SALT LAKE CITY — Stories of Urban Meyer’s over-the-top coaching methods have been around for decades. Some who played for him say he was a madman. Even more stories are appearing this week. But the issue that matters for now isn’t how many bear crawls or mat drills he ran in practice. It’s whether he knowingly looked away from allegations that a former assistant coach beat his wife.
If proven, the former Ute coach should be fired. If unproven, he still might. America doesn’t need the game’s second-highest-paid coach appearing to be soft on spousal abuse. Ohio State doesn’t need the publicity.
No one has irrefutably shown Meyer knew long ago about the situation with former assistant Zach Smith. But former ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy has come close. He published an explosive story on Facebook, Wednesday, in which Smith’s ex-wife, Courtney, said she believed Meyer knew of domestic abuse by her husband years before firing him last month.
Smith has never been convicted of a crime. But his ex-wife says Meyer had to have known of the volatile situation. She produced photos of wounds allegedly inflicted during an attack. She also released texts she says were exchanged with Meyer’s wife, Shelley, discussing the problem in 2015.
It seems dubious Meyer's wife would keep information a secret from her husband. Courtney Smith apparently didn’t want it to remain quiet. At Big Ten Media Days, Meyer said he had been unaware of two domestic violence incidents involving Zach Smith, until recently. Meyer has often called his wife his closest confidant.
ESPN-700 afternoon host Kyle Gunther, who played on Meyer’s 2005 Fiesta Bowl team at Utah, said, “It’s so strange, because he would talk so much about ‘You gotta do things the right way’ and he did seem to want to run a clean program. But the idea he wouldn’t know something about an assistant coach is not possible. He was the most detail-oriented coach imaginable.”
Gunther says the fact Meyer told the Utes he “didn’t know his 12-year-old daughter” because of his attention to detail flies in the face of claims he was unaware of the Smiths' situation.
Meyer was placed on administrative leave by the university Wednesday. This comes at a time when numerous former OSU athletes are suing over alleged sexual abuse by a former doctor. The school will be in no mood to appear lenient in Meyer’s case.
It’s hard not to reference the situation of Penn State child sexual abuser Jerry Sandusky. Joe Paterno — as beloved a coach as America has ever produced — retired in shame after it was revealed that he knew of Sandusky’s abuse, but did nothing.
Meyer is a complicated man. His obsession with winning was so intense when he was at Florida that he resigned after health problems put him in the hospital. But two years later he was at Ohio State. He has three national championships to show for his devotion.
Yet upon hearing that a Utah reporter’s spouse had passed away, Meyer once expressed tearful sympathy. He was popular with media in Utah, often giving out his cell phone number. John Madsen, a player on Utah's Fiesta Bowl team, calls him "one of the best there is" and said "I think he loves the people around him." At the same time, Gunther says Meyer required players to perform dreaded mat drills, pitting seniors and freshmen in a wrestling contest “for no other reason than to break a guy, get him to quit.”
Meyer once called Gunther “the biggest (expletive) I ever recruited” and urged him to call his mother and say he wanted to quit. Afterward, Meyer surreptitiously called Gunther’s mother, saying her son was homesick and that he would be calling to come home, but to ignore the request.
It was a psychological ploy to get Gunther to play better.
That kind of obsession is why Meyer’s professions of ignorance seem so questionable.
Gunther says Meyer once told the Utes “he didn’t know his family” because he had chosen football as his priority. He expected that kind of fanatical commitment from players. Clearly, that approach has been effective in his career, some would even say commendable. Still, there’s a good chance Meyer won’t survive at OSU, either way. Because as he was making commitments to team and coaches, his commitment to stopping domestic violence ended up looking like too little, too late.