Originally Published: August 8, 2018 6 a.m.
Winning in college sports is highly valued, no more so than in football. That’s why elite coaches, who are integral to the success of a program, are paid such astronomical salaries.
Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer is slated to pull down $7.6 million this year, thanks to a new contract he signed in April that includes a salary bump of $1.2 million over last year’s compensation. Meyer has amassed a 73-8 record and one national championship in his six years in Columbus. Perhaps a better yardstick of his success, at least among OSU’s rabid fan base, is his 6-0 record against archrival Michigan.
But in the blink of an eye, Meyer’s salary is suddenly in jeopardy. The university placed Meyer on paid administrative leave after evidence surfaced suggesting he knew about charges of domestic abuse against assistant coach Zach Smith in 2015, but elected to retain him on his staff. Compounding the situation for Meyer is it wasn’t the first time Smith was accused of mistreating his wife. In 2009, while Smith was a member of Meyer’s staff at the University of Florida, his wife had filed domestic violence charges against him. In both instances, Meyer elected to believe Smith’s account that his wife was the aggressor.
However, days before Meyer was relieved of his duties, the 2015 incidents resurfaced when a reporter published a series of text messages from Smith’s wife, Courtney, several of which were addressed to Meyer’s wife, Shelley. Given the new disclosures, Meyer felt compelled to fire Smith.
When Meyer was asked about Smith’s firing during the Big Ten media days, he denied having prior knowledge of the 2015 incidents and defended his assistant. But after the university’s board of trustees announced it had formed a special independent board to investigate, Meyer released a letter addressed to Buckeye Nation in which he walked back his earlier account of what he knew when.
Regarding his answers to reporters’ questions, Meyer insisted he didn’t intend to be “inaccurate or misleading” but rather, he was “unprepared.” He claimed to have “followed proper reporting protocols and procedures” after learning of domestic violence allegations against Smith in 2015. The letter was both a carefully worded defense and an attempt to apologize for his responses at the Big Ten media days.
Later, in an interview with ESPN, Zach Smith confirmed Meyer’s contention that OSU athletic director Gene Smith, who is Meyer’s boss, knew of the domestic violence allegations in 2015, saying he (Zach) had discussed the incident with the AD. That fact may be sufficient to switch the investigatory focus from Meyer to Gene Smith and ultimately save Meyer’s job.
In a climate where institutions can’t appear to condone domestic or sexual abuse, it seems likely that OSU will be compelled to take action against someone. Given a choice between a popular and winning coach and an administrator, even one as successful as Gene Smith, I’ll bet on Smith being the fall guy. Suits are easier to replace than coaches with a 90 percent winning percentage.
Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at email@example.com.