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This is the end of the Urban Meyer era at Ohio State

There’s a lot riding on the investigation finding out what Meyer knew and when.

Ohio State v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images
Matt Tamanini Matt Tamanini is the co-managing editor of Land-Grant Holy Land having joined the site in 2016.

In an article posted last night, my friend and LGHL colleague Patrick Mayhorn asked the question that has been at the forefront of the mind of every Buckeye fan for the past 24 hours; “Is this the end of the Urban Meyer era in Columbus?

Well, friends, no one— save athletic director Gene Smith, and perhaps Meyer himself— is likely able to answer that question with any absolute certainty; but, I am here to tell you, that if you look at the situation dispassionately (which I know is difficult for any fan to do), the answer is, most likely, yes.

Now, before you get too upset, I recognize that there is no way for you or I to know what Meyer knew, and when, concerning the domestic abuse allegations against former assistant coach Zach Smith, nor is there any way for us to know what athletic director Gene Smith— or perhaps the OSU Board of Trustees— will ultimately decide to do.

However, barring a vast conspiracy designed to keep what appears to be a well-known open secret away from him, if you look at the multitude of factors swirling around Meyer, it is difficult to imagine him keeping his job.

At this point, you are undoubtedly well aware of the chain of events that led to the termination of former Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith, and then eventually to Meyer being placed on paid administrative leave, and Ryan Day taking over as interim head coach.

Now, I know there is a certain contingent of “fan” out there that is clinging to some delusion that Courtney Smith, Zach’s now ex-wife, is lying about or exaggerating her claims of abuse as a way to get revenge on Zach and the Meyers. Let’s be clear for those folks, there is nothing in the public record, nor in any reporting done thus far that would indicate that a single syllable what Courtney has uttered regarding the situation that appears to be anything other than 100% accurate.

To her credit, in an interview published on Wednesday with, Courtney admitted that she doesn’t know if Urban Meyer knew about her abuse accusations, although she says that Meyer’s wife Shelley, a registered nurse employed by Ohio State, went out of her way over the years to help her deal with the situation.

Further, the fact that none of the nine police reports filed against Zach Smith resulted in charges being filed is germane to this— and honestly any— argument about domestic violence. According to Psychology Today only 8.32 percent of domestic violence incidents lead to charges being filed.

So, for the sake of this exercise, we are going to assume that all of the reporting that has been done this far is as accurate and as complete as it can possibly be at this point; we will not be entertaining conspiracy theories. Until there is similarly investigated and corroborated reporting done to counter Courtney Smith and McMurphy’s claim, that seems like the only prudent way to proceed.

This, of course, is not meant to pass judgment on Meyer, as I do not believe that anything reported indicates that he ever acted maliciously. I believe that Meyer is a genuinely decent man of faith, and whatever actions he may or may not have taken were likely guided by some sort of desire to help those involved, even if those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. However, like Ohio State coaches in the recent past before him, the best of intentions might prove to spell the end of his tenure in Columbus.

It’s not always the crime, it’s the coverup

From the moment that Smith’s legal troubles first began coming to light, many people in and around the Buckeye community lept to the football program’s defense, insisting that this was a private matter between two adults, and what a football coach does in his personal life shouldn’t impact his job, nor his boss’ job.

That is not only a ridiculous stance to take on a case like this, but an offensive and laughable one. If you replace the words “domestic violence” in the accusations against Zach Smith with any other crime; “bank robbery,” “racketeering,” “drug trafficking,” or even non-domestic “assault;” if Meyer knew the extent of the accusations against an assistant coach and did nothing, then the action from the university would be swift and final, and the consensus in support for it would be nearly unanimous.

However, because the violence that allegedly occurred was between, first, a husband and wife, and then a divorced couple, many people apparently feel that there is some extra level of privacy or sanctuary that an offender should receive from the consequences of his actions. That simply is the pervasive misogynistic attitude that permeates culture— sports or otherwise— in America.

If the accusations are true, Zach Smith committed violent crimes. And if Urban Meyer knew, he covered for, or at least ignored, someone committing violent crimes, either out of familial loyalty, or a fear that it could negatively impact his football team.

If Smith’s actions resulted in any other crime that rose to the severity of domestic violence, but did not involve assaulting a woman, I do not believe that there would be nearly this level of rationalizing being done.

Do not expect the Ohio State Board of Trustees, which is made up primarily of CEOs and lawyers, to rationalize in the same way. If the reporting thus far withstands scrutiny, then Urban Meyer failed to report or discharge a criminal bad actor within his employ, potential exacerbating and continuing the cycle of abuse.

This is not a moment, it’s a movement

There is likely no worse time for Meyer to be dealing with issues connected to domestic violence than right now. First, for the better part of the past year, our country has been wrestling with the ramifications of powerful men (both literally and figuratively) taking advantage of women.

