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Column: Tribalism might explain why Urban Meyer kept Zach Smith on his staff for so long

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This seems like one of the only viable theories for how we got to this crossroad in Buckeye history.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Media Day Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

This dilemma that the Ohio State Buckeyes football program is facing has not only snowballed out of control, but has become an avalanche.

On social media, the lines are divided between Urban needing to be fired, or him staying on at OSU as head coach. Some want Meyer to be more accountable and truthful, while others believe he did enough and doesn’t have to tell the truth to the media. Between Meyer, Zach Smith, and the University, any level of detente was squashed when Meyer released his statement on Friday evening—which was then followed by Smith jumping on the radio and television waves. In other words: this has become a circus.

Personally, I believe the powder keg for this whole situation stems from Meyer’s inability to speak the truth at Big Ten Media Days last month. But what caused him to not be totally upfront? Tribalism may be to blame.

Tribalism versus reason

The football coaching fraternity is, practically, a form of tribalism. It’s a network of people in the same line of work, and one doesn’t really submit an application to apply for a job; you’re generally brought in by someone who knows what you can do. You come up through the ranks. If you do get to the pinnacle and become a head coach, then you’d probably assemble a coaching staff of people who you know, or have worked with in the past. There rarely would be any strangers on your staff.

And when one coach leaves a school, he generally finds a new landing point. Assistants move around, become head coaches and the cycle continues.

In this specific case, Meyer got his upward start with help from Earle Bruce. Bruce became a mentor to the young Meyer, and, over time, Meyer went from small roles to slightly bigger roles, all the way to national championship winning coach. Along the journey, however, Zach Smith, the grandson of Bruce, was brought into Meyer’s “circle,” his coaching tree. Sure, there may have been some nepotism when Smith constantly found a way to stay on staff, but after the initial domestic abuse claim against him in 2009, the logic to keep Smith on staff made less and less sense as time progressed.

Especially after the 2015 allegation, the alarms should’ve sounded that, at a minimum, his contract as wide receiver coach should’ve lapsed—and not been renewed. But the kicker with tribalism is that logic goes out the window.

The tribalism factor comes in with the statement Meyer gave at Media Days. He said “I know nothing; never had a conversation about that” about the 2015 incident.

At no point did he indicate that Smith was someone he shouldn’t have around his football program. It seemed like Meyer was doing just enough to show that he was doing something. But he didn’t want to figuratively brand a scarlet letter on Smith as being someone who shouldn’t keep coaching.

I think the best thing that Meyer could’ve said at Big Ten Media Days when asked about the firing of Smith would’ve been saying something along the lines of: After the 2009 incident, I gave him one more chance—because I truly believed that with the football family, he could be reformed. When I learned about the 2015 incident, I realized that I had failed in reforming him—and that he needed to leave.

He did not say this. To be clear. But wouldn’t it have been better if he did?

There was no need to deceive and every reason to tell the truth. However, Meyer didn’t do that, and now he’s on administrative leave. And late Sunday night, it was unveiled that the University’s investigation would be concluded within the next 14 days.

Take this scenario for instance:

You’re a successful manager of an organization, and thanks to Person A, you got your start. After a lengthy career of working up the ladder, you land your dream job. However, Person B, the grandson of Person A, is on your staff and you find out there are some serious allegations against Person B.

What would you do with Person B? Would you keep Person B around? Would you fire Person B? Most reasonable people would agree that there’s no room in any organization for that kind of behavior. In essence: Person B must go.

In that scenario, we’re looking at it from a theoretical and rational standpoint. However, we live in a world where people are often irrational.

This may also explain why Smith went on a media tour on Friday. Smith may have felt that he put Meyer in this situation, and was trying to help out his former coach. The former coach who gave him a second chance after the 2009 allegations, and then brought him to Columbus—the place where his grandfather coached. However, it seemed like Smith’s strategy for getting out of the already deep hole he was in, was to keep digging.

If we use the tribalism rationale, then you would have a situation where it appears to be coaches versus the administration. That’s basically what’s happened since Meyer and Smith voiced their side of the story on Friday evening. But, I don’t think Meyer and Smith were in cahoots when it came to releasing their sides of the story to the masses. If Smith pulled his interview first and proved that he isn’t credible at all, then who was going to believe Meyer when he spoke last?

The aftermath of the Friday news blitz

In those eight paragraphs worth of text, four of them echo Meyer telling you to believe what he’s saying. If you have to tell people to constantly believe you, then you’re already starting on the low ground. That’s the consequence of telling the whopper at media days.

Meyer put out his statement after it appeared that the university was boxing him in; normally when you’re put on administrative leave, it isn’t a good thing—throw in the fact that there’s an independent panel that will go over what was known/not known—and things really weren’t looking good for the incumbent Buckeye head coach.

Combined with the fact that Smith was going on TV/radio to voice his side of events, Meyer felt he needed to say something. In this case, doing—and saying—nothing would’ve been the wrong thing to do. (Also, Smith saying that it would be “a crime” if Urban lost his job over this points to Smith’s disillusionment of the situation, which, after his media rounds on Friday, showed that he is an unreliable narrator at best.)

The tribalism mindset is the only plausible explanation for how we got to this point in time. While we’ll probably get more information as the investigation continues, this is what I theorize.

The consequence

Frank W. Boreham wrote a fiction piece called Mushroom on the Moor that was published in 1915. In it, he had this golden line, “we make our decisions, and our decisions turn around to make us.”

When the dust settles on this investigation, and the verdicts are handed out, I do think we’ll see not only seismic changes at Ohio State, but the whole landscape in general.

Do I think Urban Meyer will get fired? I don’t believe he will, assuming that no other groundbreaking information is found. I do believe, however, that because of the administrative leave and investigation taking place, he’ll be served some sort of penalty for not dismissing Smith sooner. A 2-4 game suspension could be served up.

On the national level, I think there will be an increased focus on dealing with domestic abuse allegations the right way, and that retaining people who are accused—and that have strong evidence against them of being an abuser—will lead to immediate dismissals when uncovered. Doing the right thing shouldn’t be a hard thing to do. However, when tribalism and rationalizing one’s own decision come into play, all bets are off.

No matter how this story ends for Urban Meyer, Courtney Smith, Zach Smith, and the Ohio State University, there are no winners.