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REGGIE HAYES: Ohio State’s Urban Meyer mess reminds us to remain skeptical of coaches under fire

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer speaks at the Big Ten Conference NCAA college football Media Days in Chicago, Tuesday, July 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Annie Rice)

As Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer goes on “administrative leave” for his ignorant handling of assistant coach Zach Smith’s domestic abuse issues, I’m reminded of something I’ve learned in three decades-plus as a sportswriter:

When it comes to big-time college football and basketball coaches in potentially immoral or illegal situations, don’t believe a word that comes out of their mouths.

It’s safer to assume they’re lying and be surprised if it turns out they’re not. I’m not often surprised.

Harsh? Yes. But it’s been proven time and again powerful coaches (Rick Pitino, Bobby Petrino, Jim Tressel, etc.) will lie and try to cover their tails when they feel the heat. They’ll throw others under the bus. They’ll blame the media.

This behavior isn’t limited to coaches. Politicians, entertainers, even everyday Joes go for the same tactic, doing anything other than coming clean and saying they messed up. We just seem to see it more frequently in sports.

Meyer is in hot water because of revelations reported by writer Brett McMurphy that seem to indicate Meyer knew of Smith’s two domestic violence issues investigated by police in 2015, yet kept Smith on the staff. Meyer told reporters at Big Ten media days in Chicago last week that he didn’t know about the incident at the time.

Meyer fired Smith on July 23 after a protection order against Smith was reported by McMurphy.

Courtney Smith told McMurphy in his Wednesday report that coaches and the coaches’ wives all knew about incidents reported to police by Smith in 2015. She provided text messages between her and Shelley Meyer, Urban’s wife. The idea other coaches, their wives and Shelley Meyer knew about it and Urban Meyer didn’t is simply not believable.

Meyer acknowledged he and Shelley counseled the Smiths after a domestic issue in 2009, trying to help their marriage. The Smiths have since divorced.

Yet Meyer used the phrase “he said/she said” in describing ongoing issues involving the Smiths, displaying insensitivity at best. He also claimed there was nothing to the 2015 incident, and implied the story was invented.

The descriptions by Courtney Smith about the abuse she dealt with paint a picture of an unrepentant Zach Smith who pushed, choked and cut his wife. It’s difficult to believe Meyer was oblivious to all of the issues, particularly since Courtney Smith exchanged text messages about the abuse with Shelley Meyer.

On the surface, it appears Meyer was more concerned with protecting a valuable assistant coach than helping a woman facing domestic abuse.

The question facing Ohio State is whether Meyer’s actions should result in firing a coach considered by many as the brightest and best next to Alabama’s Nick Saban.

In a perfect world, which is a world far from college athletics, Meyer’s on-field success wouldn’t factor into this situation. But winning leads to revenue and the athletic administrators and university presidents have a fondness for winning and revenue.

If Meyer had come clean last week with the Big Ten media, admitted to questionable judgment with Zach Smith (the grandson of Meyer mentor and former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce) and apologized for “missteps,” he would have still caught plenty of grief. But he likely would have survived the firestorm without a possible firing.

Meyer’s defiant responses at Big Ten media days now seem like those of a man who thought the usual rules don’t apply to him. If it wasn’t a cover-up in the true sense – Smith had been fired, belatedly it seems – it was the look of a man covering his tail.

When you’re revered as a god of sorts because of football wins and national championships, you can start to believe your own infallibility. You start to believe whatever it takes to win is the way to go. The ends justify the means.

Let’s be clear: Zach Smith is the ultimate bad guy in this story. He’s the one who ended up with a protection order against him because of how he treated his now ex-wife.

But if it turns out Meyer knew about the 2015 incidents, ignored them and then lied about knowing about them? If that’s the case, he shouldn’t be leading a college program, where presumably ethics and strong decision making are part of the lessons imparted.

Maybe Meyer wasn’t lying to cover his own tail, maybe he wasn’t feigning ignorance to deflect responsibility. Maybe, this time, I’ll be surprised.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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