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Here’s a quick primer on Ryan Day, the Ohio State offensive coordinator picked to replace Urban Meyer as the leader of the Buckeyes program.
Kirkland Crawford, Detroit Free Press

The optics of a situation can be much worse than reality.

But recruiting is often as much about optics as anything else. And new Ohio State coach Ryan Day’s double-whammy across the bow of Jim Harbaugh and Michigan this week was as much about recruiting as anything has ever been.

It felt straight out of the Urban Meyer playbook (and probably was): Do something you believe will help your side while hurting your biggest enemy at the same time.

More: Michigan football’s Al Washington leaving for Ohio State Buckeyes

Greg Mattison and Al Washington bolted Ann Arbor for Columbus this week. Part of this is understandable. Part of this is telling. And part of this is weird.

But it is completely about recruiting and, right now, all the chips in that battle remain exactly where Meyer left them: Firmly inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

More: Michigan football assistant Greg Mattison leaving for Ohio State

“I think his familiarity with this region as a coach and as a recruiter is going to be very impactful,” Day said on Tuesday about Washington, whose Ohio State ties run deep.

“His experience as a coordinator and his knowledge of the Big Ten is extremely important to me,” Day said of Mattison on Monday.

Translation on both: These were two of Michigan’s top recruiters, both guys who have connections inside the state of Ohio, that the Wolverines had when Day took the job officially in December.

Now Michigan has neither and Ohio State no doubt feels much better about its ability to keep a stranglehold on the most fertile recruiting state in the Midwest with a first-year coach who has lived in it for roughly two years.

Washington’s father played at Ohio State. His Michigan bio listed a hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He has known Day forever and was no doubt at the top of his wish list from the second he found out he’d be taking over for Meyer. Did Michigan want to keep him? Absolutely. Was Michigan battling uphill for this the entire way? Absolutely.

Mattison is a bit more complicated, as he has spent the last eight years here telling anyone willing to listen how much he loved and adored Michigan. He came back to coach with his best friend, Brady Hoke (he’s also been friends with Meyer for some time). When Harbaugh retained him, he raved about the Harbaugh family — as he has coached with Jack, John and Jim. All of that was genuine. But so was the upgrade Ohio State offered him.

He’ll turn 70 in November. The Buckeyes are giving him a coordinator role he wasn’t going to have at Michigan with a salary that is probably far north of anything the Wolverines were willing to offer. Money is money and money will always talk louder than any photoshopped recruiting flier or sanitized team mantra.

From a coaching standpoint, it’s a blow for Michigan because Mattison is one of the best defensive line tutors in the game. As a 69-year-old coordinator? We’ll see about that. Washington was only here one year. He coached the vipers, which is literally one position. No one really knows what he’ll be in terms of a developer of talent just yet.

These two were also key members of a defensive staff that Day and Meyer laughed off the field in November to the tune of 62 points.

Maybe Day doesn’t care. He wanted regional recruiting upgrades and he got them. His football program, unlike Michigan’s current outfit, will spend the bulk of its energy attacking opponents with a wide-open offense that dictates both pace of play and the overall outcome of a football game. His defense isn’t irrelevant, but it is nowhere near as important as his offense.

Any early opportunity Harbaugh had to make a move in the state of Ohio while Day found his legs has been squashed. He could go hire two more staffers with the ability to recruit regionally, but he just lost two — to his biggest rival — who already could. So that’ll sting.

It’ll also sting as another example of the Buckeyes taking whatever they want in the year-long Michigan-Ohio State conversation. OSU has consistently beaten Michigan like a drum on the field since the turn of the century. It almost never loses a head-to-head recruiting battle. Now it is hiring Michigan staffers basically because it can. 

Day came in and took two guys from Harbaugh and now has two people with extensive knowledge of how everything works inside Schembechler Hall. Would Harbaugh be able to do the same to Day right now given the current state of things? 

These aren’t program-crushing moves. Michigan has hired good people before. It will again. But it was another reminder of the situation both Day and Harbaugh find themselves in. 

If Harbaugh can’t beat Ohio State this November in Ann Arbor, he will be 0-5. It’d be another critical rivalry loss, this time against a first-year coach, that would keep the question of whether or not Harbaugh will ever get Michigan over the hump very much alive. If Day loses to Harbaugh next fall, he’ll be 0-1 against the biggest opponent on his schedule and find out how difficult his job can be almost overnight. 

All of this goes back to recruiting. The better you recruit the more you win. The worse your biggest rival recruits the more you win. 

Optics can be tricky. 

But the on-field result on Nov. 30 will mean more than anything else. 

Contact Nick Baumgardner: nbaumgardn@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickBaumgardner. 

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