SALT LAKE CITY — Just like that, Urban Meyer, one of the two greatest coaches in college football today, finds himself in limbo, waiting to learn his future.
He has been placed on administrative leave while an investigation is underway about what he knew and when he knew it regarding an assistant coach’s history of spousal abuse.
He is an outcast, banished from the sideline, and for once it’s not something he can overcome with his characteristic single-mindedness and the spread offense. The press got wind of the story and now it has taken on a life of its own.
Domestic violence is finally being taken seriously in the sports world and it's about time. That's the side effect of the Ray Rice business. And yet the reaction in such matters is still sometimes arbitrary and mysterious. In 2015, Alabama’s imperious head coach, Nick Saban, invited Jonathan Taylor to join his team shortly after Taylor was dismissed by Georgia following a domestic violence arrest in which he was indicted on two felony counts for hitting and choking his girlfriend. Saban said Taylor deserved a second chance. Three months after joining Alabama, Taylor was arrested again for domestic violence and assault and even Saban had to cut him.
Somehow Saban escaped unscathed except for a little heat from the media. He wasn't forced to take a leave of absence and nobody called for his job, not even after he said, “I'm not apologizing for the opportunity we gave him.”
Meyer and Saban seem to suffer from a win-at-all-costs mentality in a profession that breeds obsessiveness. Maybe it’s no coincidence that they have dominated their profession, winning nine national championships between them.
For his part, Meyer has compiled a 177-31 record in 16 years as a collegiate head coach, plus three national titles — two at Florida and one at Ohio State (he probably should have earned a fourth title at Utah).
His ascendance was sudden. In his fourth year as a head coach he turned Utah into what might well have been the best team in the country in 2004. The Utes put the finishing touches on an unbeaten season by crushing Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl. Two years later he won the first of his national championships. Nine of his 16 teams have finished in the top six. In seven seasons at OSU, he has lost only eight games.
But the talented Meyer has been his own worst enemy. Driven and intense, he seemed to be determined to do whatever he must to win and that included ignoring his own health and the behavior of his athletes. More than 30 of his Florida players were arrestedduring his six years in Gainesville.
One of his players was Aaron Hernandez, who led a double life as a football star and a thug. He became a star tight end for the New England Patriots and then was arrested and convicted of murder and sent away to prison, where he died. While at Florida, Hernandez was suspected in a Gainesville shooting that is still unsolved.
Meyer left Florida in 2009 shortly after admitting himself to a hospital with chest pains following a game. He remained out of coaching for two years and then took the job at Ohio State.
Now he’s out of coaching again while the controversy surrounding the behavior of an assistant coach rages. Meyer hired Zach Smith as a wide receivers coach and kept him on his staff for six years, even though he apparently knew years earlier that Smith had a years-long history of domestic violence. When Smith’s history was learned by the media this summer, Meyer initially said he knew nothing about it. Later he said he had reported it to Ohio State officials.
Smith himself told ESPN that after he was ordered to meet with police in 2015, Meyer asked him for an explanation. He says he told Meyer that his ex-wife “is trying to get me charged with domestic abuse from incidents that happened throughout our marriage ... I explained both sides of the story. I volunteered to do that. I didn't ever hit her.' He said, 'If you ever hit her, you are fired immediately.' I looked at him and said, 'If I hit her, I wouldn't come in here. I know how you feel about that. If I hit her, I wouldn't even come to work. I would know it's over.'"
Smith’s ex-wife, Courtney Smith, filed for a domestic violence civil protection order against her former husband on July 20.
If this is the end of Urban Meyer’s coaching career, then it will be among the most abrupt and biggest falls from the coaching ranks of all time. It’s a long fall from celebrating a third national championship four years ago to being placed on administrative leave.
If he is fired, he will join the ranks of a handful of coaches who have made such ignominious exits, several of them from Ohio State.
Ohio State’s Jim Tressel resigned in 2011 when it was revealed that not only had his players broken NCAA rules but that he knew about it. He had won 10 conference championships. Ironically, he was replaced by Meyer.
In 2001, George O’Leary was forced to resign a few days after becoming the Notre Dame head coach when it was discovered that his decades-old biography contained a few fibs — he didn’t earn a degree from NYU-Stony Brook University because the school doesn’t exist, and he did not play football for the University of New Hampshire.
Frank Kush, who had a 176-54-1 record at Arizona State, was fired in 1979 during an investigation into accusations that he had punched a player in the face during a game.
Woody Hayes, winner of three national titles at Ohio State, was fired in 1978 after he famously punched an opposing player on the sideline.
And now there’s Meyer, who could be the third OSU coach to face such a fate