As we enter the home stretch of The Investigation — the past two weeks have felt more like two months, no? — one question keeps calling out: Why did Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer keep Zach Smith on his staff?
To me, it is the most perplexing nonprocedural query of the entire mess involving Meyer, Smith and the OSU athletic department.
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The six-person committee that headed the investigation into Meyer’s extent of knowledge regarding domestic-violence allegations against Smith hopefully has determined why the former receivers coach remained employed. The results of the investigation, which concluded Sunday, are scheduled to be released this week.
But the committee’s central task was to determine whether Meyer followed proper protocol in passing information about Smith up the chain of command, so we may not learn answers explaining Smith’s extended employment.
Provided he informed his superiors, Meyer’s job likely is safe. If he failed to do so, however, his job security could and should be on thin ice.
But even if he followed the right procedure, it’s hard not to wonder why Meyer risked his career on a largely anonymous coach whose role could have been filled by others. Meyer had to know enough about Smith, who at six seasons was the longest-tenured assistant on Meyer’s staff, to realize that his personal life was potentially radioactive to the football program.
• The most basic possible explanation is that Meyer did not know the extent of Smith’s dysfunctional actions: multiple allegations of domestic abuse, an OVI arrest and other recently reported sexual digressions, including sex with a former Ohio State staffer at the football facility.
It is hard to believe Meyer was oblivious to Smith’s issues, especially since Smith told The Dispatch he sometimes shared personal news with his boss. Or maybe the head coach figured he would leave matters to law enforcement authorities. But because one of Meyer’s core values is to respect women — non-negotiable with players — it is troubling that the appearance of a double-standard was in play with Smith.
But let’s also not be naive. It is easier to discipline college athletes than a 34-year-old assistant coach. Players are important but pass through the program. Plus, you can punish them with extra practice. Coaches coalesce around shared adult experiences like career and family. It seems hypocritical, but assistant coaches often are afforded longer leashes. At least as long as the team is winning.
• Loyalty is an admirable trait but also prone to blindness. It is possible that Meyer’s love for former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, whom Meyer considered a mentor, was responsible for Smith remaining on staff — even after Meyer said he was made aware of allegations of domestic abuse in 2015 involving Smith and his now ex-wife, Courtney. The couple divorced in 2016.
Smith first joined Meyer’s staff at Florida, then followed him to Ohio State in 2012. If Meyer hired Smith in part as a favor to Bruce, and kept him on staff despite multiple behind-the-scenes mishaps, then he placed allegiance to a mentor over what was best for the program.
• Prevalent in many coaches is an almost missionary-like obsession with “saving” people. Maybe it is a control issue or a self-belief in their ability to succeed where others have failed, but coaches often take chances on troubled athletes who washed out at another program. Perhaps Meyer thought he could fix Smith, too? If so, it didn’t work. Anyway, such complicated personal issues are better left to counseling professionals.
Or maybe Meyer mostly meant to protect Smith by keeping his vices hidden, which given the allegations of domestic abuse would be incredibly poor judgment. Maybe he did not want to embarrass Smith. Or perhaps was Smith so valuable as a recruiter that the threat of losing him trumped turning him in?
Recruiting analyst Bill Greene doesn’t buy that scenario.
“Zach Smith was as effective a recruiter as anyone on that staff — named Big Ten recruiter of the year twice in the past five years — but what Ohio State is going through now, there’s no assistant coach in the world worth going through that bad press,” said Greene, who covers Ohio recruiting for 247Sports.
Whatever the reason, and likely more than one of the above explanations applies, Buckeye Nation deserves an answer. The committee may offer it, but Meyer still must answer to it.