this fall when Skinner was flipping channels on a Saturday and saw his old noontime nemesis coaching Ohio State. “I called up a friend,” Skinner said. “I asked, ‘Is that the same guy who used to be at BC?’”

That’s Ryan Day, still unassuming and unimpressed enough with himself that the Noon Ball regulars wouldn’t be surprised if he showed up unannounced to get in a run. He’d share the ball, holler at himself and, once again, stand out by blending in. “You can learn a lot about someone,” Day said, “by watching them play basketball.”

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