Urban Meyer has spent his career speaking in absolutes. You’re a good guy or a bad guy. He wants those who break NCAA rules to lose their jobs. He wants everyone in his organization to live by a set of core values. When he got the job at Florida prior to the 2005 season, he got standing ovations from Tallahassee to Belle Glade when he announced his commandments. At Ohio State, he had them painted them on the wall at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Core values one and two are at issue today as Meyer sits on paid administrative leave while Ohio State investigates what—and when—he knew about domestic violence accusations against former Buckeyes receivers coach Zach Smith. Was Meyer being honest when he said he didn’t know about allegations that Smith wasn’t treating his wife with respect? If Meyer wasn’t telling the truth, what then? Does Meyer deserve to be fired? He said the coaches who keep a second phone to call recruits more than NCAA rules allow should be fired. Not reporting domestic abuse allegations against one of your employees even though your employer expressly requires such a report seems worse. If Meyer did that, he may have torpedoed one of the best coaching careers in college football because he could neither follow nor enforce his own allegedly sacrosanct rules.
This is the problem with speaking in absolutes. We don’t yet know what Meyer knew. Nor do we know what he did if he knew. Life tends to happen in the gray areas. What Smith’s ex-wife Courtney described to reporter Brett McMurphy about her marriage to Zach Smith sounds awful. The incident Meyer admitted he knew about—in 2009 in Gainesville, Fla., when Smith worked for Meyer at Florida—sounds worse when Smith tells McMurphy that longtime Meyer consigliere Hiram de Fries helped talk her into dropping an aggravated battery charge. So is Meyer a bad guy because text messages published by McMurphy between Meyer’s wife and Courtney Smith and between the wife of Meyer’s operations director and Courtney Smith suggest Meyer knew about an accusation in 2015? Or is it more complicated? Smith wasn’t arrested in that incident. Though Courtney Smith has called the police on her now ex-husband multiple times in Powell, Ohio, he hasn’t been charged. Zach Smith changed his Twitter bio to read #NotMe, and Smith’s attorney has maintained his innocence and claimed Smith will present evidence in family court that exonerates him. This case is messy and complicated, and the same Urban Meyer who wants opposing coaches fired for paying players probably would appreciate a little more nuanced look into things now that his job is on the line.
He isn’t going to get one from the non-Buckeye public, though. Some coaches sell a caricature of themselves because the story plays well with recruits, with players, with parents and with their bosses. Joe Paterno sold himself as a humble teacher who didn’t want to leave the game to the Jackie Sherrills and Barry Switzers. Hugh Freeze sold himself as a revival preacher. Meyer has projected an image of himself as one of the few who does things The Right Way, standing in staunch opposition to those who do it The Wrong Way.
There is a risk to being holier-than-thou, of course. Thou might be equally or more holy, and then where are you? Louisville coach Bobby Petrino never gets quoted talking about core values because we all have Google. Petrino also isn’t going to get called a hypocrite. He’s Bobby Petrino. What do you expect? Meyer, meanwhile, has sold a standard that few humans in charge of dozens of employees and 110 18- to 22-year-olds are capable of meeting once confronted with the messiness of daily human interaction. This is why fans of Meyer’s rivals gleefully skewer him when he’s forced to wade into the muck of actual events and his actions don’t square with the mythology he’s built.
Meyer has called the criticism of his Florida players’ behavior “overblown,” but it was fairly accurate. He took a number of character risks in order to field a winning team in Gainesville. Sometimes those paid off and at-risk young people got college degrees and the key to better lives—thanks in part to programs Meyer set up to help players be better prepared for life once they finished college. Sometimes they didn’t and wound up stealing the credit card of their teammate’s dead girlfriend. Meyer won two national titles but also wound up quitting twice because of medical conditions that certainly couldn’t have been helped by the stress of wondering what the next phone call would bring.
At Ohio State, Meyer’s team hasn’t had nearly as many legal issues. He has expanded those life-after-football programs to help his players learn how to interview for jobs, how to manage finances and how to manage their mental health. These absolutely are good-guy actions, and they absolutely won’t help Meyer if even one employee says he knew about Courtney Smith’s accusation in 2015 and it turns out Meyer failed to file the proper report.
The assumption when anything like this happens is that the coach has so much clout that he’s untouchable. It’s certainly easy to look at Meyer’s 73–8 record in Columbus and his three national titles (two at Florida, one at Ohio State) and guess that he’ll skate through this. A lot of people assumed the same when Baylor hired an outside law firm to investigate its football program. But when Pepper Hamilton gave its report to Baylor trustees, they fired coach Art Briles, who had taken the Bears from doormats to Big 12 champs. Ohio State fired Woody Hayes the day after he slugged a Clemson player during the Gator Bowl. Ohio State forced out Jim Tressel in 2011.
This is a school that has not been afraid to fire successful coaches, probably because the program has almost always been some version of good no matter who coaches it. Of course, if you want to be a conspiracy theorist, Hayes had lost three in a row to Michigan. Tressel was clobbering Michigan regularly, but he got caught lying to NCAA investigators. The NCAA’s Committee on Infractions was going to hand down penalties that would make it difficult for Ohio State to continue employing him.
Meyer set a trap for himself last week at Big Ten media days in Chicago. He was supposed to stay on the script and explain that Smith had been fired and that he was aware of Smith’s arrest in 2009. Meyer went off script when he addressed the 2015 incident, which McMurphy had reported on the night before. (About an hour after that report, Smith was fired.) “I got a text late last night that something happened in 2015,” Meyer said last week. “There was nothing. Unless… Once again, there’s nothing. Once again, I don’t know who creates a story like that.”
There was something. Powell police confirmed the existence of the incident report minutes after Meyer made that statement. But there also was no arrest, either. Had Meyer framed his statement as if he heard about an accusation in 2015 but didn’t find it credible, he might have a logical explanation now. But he framed it as if he only heard about the accusation last week. Now Courtney Smith has offered some fairly plausible claims that Meyer knew, and the only way Meyer can prove he didn’t is by convincing his bosses that the soulmate who tells him everything neglected to tell him about this. Meyer apparently thought he could will an end to the questions last week with an easily debunked accusation of fabrication. In the end, he only invited more questions. Some answers came Wednesday. More will come during the investigation.
Will this cost Meyer his job? We won’t know until Ohio State’s inquiry is done. Will it change the way Meyer is viewed forever? Depends on who you’re asking. The Tennessee and Michigan fans never liked him much anyway.
Meyer made part of this problem for himself by building a universe of absolutes around his coaching persona. If Courtney Smith is telling the truth, then Meyer didn’t stay true to his own core values. Meyer compounded his troubles by saying there was nothing when he didn’t have to say anything at all. I know who creates a story like that. I just can’t figure out why.