Urban Meyer’s biggest nemesis, and by extension Ohio State’s biggest worry, is not Alabama coach Nick Saban but Ohio-based Bob Evans.
Saban can only defeat the Buckeyes football coach. Bob can drop him. Already did. The restaurant chain suspended its short-lived partnership with Meyer last week after he was placed on paid administrative leave during an investigation into his handling of domestic-abuse allegations against former assistant coach Zach Smith.
What hurts Meyer hurts Ohio State’s corporate brand, and fear of financial fallout plays into the daunting task facing the investigative committee and president Michael V. Drake, who will make the final decision regarding Meyer’s fate. Their job is made all the more difficult by the perception that whatever decision is reached was overly influenced by financial considerations.
Will Drake favor keeping Meyer, concluding that firing the coach with the best winning percentage in school history would lead to decreased alumni giving? Or is the reverse true, that keeping Meyer would send the message that Ohio State is soft on domestic violence? Such a bad look with national implications also might result in fewer donations.
Both options hold a tinge of conspiracy theory. Or is that perhaps a natural reaction to a university that worships the almighty dollar?
Either way, it’s worth cutting through perception, beginning with the assumption that dismissing Meyer means fewer football wins, which results in fewer contributions to university coffers.
The first part of that equation may be true. Switching coaches this close to the season is not the best way to achieve success. It is not a perfect comparison, but the last time Ohio State changed coaches during the offseason — Luke Fickell replaced Jim Tressel in the spring of 2011 — the Buckeyes went 6-7.
The second assumption, that fundraising would fall off based on increased losses, is no given. One survey out of Iowa found that donations actually increase after losses — a phenomenon known as sympathy effect — as long as losses are relatively rare.
Nor is it guaranteed that losing a successful and popular coach to dismissal or forced resignation, as was the case with Tressel, automatically results in financial disaster.
In fiscal year 2011, which ended shortly after Tressel’s exit, Ohio State received a record $407.6 million in donations, bolstered by a $100 million gift from Les Wexner. In 2012, total giving dropped to $365 million but the university welcomed a record number of donors.
“It depends on the institution and quality of the relationship with its donors over time,” said Michael J. Rosen, president of ML Innovations, a Philadelphia-based fundraising consulting firm. “The stronger the relationship the more likely the institution is able to weather the controversy.”
But sponsorships are not dependent on the emotional attachment between alum and school. Corporations care more about their shareholders than about keeping football fans happy, and scandals risk hurting the company’s bottom line.
“And while it’s bad to lose those (corporate) dollars, it also sends a message to the broader public: ‘They’re losing that endorsement, then maybe I should reconsider my gift, as well,’ ” Rosen said.
These are the complicated issues facing Drake and the committee.
I think Meyer keeps his job, but I also thought Tressel was untouchable. Tressel ultimately was done in by OSU’s fear of NCAA punishment, which came anyway. Meyer’s fate, and possibly the fate of athletic director Gene Smith, may lie in the university’s fear of fallout from a more culturally off-putting offense than tattoos for merchandise.
Combined with the sexual-abuse scandal surrounding Dr. Richard Strauss, the June dissolution of the university’s troubled Sexual Civility and Empowerment center and a sexual-misconduct lawsuit naming Ohio State and a former diving coach there, the potential for decline in individual giving and corporate sponsorships is piling up.
“It’s easier when it’s a one-off situation for people to make excuses for the organization,” Rosen said. “When it’s multiple issues, that becomes harder to do and does seem to offer an opportunity for people to believe, rightly or wrongly, that there is an institutional culture of permissiveness at the institution.”
How does Ohio State win this? What is the cost of losing?