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The Meaning of Ohio State’s Urban Meyer Decision

Once an independent investigation delivers its results later this month, the university will face a choice about whether to fire its head football coach. The decision will speak volumes—about both college sports and the school’s priorities at large.

Associated Press/Ringer illustration

Ohio State University announced last week that it was putting head football coach Urban Meyer on administrative leave while it conducted an independent investigation into his handling of a 2015 account of domestic abuse involving former Buckeyes assistant Zach Smith. On Friday, Meyer released a statement via Twitter in which he said that he followed protocol by “elevating the issues to the proper channels.” Meyer’s statement was released two days after longtime college football insider Brett McMurphy published an August 1 report in which Courtney Smith said her ex-husband, Zach Smith, “shoved me up against the wall, with his hands around my neck” in 2015 and provided text messages showing that Meyer’s wife, Shelley, was aware of the incident. The report intimated that Meyer may have known about the 2015 account, too—a direct contradiction to the head coach’s remarks at Big Ten media days, when he said that he first heard about the incident on the night before his July 24 press conference.

Now, the investigative team hired by the university is tasked with figuring out which of Meyer’s comments, if any, is true. The school announced Sunday that it plans to conclude the investigation by August 19. Since the story of who knew what and when has become increasingly confusing, let’s recap what we know:

  • Zach Smith was arrested in 2009 on suspicion of aggravated battery against his then-wife, Courtney Smith, who was pregnant at the time. According to the police report, “a heated argument ensued in the upstairs bedroom. Courtney stated she tried to get Zach out of her bed, which he refused and then forcefully grabbed her.” The report also said that Zach “picked her up by grabbing her T-shirt and threw her against the bedroom wall.” Zach Smith was then 25 and a member of Meyer’s coaching staff at Florida. Courtney Smith did not press charges.
  • Meyer has long known about Zach Smith’s 2009 arrest, and told reporters as much at Big Ten media days. He still hired Smith to be his wide receivers coach after taking the Ohio State head-coaching job in 2011. “It was a very young couple and I saw a very talented young coach and we moved forward,” Meyer said of 2009 at this year’s media days.
  • On May 12, 2018, Zach Smith was charged with criminal trespassing at the home of Courtney Smith, who had divorced him September 2016. This July, a judge granted a protective order that Courtney had filed against her ex-husband. Meyer fired Smith on July 23, shortly after multiple accounts of domestic violence involving Smith came to light.
  • Cleveland.com obtained nine police reports involving Zach Smith and/or Courtney Smith between 2012 and 2018. One of those pertains to the October 2015 account in question.
  • Meyer misled the public about his knowledge of the 2015 account. Whether he was misleading at Big Ten media days or in his Twitter statement released last Friday is unclear, and may never be cleared up. What the coach said July 24 and and what he expressed in his statement cannot both be accurate, though. There’s no way Meyer could have never heard of the 2015 account before the day Smith was fired and “followed proper reporting protocols and procedures” in informing his superiors about the incident.
  • Zach Smith’s grandfather was Earle Bruce, who was Ohio State’s head football coach from 1979 to 1987. Meyer considered Bruce his mentor.

Taking all of this into consideration, it’s natural to wonder whether Meyer willfully ignored (if not outright covered up) serial domestic abuse by a member of his staff. Meyer has never had a reputation as a disciplinarian, and it’s fair to question whether he knowingly looked the other way to protect his assistant, who is a descendent of a man Meyer revered. Even if his most recent statement is true and he did follow protocol, there are still questions that need to be addressed. If Meyer knew about Zach Smith’s 2009 arrest, why did he hire Smith at Ohio State in the first place? If Meyer has long known about the 2015 account, why did he keep Smith on staff until just last month? And why, as Meyer’s statement put it, was the head coach “not adequately prepared to discuss these sensitive personnel issues” at Big Ten media days? He had to have known that he’d be asked about Smith a day after firing him. So why did he respond to reporters’ questions in the way he did? Sorting through these inquiries brings us to the most pressing dilemma facing Ohio State: Should Meyer be fired for this?

