Will Ohio State keep Urban Meyer? I don’t see how

Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer prior to the Cotton Bowl in December 2017.

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Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer prior to the Cotton Bowl in December 2017.

He’s the second-best coach in college football. He has won national championships at universities that view themselves as more than NFL feeder programs. If he’s allowed to coach Ohio State’s season opener, he’ll be a lucky man.

Urban Meyer was placed on administrative leave last week, pending an internal investigation. At issue: What he knew and when he knew it.

On July 23, Meyer fired assistant coach Zach Smith, who's the grandson of Earle Bruce, once the Buckeyes' head coach and the man who gave Meyer his first collegiate job. The reason for the dismissal: Smith was charged with criminal trespassing in May, and Courtney Smith had just been granted a restraining order requiring her ex-husband to stay 500 feet away.

Reporter Brett McMurphy revealed that Zach Smith had twice been accused of domestic violence – once in 2009, when he worked under Meyer at Florida, and again in 2015 at Ohio State. At Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, Meyer said he was aware of the 2009 incident, for which Smith was arrested, and that he reported it to university officials. Indeed, he said he and his wife Shelley sought to help the Smiths. According to Meyer, counseling was recommended for Zach Smith. Courtney Smith declined to press charges.

The 2015 case is the reason Meyer, as we speak, isn't coaching. At Media Days, he said: "I was never told about anything. Never anything came to light, never had a conversation about it. So I know nothing about it." On Friday, two days after his leave began, Meyer released a statement saying he "failed" and that "I was not adequately prepared to discuss these sensitive personnel issues with the media, and I apologize for the way I handled those questions."

A second McMurphy report triggered Ohio State's investigation of its most famous employee – and, at $7.6 million per annum, its highest-paid. Text messages obtained by McMurphy from Courtney Smith showed that Shelley Meyer, also employed by Ohio State, knew of the 2015 incident, in which Smith accuses her then-husband of shoving her against the wall with his hands around her neck. From Shelley Meyer: "Do you have a restraining order? He scares me."

On Friday, Zach Smith gave two interviews. To ESPN, he said that, in October 2015, he'd been called before athletic director Gene Smith to give his account of the allegations. Zach Smith then said Urban Meyer confronted him by asking, "What the hell is this? What is going on?" Smith denied ever hitting his wife, and he claimed Meyer said: "I swear to God, Zach, if I find out you hit her, you're done, you're gone."

Meyer lied at Media Days. He concedes the point. In a time of “alternative facts,” should that alone get him fired? Maybe not. What could be his undoing is his response, or the absence thereof, to the 2015 incident.

In his tweeted message Friday, Meyer offered this: "While at the University of Florida, and now at The Ohio State University, I have always followed proper reporting protocols and procedures when I have learned of an incident involving a student-athlete, coach or member of our staff by elevating the issues to the proper channels. And I did so regarding the Zach Smith incident in 2015. I take that responsibility very seriously and any suggestion to the contrary is simply false."

If we believe Smith’s interviews, both Ohio State’s AD and Meyer knew in 2015. Unclear is how they came to know, which will surely be an issue for the school’s investigative panel. But if they did know, why was Zach Smith allowed to keep his job for 2½ more years? Were two incidents – albeit while employed by separate universities – not enough? Meyer now says he was aware of both. How much more did he need?

(Smith has, we note, been convicted of nothing. He says he has never hit his ex-wife. Last week, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported the existence of nine reports by police in Powell, Ohio, between 2012 and this July involving "domestic disputes" between him and Courtney Smith. In an interview with Stadium, she says Zach Smith smashed the windshield of their car while they were driving and later hit her car with a golf club.)

The words “Treat Women With Respect” are painted on the wall of the Ohio State locker room. In the #MeToo era, are words, no matter how high-minded, enough? The goalposts, figuratively speaking, have been moved.

In October 2017, the New York Times and the New Yorker brought to light the story of Harvey Weinstein, the film producer whose predatory behavior had long been the subject of whispers. In these post-Weinstein days, we’re less inclined to treat both sides of He-Said/She-Said with equal weight.

Put it this way: Jameis Winston played the entire 2013 regular season for Florida State while a rape investigation was ongoing. (The state attorney declined to press charges in December of that year.) That couldn't happen today. The outcry, loud back then, would be a ceaseless roar.

In the end, Ohio State’s decision shouldn’t hinge on what Meyer said at Media Days. It should come down to this: Should an institute of higher learning continue to employ a man who says he knew the full history of a troubled assistant but kept him on staff until two weeks ago? It would seem difficult to answer that question with a “yes.” This isn’t some measly recruiting violation. This is serious stuff.

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