Ohio State turns a one-day story into a month-long crisis

For the audio version, click play.

INTRO: Ohio State has put head football coach Urban Meyer on “paid administrative leave,” pending an internal investigation after he fired one of his assistant coaches for domestic abuse. The question is, what did Coach Meyer know, and when, and what did he do about it? Despite the cloud, Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon believes Meyer will be back to coach against Michigan.

A couple weeks ago, I reported on the Big Ten Media Days, the annual event when every coach tells you what a great off-season his team had – in the weight room, in the classroom, and yes, in the community.

About the only news that seemed to come out of those two days of interviews was Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s short, simple answers to exceedingly silly or annoying questions.

But we didn’t realize the big story had just been planted under our noses. The first night of the conference, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer fired one of his assistants, Zach Smith.

Five years earlier I saw Meyer handle another crisis that broke right before the Media Days with great aplomb. Four players were facing separate legal issues, and he simply released them from the team. Meyer took the podium, explained what happened and what they were doing about it, and answered a few questions. And just like that, it was over.

He followed the advice Michigan athletic director Don Canham told me 20 years ago: “Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story.”

Not so last month. When a reporter asked Meyer about Zach Smith, the receiver coach he had just fired, and if Meyer knew about Smith’s 2015 domestic violence incident, Meyer forgot Canham’s advice. Instead of simply saying, those are private legal issues we’re sorting through, Meyer said he was never told about anything about it, never had a conversation about it, and the people in his office knew nothing. No how, and no way.

But it quickly came to light that what Meyer said simply wasn’t true. He was also challenging the credibility of the story’s author, Brett McMurphy – who happened to have the time, the ability, and the motivation to dig deeper. McMurphy soon got Smith’s wife on the record, contradicting many of Meyers’ claims.

Ohio State felt it had no choice but to put Meyer on paid administrative leave, while an internal committee investigated the situation. We don’t know yet what they will find or report, or what Ohio State will do about it.

But we have learned Zach Smith was such an ineffective coach that Meyer barely let him coach at all. Smith would roam the sidelines during practice singing rap songs for $340-thousand a year, while two coaches did his job.

So why keep Smith? Because he’s the grandson of former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, who was Meyer’s lifelong mentor. Another reason could be a threat from Smith, who told his wife if he was punished, “I’ll take everyone at Ohio State down with me.”

When Meyer recognized he’d screwed up and his job was in jeopardy, he released a carefully worded statement that said, in part, “My words must be clear [and] completely accurate… Unfortunately I failed…”

That was smart. So now we’re waiting for the committee to conclude its report, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. When most pundits were predicting Meyer could never survive this, I said Ohio State will not fire Urban Meyer, because he’s simply too good a coach, with six division titles, two Big Ten titles, and three national titles at Ohio State and Florida.

Instead, they will give Meyer a formal rebuke and suspend him for a few games. But not only will Meyer be coaching in November against Michigan, I bet he’ll be coaching in September against Penn State, the second biggest game on the Buckeyes’ schedule.

Of course, the investigators could find more than we expect, or Meyer’s bosses could change their minds. But I doubt it.

In hindsight, Harbaugh’s short answers might not have been the biggest story of Big Ten Media Days.

* * * * *

Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their full name. 

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Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit and Flint, and 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later,  I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on essay on what can i do for my country pakistan, 1050 AM.

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8 comments Leave a comment  

  • Shirley Kowalski August 10, 2018 at 12:15 pm

    Nice analysis. I live in the Ckeveland area and the Earl Bruce connection has not been published (to my knowledge). I always appreciate your insights and hope you return to the Cleveland area soon.

  • Byron Copley August 10, 2018 at 12:34 pm

    Several years ago, a prominent High-School Hockey coach in Michigan had suspended several key players before a critical game and I asked him after they won about their absence (I did not know they were suspended). He brought me up to speed on the situation and volunteered that the program had been in place for 80 years and that no one was more important than the program itself. Apparently, a lazy and ineffective assistant with family connections is bigger than “The” Ohio State Football Program.

  • Tom Wurster August 10, 2018 at 12:43 pm

    1. I agree with you, John, that OSU will never fire Meyer. He’d have to be convicted of a felony first and that’s not likely to ever happen.
    2. It’s amazing to me how much pull being the grandson of Earle Bruce has had at OSU. I had no idea Smith was such an ineffective coach who got paid so well to basically hang around the program. Does Woody have any descendants at OSU?
    3. Don Canham was a wise man.

    Aside, I really enjoyed your book The Great Halifax Explosion.

  • Your name Michael Lusch August 10, 2018 at 1:37 pm

    I’m wondering that, due to the mandated reporter part of the law, if Meyer’s wife will be sacrificed. I can absolutely see Meyer and OSU using her as a sacrificial lamb to create satisfactory enough optics for the public.

  • John W minton Jr August 10, 2018 at 1:47 pm


    Thanks for the blog, now to unfortunate reality.

    The Cowardly Lions from Happy Valley are on their way to Columbus to make sure that Urban Meyer is dismissed to prove that political correctness rules. The powers that be at The Ohio State University have turned their responsibility over to an independent committee, thus relieving themselves of the need to make a decision using existing policies for dealing with this type of situation. The lack of due process in this legal tangle; did Smith’s wife ever file a police report or decide to use the court of public opinion to get even?
    “I accuse” is all that is necessary to convict.
    Since morality cannot be legislated, and the alleged victim prefers not to use due process and legal system, the court of public opinion will do very nicely to convict.

    Woody and Bo, where are you?


  • RBM August 10, 2018 at 4:53 pm

    John – Why no mention of the Yahoo report stating that Courtney Smith’s own family believes she is trying to set up her ex-husband and Urban Meyer? Any chance that someone is going to cover both sides of this story, or is this already predetermined by the media. Only Yahoo is reporting this information. It doesn’t seem to fit the media’s narrative to find out the truth.

  • Whitaker Martin August 11, 2018 at 2:09 am

    Hey John,

    While I do acknowledge that the success Urban has had will likely sway the powers that be to keep him as head coach, is it possible other factors may make Ohio State reconsider retention? I believe, right now, the wrestling and diving teams at OSU are going through scandals involving sexual abuse. Would Ohio State be willing to stomach a third abuse scandal? And if so, would there be any repercussions?

    I appreciate your insight into this matter.



  • johnubacon August 11, 2018 at 11:15 am

    Readers: This is the email I sent to RBM, in reply to his comment. Not surprisingly, the email address didn’t work, and my email bounced back — very typical, I’ve found, from readers who talk tough but won’t sign their names or even use a functioning email. Nonetheless, I decided to run his email so you could see it, and my reply.


    Hello RBM,

    As I write at the end of every essay: Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their full name.

    So, sign your name, and I’ll print it.

    But you should know the Yahoo piece you cite came out after I recorded this on Thursday. Further, Michigan Radio gives me about 600 words to work with. Within those limits, I mentioned several compensating factors, including how Meyer had handled a tough situation in 2013, and avoided the extreme comments you often find elsewhere, which I noted. Further, if you see the responses on my public Facebook feed and Twitter, you’ll see many Buckeye fans praise the piece, including the great OSU historian Jack Park, and none criticize it.

    You’re the first.



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