When Urban Meyer stood to read his “apology” at a news conference last week, he looked like the bully who was forced to say he’s sorry to the skinny schoolkid. He raced through it and sat back down, as if to say, “OK? Satisfied?”
It is the behavior of someone who only admits he’s done something wrong when forces more powerful than him insist on it. It’s the reason he was behind the curve on everything during the recent Ohio State scandal.
He lied when asked if he’d known about the 2015 abuse allegations against his assistant coach Zach Smith. Then, when confronted by the big bad truth of text messages, he admitted he had.
He insisted that, despite lying, he had done everything he was supposed to do, until the big bad investigative committee determined he hadn’t, and he mumbled his apology to “Buckeye nation.”
He figured he had done his penance, until the big bad swirl of public opinion howled that he owed less of an apology to Buckeye nation than to Courtney Smith, the woman who was allegedly abused, so on Friday he issued a statement that included a one-sentence apology to her.
You see the pattern here? Behind the curve. Contrite only when confronted. If it seems familiar, that’s because we see it in politicians, businessmen, even Presidents. Powerful people often assume largesse excuses responsibility. Let someone else take the blame. The king is, to borrow a popular phrase, too big to fail.
Maybe Meyer should have been fired. But I never thought he would be. Even when Buckeye haters were licking their chops, thinking, “Isn’t this great? He’ll be out just when the season starts and my team will have a better chance!,” I couldn’t see it.
Maybe I’ve been around too long. My naivete is gone. When it’s an assistant coach doing the evil, big-time college football offers many caves in which to crawl to safety. Sometimes, as with Joe Paterno and Penn State, the sin is too large to escape. But other times, as with this situation in Columbus, there is light at the end of a scandalous tunnel. Especially when your coach wins championships.
And so Meyer, despite ignoring repeated bad behavior by an assistant who should have been fired years ago, will only be suspended for three games that his team will likely win anyhow, and will be back in the saddle just in time, two weeks before the big showdown with Penn State.
How was Meyer not fired? Blame Ohio State
But before you hurl all your ire at Meyer, remember that he doesn’t punish himself. That was up to his university. And if you read the report from the Ohio State investigative committee, you realize that having a university determine its football coach’s fate is like letting a grandmother judge her granddaughter’s beauty contest.
Here are some of the things the committee concluded:
• That Meyer, when confronted with this scandal, immediately sought information about erasing text messages, and may well have done so.
• That despite denying any conversation between them, it was “likely” that Meyer and his wife Shelley knew and discussed the alleged domestic abuse Zach Smith inflicted on his wife over the years, and that Shelley Meyer sent her husband a text after Smith was fired, saying, “He drinks a lot and I am just not sure how stable he will be. Afraid he will do something dangerous. It’s obvious he has anger/rage issues already.”
• That Meyer was aware of Smith’s repeatedly awful behavior, from taking high school coaches to a strip club — quite possibly an NCAA violation — to having sex with a staff member, to taking lewd photos of himself on a team trip to the White House, yet never reported this behavior to higher-ups nor dismissed Smith until last month.
• That Meyer, in the words of the committee, “has cast doubt on his own honesty, in a way that reflects adversely on him, the football program, and Ohio State.”
Read that again. Meyer “has cast doubt on his own honesty, in a way that reflects adversely on him, the football program, and Ohio State.”
That sounds like the thing they read just before saying, “Therefore, we are dismissing the coach from our program.”
Instead, he was suspended for three games. And by the end of the year, if he’s hoisting a trophy, few in Buckeye nation will even care or want to hear about it.
Don’t blame Meyer for that. Blame Ohio State.
Meyer acts like he’s above reproach
I don’t believe the school was ever going to fire the man who brought them a national championship in 2014 and has never finished less than tied for first place in the Big Ten East, not unless they found undeniable complicity in the domestic violence that’s at the core of this whole thing.
And there are some who argue, not without merit, that a coach of a major football program can’t be accountable for every single thing an assistant coach does, especially when that assistant coach is squirming to keep things secret.
I get it. But the truth is, the system Meyer freely works under demands he be responsible for such behavior. His contract explicitly calls for immediate reporting of abuses by anyone within the program. That’s the deal he signed. Had this been an NCAA violation issue — and how this isn’t is still a head-scratcher — they’d have been looking at every hamburger that an assistant coach bought for a recruit. And Meyer might have been held accountable for it. Remember, he replaced a coach who left because his players were exchanging memorabilia for free tattoos.
Instead, despite charges that Zach Smith repeatedly roughed up his wife, including when she was pregnant, Meyer hid behind the fact that Smith was never formally charged (and we all know how little that has to do with whether abuse actually took place) or that it was, in his words, a “he said she said” situation.
And the investigative committee actually concluded that Meyer’s bald-faced lying about what he knew might have been a result of his “periodically taken medicine that can negatively impair his memory, concentration and focus.”
Really? I don’t see him forgetting many plays on the sidelines.
Medicine? Honestly? If you read the 23-page report, you see an investigation that did what it was supposed to do, unearthed a long list of troubling behavior, then refused to walk the plank of its own ship, saying essentially, ‘It’s a close call, but Coach Meyer really does have a sensitivity to the issue of domestic violence.’ “
Maybe. But the facts only show he has a sensitivity to getting caught in cover-ups, and only apologizes when left with no option. That’s not the pattern of a man who sees the responsibility of power. It’s the pattern of a man who thinks power puts him above it.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.