ESPN Staff Writer
Urban Meyer today is the same Urban Meyer who walked the sideline at Florida: a head coach so driven to win, he was willing to tolerate misconduct among players and alleged misconduct among assistants as long as it meant competing for championships.
But there is one big difference. Forgiving and forgetting domestic violence, sexual assault or abuse against women is no longer the norm. Nobody is too big to go down in college sports, not anymore. Not after what happened with Art Briles and Baylor or what happened for decades to Michigan State gymnasts or what is happening now at Ohio State. Meyer, 54, was placed on paid administrative leave Wednesday as the school announced it is investigating Courtney Smith’s claims that several people close to the coach knew of a 2015 allegation of domestic violence against her ex-husband, former Ohio State assistant football coach Zach Smith, who was fired in July.
A decade ago, that was not the case. A decade ago, Urban Meyer built a championship program at Florida, burnishing his reputation as one of the greatest coaches in the game despite his bringing in and keeping troubled players. Nobody really cared all that much. Florida football was rolling, and though the arrest reports kept growing, not one administrator came down on Meyer or the way he handled his players.
In retrospect, Tim Tebow gave Meyer much needed cover for the ugliness that continues to stain the Florida program today. All the positive headlines Tebow drew during his illustrious career there helped deflect a growing problem: an out-of-control locker room.
During Meyer’s six-year tenure at Florida, some 31 players were arrested, with at least 10 accused of crimes ranging from misdemeanor battery to felony domestic assault to felony theft to domestic battery. Punishment varied depending on the player, but let’s just say it was uneven at best. In perhaps the best example that illustrates that, star running back Chris Rainey was suspended only four games in 2010 after he was charged with aggravated stalking for allegedly texting his girlfriend, “Time to die, b—-.”
Not included in that arrest total? Then-graduate assistant Zach Smith, arrested in 2009 for allegedly shoving his pregnant wife against a wall. Meyer explained last week at Big Ten media day that he and his wife, Shelley, got involved to help Smith and his wife through counseling. Meyer went on to deny knowing that Smith was investigated for domestic violence in 2015. Courtney Smith, Zach’s now-ex-wife, said Wednesday that she told Shelley about both the 2009 and 2015 incidents.
The counseling explanation sounded eerily similar to comments Meyer made about former player Aaron Hernandez, who killed himself in 2017 after he was sentenced to life in prison for murder. Meyer once said he used to have Hernandez over to his home for Bible study, and he and Shelley counseled Hernandez to stop hanging out with his childhood friends in Connecticut. (In April 2007, Hernandez settled out of court and received deferred prosecution following a bar fight. He was later questioned by police but never charged following a Gainesville shooting that September.)
“We knew that every time he went home — and that was a concern of mine — every time he would go to Connecticut, I’d have players on my team say, ‘Watch this guy. Watch when he comes back,’ so I would visit with him,” Meyer told Andrea Kremer for HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” in 2014. “He was knee-deep in our family.”
Before the societal sea change over the past several years, coaches could get away with believing themselves to be saviors or father figures, purveyors of second chances for so many troubled souls. It’s a God complex that isn’t isolated to Meyer but is symptomatic of the coaching culture in general.
It was only after he left Florida that a slow examination of what Meyer allowed to happen began in earnest. Even he told Kremer in 2014 that he made mistakes at Florida. “If I look back now, the biggest mistake, I probably gave second chances to some people that maybe [I] shouldn’t,” Meyer said. “But this is someone’s son. I know in my soul we’re doing it right, doing the best we can. Did we make mistakes? We make mistakes.”
Perhaps Meyer learned from those mistakes as it relates to player behavior. During his tenure at Ohio State, only a handful of players have gotten into legal trouble. The most notable was running back Carlos Hyde, who was suspended for three games in 2013 after police began investigating him for allegedly assaulting a woman.
But it was a different story among the staff. Meyer brought on Smith, a man Meyer knew had been alleged to abuse his pregnant wife. He brought on former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson, who resigned after he was accused of mistreating his players. He stuck by Greg Schiano after a deposition came to light alleging that Schiano knew about Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse at Penn State, allegations Schiano denies.
Did Ohio State administrators even bother questioning those moves? Or Meyer’s past at Florida?
This whole time, it has been up to administrators to hold Meyer accountable. Nobody ever did until Courtney Smith decided to speak up. In this rare instance, she provided not only photos but also text messages to back up her claims that at least Shelley Meyer knew what happened to her in 2015, despite Urban Meyer’s denials.
And then the college football world stopped and actually listened.
While no permanent decision has been made on Meyer’s future, Ohio State administrators have shown that they are listening.
Given the shift we have seen in our society, from Baylor to the #MeToo movement, Meyer was finally forced to listen. His past at Florida has come back to him in a rather unexpected way, all thanks to the decision he made almost a decade ago to give Zach Smith a second chance.
In those 10 years, the world started to change. It seems Meyer hasn’t changed quickly enough.
Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images