Ed Puskas: Meyer’s misguided loyalty almost cost him his job


Former college basketball coach Fran Fraschilla has a firm grasp of the obvious.

After Ohio State announced the suspensions of football coach Urban Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith on Wednesday night, Fraschilla tweeted this:

“Urban Meyer is getting skewered tonight & rightfully so. But even more shameful are the buffoons defending him. Be honest, if you were 6-6 last year, you’d be figuring out a way to get rid of him & bring Bob Stoops home.”

Thank you, Captain Obvious.

Is there any doubt that Ohio State’s investigation and the subsequent news conference would have gone differently if the career of a less-accomplished head coach was hanging in the balance?

Meyer’s record in Columbus is 73-8. He’s a fierce recruiter and one of the best in his chosen profession, with two national championships at Florida and another at Ohio State. If there was any way for the university to navigate this public relations nightmare and keep Meyer, it was going to find it. That was the initial approach in 2011 with the tattoo scandal and Jim Tressel, but that situation eventually became untenable.

If this was, say, Luke Fickell at the center of a probe into the handling of domestic violence allegations against former Buckeyes assistant Zach Smith, you can be sure Ohio State would have already embarked on a search for a new head coach.

But let’s be honest: If Ohio State had fired Meyer, would it be able to justify as his replacement Stoops, who kept Joe Mixon in his program after the running back committed a violent assault?

Remember, Mixon returned to Oklahoma despite the fact that he literally shattered a woman’s face with a punch and the act was caught on video.

I’m still surprised Oklahoma didn’t face more criticism for bringing Mixon back. But timing, as they say, is everything.

Meyer’s timing couldn’t have been worse, given the social media mob’s desire for swift and brutal retaliation for any perceived misstep.

And there were plenty here that could have gotten Meyer fired. Knowing what we now know about Zach Smith and his alleged treatment of then-wife Courtney on at least two occasions — 2009 in Gainesville, Fla., and 2015 in Powell, near Columbus — it was a huge mistake for Meyer to have brought him to Ohio State and to continue to employ him until July 23.

It should be noted that Zach Smith denies abusing his ex-wife and that the Powell Police Department concluded a months-long investigation with no charges being filed.

But in addition to the domestic abuse allegations, it has been revealed that Zach Smith was involved in a 2013 DUI, had a sexual relationship with an Ohio State football secretary and took explicit photographs of himself in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and during a 2015 White House visit to celebrate the Buckeyes’ national championship.

Zach Smith also reportedly had $2,200 worth of sex toys delivered to him at Ohio State’s football offices (you really can buy just about anything on Amazon), rolled up a $600 tab at a strip club during a recruiting visit and went through a drug-abuse treatment program.

At this point, readers of conscience might be wondering how he wasn’t named pledge chairman at OSU’s Delta House.

According to the report Ohio State commissioned, at one point Gene Smith recommended that Meyer terminate his wide receivers coach.

But there was no firing — until word got out that Zach Smith had allegedly violated the terms of a protection order.

Why did Meyer keep him all this time?

A lot of coaches get fired because of the L-word — “losing.” But Meyer got into trouble because of another L-word — “loyalty.”

In this case, and it requires a bit of a leap of faith, Meyer would like us to believe his feelings for former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce — his mentor and Zach Smith’s grandfather — led to a blind spot so big it makes Brutus Buckeye look like a shrunken head.

In truth, Bruce gave Meyer his start in college coaching as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 1986 and hired him at Colorado State in 1990. In 2001, Bruce was said to have encouraged Meyer to take his first head coaching job at Bowling Green. Zach Smith walked on with the Falcons in 2002, Meyer’s second and final season with the program. Smith later followed Meyer to Florida and then Ohio State.

Yet, Zach Smith repaid Meyer’s loyalty with increasingly bizarre, troubling behavior.

The sordid details that have come out in recent days make Tattoo-gate — which cost Tressel his job — seem almost quaint.

Post-Tressel, the Buckeyes muddled through a forgettable season with Fickell “running” the program (it’s my attempt at air quotes in print) and that led us to the Meyer-Smith regime.

Does that “Smith” refer to Zach or Gene, you might be thinking.

Yes.

The real question if you read the report and consider Gene Smith’s history is how he weathered such a storm. Again.

If Meyer received what many are calling a slap on the wrist, Gene Smith’s “punishment” (more air quotes) was the equivalent of a spa visit. If nothing else, it’s another great chapter for his upcoming book, “God Wishes He Had My Job: Above the Law, More Powerful than the Board of Trustees and Athletic Director for Life.”

Meyer’s loyalty to Bruce and reluctance to get rid of Zach Smith didn’t cost him his job, but only because he isn’t average and Ohio State couldn’t bear to part ways with one of the best head coaches in the country for the second time in seven years.

As there was for Meyer’s loyalty to Bruce, there will be a price to pay for the university’s loyalty to the coach and his winning ways.

At the very least, Meyer’s failure to act sooner and misleading comments about Zach Smith at Big Ten Media Day damaged his reputation and tarnished Ohio State’s image. That said, I don’t think his transgression rose to the level of termination, and that’s not because we happen to share Ashtabula roots.

But something had to be done. The suspensions appear to be a compromise that left few on either side happy, but such is the nature of compromise. Meyer and Gene Smith also did not appear to enjoy a news conference that capped nearly 12 hours of behind-the-scenes haggling Wednesday.

Zach Smith was clearly not worth all that, nor the national scorn that has come down on Ohio State. But this is all stuff folks will likely forget about by the Tulane game.

Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at epuskas@vindy.com and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.

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