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Judging Urban Meyer's ESPN tenure


It's a simple question but one I ask myself every time I see an ex-coach appear on the airwaves:

Are you working for the viewer, your network or yourself?

Over the past two weeks, I found myself repeatedly wondering that with Urban Meyer. And the answer became clear when Meyer shook the hand of Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith on Monday afternoon after agreeing to a six-year contract that pays $4 million annually to coach the Buckeyes.

What did Meyer owe ESPN viewers during his 10-month broadcasting tenure? I'd argue much more than he ultimately gave them. His representatives were clearly negotiating with Ohio State for a couple of weeks; the Eleven Warriors blog (which covers all things Ohio State) reported as early as Nov. 17 that Meyer had agreed to deal.

What did Meyer tell ESPN viewers? During ESPN's coverage of Nebraska-Michigan game on Nov. 19, Meyer was asked on the air to comment on reports of his taking the Ohio State job. He responded "there was no truth" to those rumors. Problematically, there were no follow-ups with Meyer, and the interview segment came off about as authentic as the second season of Jersey Shore.

Meyer's continuing canoodling with Ohio State forced ESPN's PR department into action to protect him and the product. He was pulled off the Ohio State-Michigan game on Nov. 26 ("We felt the studio in Bristol was the best place for him given the many storylines and top matchups going on in college football this weekend," said an ESPN spokesperson) before the network finally pulled him off its coverage entirely ("He requested off his studio assignment and we obliged," said another spokesperson, highlighting again that Meyer seemed to be in charge here.)

It was also telling that during Arizona's press conference on Nov. 22 to introduce new head coach Rich Rodriguez, Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said that he used Meyer as counsel for his hire of Rodriguez. That was news to ESPN viewers as well, and not delivered by Meyer.

(For the record, we'll note here that Gene Smith said his first conversation with Meyer about becoming coach was on Nov. 20 by phone. He said the two met face-to-face Nov. 23.)

On Tuesday I spoke with Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president in programming and production, and the executive who hired Meyer. Given the news cycle over the last week, the question I had most on my mind for Williamson was: How would you evaluate the level of truthfulness Meyer provide ESPN's audience with regard to his ultimately taking the Ohio State position?

"We were transparent and I think he was transparent," Williamson said. "You may not like the actual parsing of the words or the statement. Even when Nick Saban went to Alabama it wasn't like, "Hey, you want the Alabama job. Yeah, I'll take the Alabama job" and then it was done." There were a lot of things I assumed had to be discussed between Urban and Ohio State, so the time frame when they reached out to him to the ultimate decision of Urban taking the job did not happen in a couple of days. It is my understanding that ultimately the final I's and T's were crossed recently.

"Now, as you work through the process and go back, he did a game with Dave Pasch a week ago and we feel as a news organization and covering the game that we're going to ask him the question. I've said this to everyone [on-air talent] who comes in: 'We're not going to look the other way on things. We're going to have to ask you questions and we expect you to provide us with the answers at the time we are asking you the questions, that those answers are accurate.' So he did the game with Pasch, and he said he had not accepted any job and was not offered any job."

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Meyer's words were technically true, but hardly complete. Where I have an objection with ESPN management is this: If you sense or know your broadcaster is negotiating with a university or pro team, why not pull that person from the airwaves during the time he or she is negotiating. Clearly, the broadcaster's first priority is no longer the viewer or the network. In Meyer's case, we are also talking about an analyst with less than a year's tenure. ESPN has plenty of college football talent without him.

Responded Williamson: "Look, we are going through the same thing with Bobby Valentine. [Editor's Note: Williamson's comments came prior to Valentine being named the Red Sox manager on Tuesday night] I don't know how that will play out. And it was the same thing with Valentine and the Marlins. If you go back, we reported the Marlins had interest. We reported Valentine had discussions with them...

"It is subjective. And you might make a different decision. If Valentine was in discussion with the Red Sox, he can't talk about anything in baseball? We have chosen not to do that in the past. Clearly, if we are aware that Urban is in discussions with Ohio State, are we going to have him work an Ohio State game? No. If he is in discussions with Ohio State, does that taint him so much that he can't work a studio show and talk about LSU-Arkansas? I don't believe that it does. If you were unbelievably absolute about those things, you could be pulling people all the time.

