Points of transition are often “big moments.” But, of course, sometimes you don’t know when you’ve arrived at a transition point. Sometimes you do – like when Justin Fields announced that he was transferring to Ohio State. In 2018, however, when Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer was sitting out the final game of a three-game suspension, we didn’t know.
We didn’t know that it would be Meyer’s last season. We didn’t know that interim head coach Ryan Day would take the program’s reins on Jan. 2 of the following year. We didn’t know all about the explosive offense that we Buckeye fans had in store for us.
On Aug. 22, 2018, OSU president Michael Drake announced that Urban Meyer would be suspended for the first three games of the 2018 season and forfeit six weeks’ pay. Drake soft-pedaled Meyer’s actions (or inactions). “Meyer,” he said, “failed to take sufficient administrative action regarding Zach Smith,” and that Meyer had, “a misunderstanding of reporting requirements.” Drake continued by declaring that Meyer had “misrepresented his knowledge of the alleged events at Big Ten Media Days.”
Drake’s language is typical administrative, “don’t sue me,” but it implies that Meyer ignored what was happening (for years), tried to cover it up, and then lied about it to the press. OSU athletic director Gene Smith was also suspended by the university president for failing to report what he knew.
As we all know now, Meyer’s long-time assistant coach Zach Smith, who had been coaching Buckeye wide receivers, had a long history of alleged domestic violence and abuse. Smith’s wife Courtney had filed complaints and had messaged Meyer’s wife Shelley about what was going on. Meyer later acknowledged that he knew of the charges but had thought that they weren’t true. As the situation heated, both Meyer and Gene Smith claimed to be waiting for formal charges against Zach Smith by law enforcement. They finally fired Smith on July 23.
Upon his suspension, Meyer, never really admitting any wrongdoing, claimed that he gave his friend, “the benefit of the doubt,” that he was blinded by loyalty to Smith’s grandfather, Earl Bruce — Meyer’s mentor. Such statements make Meyer sound like a nice guy, loyal to his coaches and his friends. But the concealment, the inaction, the secrecy, the lies were simply all a part of Meyer’s win at all cost mentality, a mentality that’s all too easy to accept by administrators and die-hard fans. But one that can never take precedence over violence and abuse.
On that day in mid-September, though, when the Buckeyes traveled to Arlington, Texas, to take on the TCU Horned Frogs, we didn’t realize that we had already passed the beginning of the end of Meyer’s relationship with the Buckeyes.
The TCU game
TCU, no doubt, moved the game from campus to AT&T Stadium in Arlington for financial reasons. More seats, higher ticket prices, more revenue. But the move across town also allowed Buckeye fans to snap up the extra tickets and turn the venue into a true neutral site, fan proportions about the same. The home advantage was lost.
TCU head coach Gary Patterson had turned his team into a power. The previous year (2017), the Frogs had gone 11-3 and finished as the AP’s 9th-ranked team, after previously reaching as high as No. 4. Patterson had guided TCU to an 11-2 mark in 2015, good enough for 7th in the final poll. And 2014? Remember when the Buckeyes got a somewhat surprising invitation to the inaugural College Football Playoffs that year? The team that they edged out, after the rout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, was TCU, 12-1 and ranked third at season’s end. Think they wanted a piece of the Buckeyes? You bet.
Coming into the game, both teams had overwhelmed their first two opponents. The Frogs dispatched Southern University 55-7, then smashed old-time rival SMU 42-12. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes and new starting quarterback Dwayne Haskins were showing the world what they had, walloping Oregon State 77-31 and finishing off Rutgers 52-3. As interim coach, Day had done well in his first two efforts. TCU, though, was a different matter, coming in ranked 15th. Could Day make the right decisions, if he had to, to win a close one?
It was a big game. Living in Savannah, I decided to respond to the message from the local Buckeye Club and watch the game in a nearby watering hole. There were 50-60 Buck fans there. And they were... nervous. Not sure that the Buckeyes could pull this one off. Becoming a little too used to upsets. It didn’t help when OSU’s early drive stalled, and they had to settle for a field goal. A defensive touchdown (fumble recovery and one-yard return), however, quickly put the Bucks up 10-0. The crowd relaxed and ordered another round.
But to our collective dismay, the Horned Frogs scored two TDs – a short pass and then a 93-yard run by Darius Anderson. Kicker Sean Nuerenberger put through his second field goal, but the Buckeyes were down 14-13 at the half.
Now we would see what Ryan Day was made of. No fifty-point lead here. This game was in jeopardy. TCU scored first in the third quarter, a short run by Anderson for a TD, making the score 21-13. Then the Buckeye passing game – what we’ve come to know as Day’s offense – came to life. Two touchdown passes sandwiched a second defensive TD in between: 63 yards to Parris Campbell, Dre’Mont Jones’s 28-yard interception return (remember that one?), and a 24-yarder to K.J. Hill. Buckeyes 33, Horned Frogs 21. Each team would add another touchdown before the final whistle, the score reading 40-28 when the clock hit zero.
Haskins finished with 344 yards and two touchdowns on 38 passing attempts. He spread the passes around. Campbell, Hill, Mike Weber, Austin Mack, Johnnie Dixon, and Terry McLaurin all had multiple receptions and big yardage. Weber and J.K. Dobbins led a ground attack that rushed for 182 yards. The Buckeyes had beaten a ranked opponent, on (nearly) their home field after trailing in the second half. And without Urban Meyer.
We know what happened the rest of the year. After cruising to wins, the Buckeyes’ season was ruined by Purdue, who beat them 49-26. And it didn’t seem that close. Meyer returned to the Buckeye sideline, where his behavior was often peculiar. He seemed to be frequently in pain, and he would hold his head, actually once going to his knees. After squeaking by Maryland, Meyer’s team clobbered Michigan 62-39, then beat Northwestern 45-24 to claim the conference title.
Thereupon – on Dec. 4 – Meyer announced that he was retiring from football due to health issues (a cyst in his brain, we would learn). Day was appointed head coach, effective Jan. 2, immediately after the Rose Bowl. In Meyer’s last game, the Buckeyes defeated Washington 28-13.
Whether Meyer really retired or whether, after the suspension, the OSU administration merely let him finish out the season, we’ll never know. It was time for Meyer to go. Had he stayed, there were certain to be further scandals. Day, meanwhile, was hired without a public search. Sure, he was probably Meyer’s pick, but, in fact, he earned the job early in the season as interim coach. He earned it on Sept. 15 against Gary Patterson and the TCU Horned Frogs.
So, the game that day did mark a transition, from the Meyer era into the Day era. It showed the faithful that Ohio State was just fine without Urban Meyer. It showed that Day could adjust, make the right decisions, exploit defenses and win big games. Because of this game, the transition between coaches was a very smooth one. Day was responsible for developing Dwayne Haskins – and Justin Fields and C.J. Stroud. And he’s got some of us asking, “Urban who?”