Wojo: Urban Meyer could be done at Ohio State, felled by arrogance

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer

There are many sad, disturbing layers to the situation at Ohio State, where Urban Meyer may lose his job for doing what he does and being who he is. Arrogant, self-confident, and as far as he was concerned, untouchable.

The saddest part? It’s not a surprise.

It’s not a surprise anymore when a coach or school or program becomes imperious and insular, too successful to be challenged. It’s not a surprise anymore when the very traits that make a coach great — intimidation, calculation, control — can lead to his downfall.

Meyer was put on paid administrative leave by Ohio State Wednesday, the day before the Buckeyes popped up at No. 3 in the preseason polls. If they popped up at No. 25, or unranked, he’d probably be fired already.

That’s the world Meyer and other top coaches have always known, but that world is changing, and he may be the latest to plummet. It used to be, if you won big, you could survive anything, any scandal. It’s taken a while for reality to overtake the myth but it’s happening, as social awareness has grown, and nobody is (or should be) immune.

Jim Tressel wasn’t immune, pushed out at Ohio State in 2011, partly for lying to NCAA investigators. The very same act — lying — could lead to Meyer’s dismissal. If the school uncovers proof he lied about what he knew about former receivers coach Zach Smith’s domestic abuse allegations, Meyer should be fired. As much as the lying, it would be a violation of Title IX guidelines requiring acts of violence (sexual or otherwise) by school employees or students to be immediately reported.

More: Title IX contract clause could pose problem for Urban Meyer

What did he know?

Meyer kept an alleged domestic abuser on his staff for five years at Florida, then brought him to Ohio State in 2012. Meyer acknowledged an incident in 2009, when Smith was arrested for aggravated battery after allegedly throwing his then-pregnant wife, Courtney, against a wall. Courtney Smith eventually dropped charges, and said she felt pressured to do so by Meyer’s closest friends.  

But Meyer claimed he knew nothing about multiple incidents involving Zach Smith in 2015, including assault and stalking allegations that caused Courtney Smith to obtain a restraining order. Meyer arrogantly shrugged off the story at the Big Ten Media Days, saying he’d just heard something the night before. When police reports surfaced shortly thereafter, Meyer fired Smith.

Then early Wednesday, college football writer Brett McMurphy revealed, in a deeply reported piece, text conversations between Urban Meyer’s wife, Shelley, and Smith’s ex-wife. Courtney Smith described Zach’s attacks and threats, and showed photos of bruises.

More: Chris Spielman: Ohio State bigger than Urban Meyer

More: Ohio State closes ranks as Meyer probe adds new scandal

Shelley Meyer’s texts indicated she would report the incidents to Urban, but it’s unclear if she ever did. Courtney Smith said she couldn’t confirm whether Meyer was made aware, but said Zach’s behavior was so well-known in the program, how could he not be aware?

“I do believe (Meyer) knew,” Courtney Smith told the website Stadium. “And instead, he chose to help the abuser and enable the abuser.”

If Urban knew and chose to lie, it’s a fireable offense. Is it plausible he didn’t know, or didn’t want to know? I suppose. Is it believable? Not really. In another text exchange revealed by McMurphy, another wife of a staff member indicated Urban indeed talked to Zach about the 2015 allegations, and Zach denied them.

Apparently, Shelley Meyer, a registered nurse at Ohio State, chose not to push it, which is alarming. Maybe she was trying to save Smith’s job, and legally, he’s never been convicted of any charges.

Why would Urban Meyer feel compelled to protect Zach Smith? Smith played for Meyer at Bowling Green and is a grandson of late Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, one of Meyer’s cherished mentors. These are the acts of people who believe they’re well-protected by friends and confidantes.

Damaged reputations

Deeper than that, Meyer has long been accused of being sanctimonious and hypocritical. While touting values and morals and winning two national titles in six seasons at Florida, helped by Tim Tebow, he also had 31 players arrested or charged. One of them was the infamous Aaron Hernandez, who later played for the New England Patriots, was convicted of murder and committed suicide in prison.

In six seasons at Ohio State, there have been fewer troubling incidents, and the Buckeyes have gone 73-8, 6-0 versus Michigan, and won a national title, which normally buys a coach a ton of time. The appearance of sanctity is still evident, and emblazoned on the wall at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center are several core values, including this: Treat women with respect.

It’s the long-lasting facade in college sports, the touting of core values, even if they can’t be taken at face value. It’s not that way everywhere, but the connection between successful programs and improprieties — just look at the probation-prone SEC — is undeniable.  

Art Briles took Baylor football to unprecedented heights, but was rightly fired in 2016 after multiple allegations of players committing sexual assaults. Joe Paterno was a legend who looked the other way, not nearly as big a crime as the heinous acts by Jerry Sandusky, but enough for him to be defrocked and forever sullied.

Michigan State’s scandal involving pedophile Larry Nassar spread to other places in the gymnastics world and elsewhere, and brought collateral scrutiny to Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo. You can say it was unfair scrutiny considering they had nothing to do with Nassar, but this is part of a necessary correction on campuses — allegations of sexual assault are being reexamined and treated much more seriously.

Domestic violence is horrific, too. Meyer will get his chance to explain himself to school investigators, and maybe he has a plausible explanation. If not, he’ll be gone, consumed by the very hubris that made him a winner, and perhaps an enabler.