I’ll be honest: I have conflicting feelings as to what should be done. (This is if the investigation confirms Meyer’s statement about his reporting the 2015 incident. If the investigation finds that Meyer knew about Courtney Smith’s account and didn’t adhere to protocol, there is no reasonable outcome other than for the university to fire him immediately.) I am an Ohio State alum who obsesses over Buckeyes athletics, but I also recognize that the football program is an extension of the university and not the other way around. This distinction is lost on parts of a fan base as massive as Ohio State’s, and in some ways that’s understandable. College sports, after all, has turned into a billion-dollar business: The surest way for a school to build facilities and compete for national championships is to invest colossal amounts of money; the surest way for a school to bring in that money is to appeal to sports fans; and the surest way to win over more fans is to make people feel connected to a team and those who lead it above all else. So I understand how we’ve gotten to the point where people on Twitter with usernames like @BubbaBucknut69 and @MuckFichigan2014Champs care more about the Buckeyes putting a winning product on the field each fall Saturday than the implications of the highest-profile representative of the university, at best, doing the bare minimum when informed of an account of domestic abuse involving one of his staffers. That in no way excuses a segment of fans holding a rally in which they acted like Meyer is a victim. But I understand why these fans are generally upset.

They’re upset because even though Ohio State is far from the first football program to be investigated for enabling systematic patterns of abuse, the general public has yet to come to a consensus as to what it expects from its college coaches. Is a coach’s foremost priority to game-plan and recruit? To plug themselves into the campus and local community? To serve as a parental figure who maintains lifelong relationships with their players? To help players achieve their professional goals? Or to act as a moral compass and arbitrator for every person in the program? No matter what some might say, the answer can’t be all of the above. So which of those matters most?

I’d like to believe that the more human aspects of the job take precedence, but the powers that be at prominent schools have shown, through their decisions, that this isn’t always the case. And as I’ve read through the particulars of this case, and tracked the reaction pouring in from all sides, that’s what I keep coming back to: Ohio State now has to declare exactly where its priorities lie.

Big Ten Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin Andy Lyons/Getty Images

For the sake of exercise, let’s assume that Meyer’s statement is accurate and that he did follow protocol in reporting the 2015 incident involving Zach and Courtney Smith. If that is the case, the real argument over Meyer’s job status isn’t about whether he passed the buck to the necessary people. It’s about Ohio State determining what it wants its athletic department and university to stand for. There hasn’t been a Buckeyes football coach who has left the school on his own terms since the 1950s, and there hasn’t been an Ohio State men’s basketball coach who’s done so since Gary Williams bolted for Maryland in 1989. Meanwhile, each of the coaches who has been forced out has helped clarify what Ohio State values in the leaders of its two biggest revenue-generating programs.

Woody Hayes taught us that the school has no tolerance for a coach punching an opposing player. Earle Bruce got the ax for going 9-3 virtually every year (i.e., not winning enough), while John Cooper was canned for losing to Michigan and in bowl games too often. Jim Tressel had to resign over NCAA violations, which are also what brought down basketball coach Jim O’Brien in 2004. Randy Ayers’s basketball program was beset by off-court issues and NCAA violations in the mid-1990s, leading to five consecutive dismal seasons and Ayers’s firing in 1997. And Thad Matta, whose basketball program never had anything even resembling a scandal during his 13-year tenure in Columbus, was shown the door 14 months ago for missing the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.

To be clear: If the independent investigation concludes that Meyer elevated “the issues to the proper channels,” Ohio State will be under no obligation to fire him. As Sports Illustrated’s Michael McCann explained in his legal breakdown published Friday, Meyer’s “statement communicates to Ohio State administrators and the Ohio State Board of Trustees that the university lacks the necessary grounds to fire him for cause.” And that’s what makes it so hard for me to figure out where I stand. Based on what we know, it seems clear, at the least, that Meyer could have done more, and that he could have done it sooner. In a vacuum, I don’t know whether he should lose his job solely because of that.