Now, obviously, Meyer is in no way responsible for any abusive actions that appear to have occurred at the hands of Zach Smith. However, throughout the “Me Too” moment, we have seen that abusers are often aided by the silent complicity of well-meaning people too afraid to speak truth to power.

However, in this case, Meyer was the power. He had the leverage, and if he knew what McMurphy’s reporting makes it appear that he knew, he had the power to get Courtney help, get Zach help, or both. And, at this point, it appears that he did neither.

Ohio State, like all giant corporations, is well aware of the optics in the country’s current climate. No business, studio, university, network, etc., wants to give off the appearance that it tolerates, or tacitly condones, turning a blind-eye to abuse of any kind.

That brings up another important factor that could play into Meyer’s dismissal; at last count, the university is currently dealing with three lawsuits that allege that the university turned a blind-eye to abuse at the hands of athletic department staff.

Between the pair of suits filed in response to the alleged sexual abuse at the hands of former university physician Richard Strauss, and another claiming that former Ohio State University Diving Club coach William Bohonyi sexually assaulted a high school athlete, it would make sense if the university came down even harder on any appearance of impropriety than it normally would; which is probably not good for Meyer, considering the athletic department’s willingness to severe ties with well-established, historically successful coaches in the recent past.

No one’s bigger than the brand

Another factor with which Meyer will have to contend, if he is to keep his job, is recent history. In 2011, Gene Smith forced out Jim Tressel, who was at the time, the winningest coach in football program history— save Carroll Widdoes who coached for two years during World War II— for failing to notify the school of NCAA violations; mind you, Tressel did not commit said violations, he just lied about and covered them up.

Granted, Tressel’s actions ultimately resulted in a five-year show cause penalty handed down by the NCAA, but the athletic director made it clear that the integrity and health of the football program would not, ultimately, be sacrificed to protect anyone; no matter how historically significant he or she might be.

Going back a little further, in 2004, OSU basketball coach Jim O’Brien— with a .602 winning percentage and just six seasons removed from a Final Four run— was fired by then-AD Andy Gieger for giving a $6,000 loan to the family of a former recruit whom he knew was no longer eligible for NCAA competition.

O’Brien sued the university for wrongful termination, and was eventually awarded $2.4 million in compensation. In this case, OSU was so concerned about appearances that they didn’t even wait to do their due diligence before they fired their coach.

As ESPN’s Bomani Jones noted yesterday, despite the assumptions that a coach is “untouchable,” Ohio State has never shown any inclination that it is shy about firing a coach when it believes that he would damage the standing of a program or the university by remaining.

Lying just makes it worse

We all laugh when curmudgeonly head coaches get into spats with journalists, refuse to answer their questions, or straight up lie about a situation. For the most part, the antics of Gregg Popovich, Bill Belichick, and Nick Saban are harmless, because they are primarily focused on the ultimately unimportant machinations of sport.

However, last week, Urban Meyer said to a hoard of collected media that he never knew about the 2015 allegations of abuse against Zach Smith.

Just over a week later, McMurphy’s reporting indicates that not only was Meyer’s wife Shelley intimately familiar with the accusations, but that Urban himself was copied on numerous text messages detailing the abuse.

In fairness, McMurphy admitted on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” with Scott Van Pelt last night that he does “not have any direct evidence that Urban Meyer— any text messages from Urban Meyer that says he knew about it.”

However, knowing how close Urban and Shelley are, and how important she is to the program, it would require quite the willful suspension of disbelief to even entertain the idea that Urban was not fully aware of everything that was alleged at the time; either that, or the belief in a wide-ranging conspiracy to keep the truth from him.

If McMurphy’s reporting is correct— and I believe that most level-headed observers believe that it mostly is— then Meyer lied, point-blank, to the media about his inability to respond to serious crimes committed by a person on his staff.

Obviously, lying to the media is not a fireable offense like Tressel’s lying to the university and NCAA was. However, Meyer was not talking about players trading trinkets for tattoos either. Despite the actual or perceived NCAA illegalities of both Tressel and O’Brien’s situations, there is no logical, humane reality in which what they did was even light-years near what Meyer did if he covered up Smith’s abuse for years— endangering the safety of Courtney and their children— and then lied about it.

If it is proven that this is what actually occurred, I cannot imagine a situation where anyone at Ohio State would even contemplate allowing Meyer to remain connected to the university, let alone lead the most visible operation therein.

Practice What You Preach

In recent year’s, Meyer’s program has seen nearly unparalleled recruiting success, not just because of his team’s victories on the field, but also because of the thoughtful, well-developed programs that the football program invests considerable time and resources into in order to better its athletes as both students and people.