"Our philosophy here is when you have people that are connected to the game, relevant and sought-after, we think the totality of that is a good thing because it brings you access and insight. The downside of that is people are sought-after so they will have conversations, and the higher profile that you get, the more potential conflicts may arise. I think you have to be transparent with the audience, and you have to consistently talk about areas of conflict. Ultimately, you make a judgment call because that fan wants the unfettered honest assessment of that analyst.

"I think it comes down to threshold. It comes down to are people compromised? In the Valentine example, talking to the Red Sox, is he compromised if he gives his take on Albert Pujols's free agency? To me there is a difference between that and 'Let's go dissect the clubhouse situation in Boston and what they went through with John Lackey etc..' To me, that is a compromising situation."

Williamson said his network's relationship with Meyer will have little impact on future coverage of Ohio State football. (Some disagree with that.) Nor does Williamson think Ohio State will provide ESPN with better access than its news competitors because of his relationship with company decision-makers and talent.

"My history on this stuff is when these guys go back, that switch gets turned," Williamson said. "He is not accountable to ESPN anymore...It's not like Urban Meyer was here for seven years. We have dealt with this in the past. Players and coaches that you hire have allegiances and when they step back in there, it probably puts us on alert just as much if not more to make sure we're being just as objective."

Evaluating Meyer's broadcasting tenure depends on what side you fall on. He had a great eye for the field and saw plays happen before they developed. I think he ultimately would have been a terrific game analyst; he clearly added to ESPN's community of college football knowledge. But, in my opinion, he also played ESPN for his own purposes and damaged some trust between the network and its college football audience. (For a handy timeline of all things Meyer, ESPN and Ohio State, the kids at Awful Announcing compiled this helpful link.)

"I think it was successful," Williamson said of the Meyer hire. "In the year that he was here, he made us better. I'm privy to seeing a lot of things behind the scenes that eventually show up on the screen. His preparation, whether he was doing games or studio, was fantastic. He sent long and detailed emails dissecting trends, and what we could expect for the game he was working, and that information was used not just to help us produce that game he was on. It was shared with other platforms, whether that was SportsCenter, College Football Live or ESPN Radio. His dissecting of the games he had made us better, and not only made his game better, but our coverage of college football better."

The paperback edition of the New York Times bestseller, Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN, hits bookshelves this week. According to author and ESPNologist James Miller, the paperback contains 50 pages of new material. Miller also includes an afterward in which he reflects on how the hardcover was received. "Certain comments that we and the reader may have found refreshing were apparently too candid for ESPN management or those on the receiving end of them," Miller writes. "At least six formal apologies were either mandated or proffered in the book's wake." One of those apologies was reported here at media junkies will enjoy the new material, including one story that we're sharing here (with the permission of the author). It resulted in ESPN anchor Hannah Storm getting an extra $500,000 thanks to Tony Kornheiser's mouth (Last February, ESPN suspended Kornheiser for two weeks for his comments about the wardrobe of Storm. Kornheiser said Storm had a skirt on that was "way too short for somebody her age" and that "she's what I would call a Holden Caulfield fantasy at this point.")

From the paperback:

"Kornheiser's comments would leave behind an ironic legacy. His suspension by no means put an end to coworkers' fascination with Hannah Storm's outfits -- the gossiping and backbiting never even slowed down -- but in a way, Storm had cause to be extremely grateful to her cranky nemesis. Before Kornheiser volunteered his crude form of fashion commentary that day, Storm was in negotiations to renew her ESPN contract at a yearly figure stuck in the mid seven hundred thousands. But her "ordeal," and the ensuing attention it brought her, very likely contributed to the fact that once the new contract was signed and sealed, the happy number for her was $1.2 million. As one executive said, "Kornheiser opened up his mouth and got clipped for two weeks' salary, but Hannah walked away with a dividend of close to half a million dollars."