But adding in context very much changes things. I can’t ignore that O’Brien was fired because he gave $6,000 to a Serbian prospect who was dealing with a personal hardship and never went on to play for Ohio State. I can’t ignore that Bruce won more than 75 percent of his games and that Cooper posted four straight double-digit-win seasons, yet both were fired because they didn’t win enough. I can’t ignore that Tressel resigned in the wake of Tattoogate, a scandal that had no victims, and that Matta was let go only because he couldn’t sustain the unprecedented level of success that he had established over an entire decade. I’m not saying that these coaches should have kept their jobs. Coaches at other programs have been fired for much less. I’m just saying that when you step back, think about what led to each of these departures, and compare those reasons with Meyer’s handling of the accounts involving Zach and Courtney Smith, it’s hard to rationalize Meyer returning to the Ohio State sideline. Should he keep his job, I’m not sure how it can be interpreted as anything other than Ohio State expressing that the one thing it values most within its athletic department is winning.

And maybe that’s what should be expected. I don’t have the answers. I tend to be old school with my feelings toward college sports, in that I still believe in the virtues the NCAA tries to tout. I still believe in all that cheesy stuff most of America probably rolls their eyes at, like the notion of coaches being LEADERS OF MEN and the idea that students dream of coming together to represent their universities and play for the love of the game. But I’m also not naive about what has happened to college football in the past 30 years. It’s obvious that the highest level of amateur sports in this country is nowhere near the amateur enterprise it once was. There’s no point in burying my head in the sand and ignoring the economics of college sports: Winning is the quickest way for a school to pull in tons of money, and it’s indisputable that Meyer is one of the greatest winners the sport has ever seen. So long as he keeps hoisting trophies, maybe doing the bare minimum in all other aspects of the job is the standard by which he should be judged.

But man—that feels really, really, really depressing. I still remember how unsettling it was in 2011 to hear Gordon Gee, Ohio State’s president at the time, respond to a question about whether Tressel would be fired with this: “Are you kidding? Let me just be very clear—I’m just hoping the coach doesn’t dismiss me.” Gee was joking (I think), but the underlying sentiment rang true, and it seems to grow more apt with each passing year. Sports, at their best, serve an important and sometimes remarkable purpose in society, but football programs becoming bigger than the schools they represent has always been a recipe for disaster. After all, I don’t like Ohio State’s football team because a sense of tribalism tells my caveman brain to cheer for the guys in scarlet and gray to score more points than the guys in maize and blue. I like the Buckeyes football team because I’m proud of my alma mater and want every person who sits in an Ohio State classroom to accomplish great things. I want people from Ohio State to become great citizens and go out of their way to make a positive impact on their communities; I want someone from Ohio State to cure cancer, be the first to set foot on Mars, and figure out a way to sell the McRib year-round. When that greatness comes in the form of Ohio State embarrassing Michigan on a football field every November—six years in a row!—well, that’s pretty cool, too.

Ohio State football will always be just one piece of a much bigger and more important puzzle, though, and pretending that this piece matters more than all the rest is not only asinine, but wrong. Based on what we know now, I just can’t imagine a scenario in which Meyer keeps his job and I’m not left thinking that football was prioritized over the reputation of the entire university. That certainly doesn’t mean Meyer is a “scumbag” or “piece of shit” or anything else that fans of rivals schools are eager to call him. But he’s the most famous and arguably powerful representative of Ohio State, and he has seemingly had multiple opportunities to use his power in a profound and tangible way, and it appears as though he chose not to. Taking everything else out of this, I’d like more from the man who has served as the face of my alma mater for the past seven years.

Plenty of Ohio State fans feel otherwise, and I suppose their opinion matters more here than I’d like to admit. After all, these fans have helped Ohio State become the behemoth institution that it is. But the one thing I implore everyone in Buckeye Nation to agree on—and the one thing that the university’s administration surely should not lose sight of—is that Urban Meyer needs Ohio State much more than Ohio State needs Urban Meyer.