When nearly every big-time prospect commits to play football at Ohio State, one of the first things out of his mouth is how important “Real Life Wednesdays” were to his decision. The old saying goes that “recruiting is the lifeblood of college sports,” and if that is the case, it is difficult to imagine that the “Real Life Wednesday” program would be able to carry the same recruiting impact moving forward, if its main architect, the man driving its development, allowed an alleged serial domestic-abuser to be an integral member of his staff for the better part of a decade.

I’m not a parent, but I would imagine that it would be difficult for a mother or father to send their young man to a program that— if all of the allegations prove true— extols a specific set of values out of one side of its mouth for mass public consumption, while implicitly accepting the opposite in reality.

Ohio State’s 2014 Playbook

Occam’s Razor

Despite what you might read on certain internet message boards or supermarket tabloids, the scientific principal of Occam’s razor suggests that “the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.” In this case, it would take quite the flight of fancy to explain away the mounting evidence indicating that Meyer knew, and then lied about, the allegations of domestic abuse against Zach Smith.

In a vacuum, perhaps Meyer’s assumed lie is not enough to get one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football fired. However, when looking at the full spectrum of circumstances surrounding the lie, it’s hard— for me at least— to envision him keeping his job.

Everything about this situation is sad. The abuse that it appears that Courtney suffered is sad. The Smith children being witnesses to the abuse is sad. The fact that it appears that Urban Meyer willfully buried his head in the sand, perhaps out of respect or obligation to Zach’s grandfather Earle Bruce, is sad. If Meyer is ultimately relieved of his duties as Ohio State head coach it will be sad; especially because I believe that if he would have simply stuck to the first core value of his football team, “Honesty,” this would be a much different story.

If instead of insisting that he knew nothing of the 2015 accusations of abuse, I believe that Meyer would still be OSU’s head football coach had he simply said something to the effect of:

Zach is family to us. While we were aware of the accusations, we took internal steps that we believed would help him deal with his issues, it’s sad that those steps clearly have not worked. We are sad for Courtney, who we also hold as a member of our family, and we are heartbroken for the pain that she and her children have had to endure. In retrospect, while our intentions were to be of service to everyone involved, we likely did not handle this situation in the best way. Shelley and I pray for all members of the Smith family, and will do whatever we can, whenever we can to help them. That is all that I can say at this point, as it is an internal personnel matter.

Next Man Up

Finally, I believe that the final piece of evidence foreshadowing the eventually dismissal of, or resignation by, Urban Meyer is who is now serving as the interim head coach in his stead. On the Ohio State football staff, there are two coordinators who have head coaching experience at the Division I level, Kevin Wilson and Greg Schiano (who also spent two seasons as a head coach in the NFL). There are also coaches who have spent decades as coordinators at various institutions; Larry Johnson, Bill Davis, Greg Studrawa. Schiano carries the title of associate head coach, while Johnson and Tony Alford are considered assistant head coaches.

However, none of those individuals, with long histories of running football teams and/or sides of the ball, were entrusted with the mantle of interim head coach. That responsibility instead went to Ryan Day, who is in just his second year at OSU, and, despite experience coaching in the NFL, before coming to Columbus, only served as a coordinator in the college ranks for three seasons at much smaller programs, Temple and Boston College.

If the administration was looking to have a staff member serve as a temporary placeholder until Meyer was ceremoniously cleared to return to his duties, it would have made more sense to install Schiano, as, by title, he is the senior most assistant coach. He also has the most experience running an operation as large as Ohio State’s football program.

Instead, they went with a 39-year-old offensive guru from both the Meyer and Chip Kelly coaching trees. This move has all of the outward appearances of a decision made to solidify and excite (as much as possible, at least) the fanbase and recruits for the imminent departure of Meyer.

When Day was initially hired, and especially when he turned down an offer from former Buckeye player and assistant coach Mike Vrabel to join his staff with the Tennessee Titans, many assumed that Day had some sort of understanding that he would be in line for a promotion or two in the coming years.

The hiring of up-and-coming defensive coach Alex Grinch temporarily muddied that assumption, but, at least for now, it appears that Day will have the opportunity to prove his mettle as the Buckeye’s head coach.

Finally, I fully admit that this is all conjecture, and ultimately just a reading of tealeaves in a situation that frustrates and confuses anyone who cares about Ohio State football. If this investigation uncovers exculpatory evidence that proves that Meyer did not know about the 2015 abuse allegations until late last month as he claims, then— while that still will require some explaining— he should be allowed to return to his position. However, I, for one, will be surprised if that is how this sad situation plays out. Whether it is tomorrow, before the season, or in the new year, until given reason to believe otherwise, I believe that this is the end of the Urban Meyer era at Ohio State.