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, the classroom, and yes, 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. He 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.
John U. Bacon is the author of nine books. His latest is The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan