College Sports

What the Urban Meyer imbroglio tells us about big-time college sports

Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer made a statement during a news conference Wednesday after Ohio State suspended Meyer for three games for mishandling domestic violence accusations against a former assistant coach.
Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer made a statement during a news conference Wednesday after Ohio State suspended Meyer for three games for mishandling domestic violence accusations against a former assistant coach. Associated Press

Anyone expecting Ohio State University to fire Urban Meyer over the OSU head football coach’s mishandling of domestic abuse allegations against a now-former assistant coach was not living in the real world.

In big-time college sports as it exists in the final years of the second decade of the 21st century, it takes more than one major scandal to sink a winning coach.

Few college football coaches of any era have won more than Meyer.

At Ohio State, he has gone 73-8 and won the 2014 national title. Before that, he went 65-15 with two national championships at Florida. In 17 years overall, Meyer has won a robust 85.1 percent of his games (177-31) as an FBS head coach.

Rather than a pink slip, Ohio State on Wednesday suspended Meyer, 54, from coaching the first three games of 2018, against Oregon State, Rutgers and No. 16 TCU. OSU also suspended Athletics Director Gene Smith without pay for some two weeks.

This came after a two-week investigation concluded that Meyer and Smith had mishandled allegations of domestic abuse made against former Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith by his now ex-wife Courtney Smith.

After sticking by Zach Smith, the grandson of Meyer’s coaching patron, Earle Bruce, through years of red-flag behavior, Meyer finally fired him in July.

Meyer, Tressell and Earle Bruce.JPG
Before the BCS Championship Game that followed the 2006 season, then-Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, left, and then-Florida head coach Urban Meyer, right, were joined by former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, center, in Scottsdale, Ariz, on Jan. 7, 2007. Bruce brought Meyer into college football when he hired him as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 1986. Ted S. Warren Associated Press

Yet in addressing the firing to reporters at Big Ten Media Day on July 24, Meyer misrepresented his knowledge of the past allegations against Zach Smith, the Ohio State report found.

The report also said that Meyer responded to publication of a damaging story by college football reporter Brett McMurphy — which provided extensive detail about Courtney Smith’s abuse allegations against her ex-husband, including contemporaneous text messages — in a troubling manner.

It said Meyer discussed with an Ohio State athletics administrator “whether the media could get access to Coach Meyer’s phone (via open-records requests), and specifically how to adjust the settings on Meyer’s phone so that text messages older than one year would be deleted.”

When Meyer turned his cell phone over to the university-mandated investigation, conducted by former Securities and Exchange Commission chairwoman Mary Jo White, it contained no text messages older than one year.

Ultimately, what is most compelling about Meyer’s imbroglio is what it tells us about the overall state of big-time college sports in 2018.

1. The “head coach knows nothing” defense never goes out of style.

Those capable of succeeding as coaches at the highest levels of American college sports are some of the most maniacal, hands-on managers on Earth.

That is, until their program stands charged with some form of malfeasance. Then, the head coaches are almost always remarkably ignorant of the specifics of what is going on in and around their teams.

Over his career, no coach has been more detail-oriented than Urban Meyer.

Yet in evaluating the erroneous statements Meyer made at Big Ten Media Day about his prior knowledge of abuse allegations against Zach Smith, the Ohio State report says:

“We also learned during the investigation that Coach Meyer has sometimes had significant memory issues in other situations where he had prior extensive knowledge of events. He has also periodically taken medicine that can negatively impair his memory, concentration, and focus. All of these factors also need to be considered and weighed in assessing Coach Meyer’s mindset on July 24th.”

2. The excessive fan adoration of successful college coaches never wanes.

The factors that have continually enabled major-college sports scandals — worship of a celebrity coach; slavish devotion to a winning sports program — were on display in the reaction to the investigation of Meyer.

The “Save Urban Meyer” public demonstration on Aug. 6 saw an Ohio State “super fan” fly from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Columbus to lead the rally.

Ohio State rally for Urban.JPG
Ohio State fans listened to a speaker at a rally in support of Coach Urban Meyer outside Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on Aug. 6. Mitch Stacy Associated Press

An online petition to save Meyer’s job — initiated well before the facts of how OSU had handled the domestic abuse allegations against one of its employees were actually known — attracted 36,553 “signers.”

There is, conversely, all but no public constituency for honesty and honor in major-college sports.

3. One scandal does not sink a winning coach.

It took three major scandals on the watch of Rick Pitino before the University of Louisville cashiered its Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach.

Only after a succession of sexual abuse allegations against its football players were made did Baylor University finally pull the plug on Art Briles.

Urban Meyer and Zach Smith.JPG
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, right, and then-assistant coach Zach Smith, left, gestured from the sideline during Ohio State’s 45-24 win over Oklahoma in Norman in 2016. Sue Ogrocki Associated Press

However poor his judgment in dealing with allegations of physical abuse by one of his underlings may have been, Urban Meyer was never going to be sunk by one scandal.

He wins far too many football games for that.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory