Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer followed his heart instead of his head. Big mistake. His heart led him astray. But there is evidence Meyer’s head is not such a great navigator, either.
First, the heart part, which also is the hard part, because loyalty usually is something to be admired. Taken to the extreme, however, devotion devolves into enabling, which allows dysfunction to continue. And dysfunction eventually leads to lessons learned the hard way.
Meyer, who has been suspended without pay through Sept. 2 and must sit out the Buckeyes’ first three games, missed several opportunities to fire former assistant coach Zach Smith before finally doing so last month.
“At each juncture, I gave Zach Smith the benefit of the doubt,” Meyer said Wednesday night.
Why? Mostly out of loyalty to Earle Bruce, the former Ohio State coach whom Meyer considered a mentor and who gave him his first college coaching job as a graduate assistant at OSU in 1986.
Smith was Bruce’s grandson, which afforded him a longer leash with Meyer. As it turns out, Smith choked on it.
In addition to accusations of domestic abuse that Smith allegedly committed against his now ex-wife, Courtney, the former receivers coach was cited in a 23-page report released by the university late Wednesday as being negligent — or worse — in his duties. The improprieties included slacking off on the recruiting trail, engaging in troubling misbehavior and showing up late to practices and meetings.
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Smith’s football failings, never mind his personal issues, were enough to warrant dismissal. And in 2016, athletic director Gene Smith urged Meyer to fire Zach Smith.
Meyer also could have fired Smith after the Buckeyes lost to Clemson 31-0 in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, the first time a Meyer-coached team had been shut out. Soon after the loss, Meyer changed out his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, but Smith kept his job, despite Meyer knowing about a domestic abuse allegation levied by Courtney in 2015. The couple divorced in 2016.
Meyer’s allegiance to Bruce was simply too strong for him to cut Smith loose. It is reasonable to wonder if the only reason Meyer hired Smith after taking the Ohio State job in late 2011 was because of Bruce, whose wife, Jean, had died just six days before Meyer made the hire. Meyer already knew of Smith’s issues, having set up counseling for him when Smith worked for him at Florida as a graduate assistant and quality control assistant from 2005 to '09.
Meyer’s heart won out, but his head did not just lose out, but sometimes blacked out. The investigation showed that Meyer’s occasional faulty thinking went beyond not being wise enough to fire Smith — even after learning the troubled assistant took high school coaches to a strip club during a recruiting visit (the NCAA may yet look into that).
Meyer’s ability to remember is irregular, too. The committee reported that Meyer sometimes takes medication that impairs his memory and concentration. Can Ohio State trust a coach with serious recall issues to oversee a multimillion-dollar enterprise?
The investigation concluded that “Coach Meyer has sometimes had significant memory issues in other situations where he had prior extensive knowledge of events.”
That either sounds serious or convenient, depending where you stand on whether Meyer deserved a more severe punishment, even dismissal, or that his suspension was trumped up to appease the politically correct crowd and lessen negative optics nationally.
Regardless, if you can’t trust Meyer’s focus, can you trust his decision-making abilities in all situations? One example: The investigation revealed that in 2016 Meyer failed to inform Gene Smith of directing Zach Smith to a drug treatment facility for addiction to a stimulant prescription drug used to treat ADHD. The report cited other examples of Meyer’s poor judgment.
No doubt this was a head vs. heart issue for Meyer. And while you can make the case his heart was in the right place, where was his head? And where is it now?