On College Football: For Urban Meyer and Ohio State, a Parting Months in the Making
Urban Meyer has traveled quite a road in the last four months — from August, when he was suspended for mishandling allegations of domestic assault lodged against a longtime assistant, to Tuesday, when one of the most driven and accomplished college football coaches of his generation announced his retirement.
How long that retirement lasts is anyone’s guess, though Meyer, 54, said Tuesday that he did not envision unretiring. But before the season began and Meyer’s punishment was handed down, the last thing he seemed like was a coach ready to quit. Not for nothing, he had one of the most prominent, best-positioned jobs in the country, leading the flagship university of his home state.
Then on Tuesday, the university announced Meyer was retiring and would be replaced by Ryan Day, an assistant who was interim head coach while Meyer was suspended during the preseason and for the first three games.
So what changed? Most likely, Meyer’s punishment was something neither the university nor he could move on from.
In early August, when Meyer was confronted with reports that he knew for years that his former assistant Zach Smith had been accused of assault by his former wife, Meyer fought back — hard. He insisted that he had “always followed proper protocols and procedures” by “elevating the issues to the proper channels.”
On the day Ohio State’s board of trustees and president met to decide Meyer’s fate, Meyer, who was on paid leave pending the decision, showed up at the building where the officials were conferring at midmorning and seemed to remain there for most of the next 12 hours. His wife joined him in the afternoon.
When Meyer spoke at a news conference later that evening, he effectively contradicted what he had previously insisted and accepted a three-game suspension. “I’m ultimately responsible for the situation that has harmed the university,” he said, seemingly through gritted teeth. He didn’t apologize to Smith’s ex-wife then, but a couple days later issued a statement both apologizing and apologizing for not having apologized earlier.
A week after that, he issued yet another statement, chastising the news media for, he said, misrepresenting what a report into his handling of Smith found. The report did not find that he condoned domestic assault, he said, but rather that he failed to appropriately manage an employee accused of it, an employee he hired and then retained after multiple reports of abuse.
And he was at pains to note that the report said that he did not “deliberately lie” to the news media about what he knew and when, but merely that he gave statements that were “plainly not accurate.”
Meyer was hardly behaving like someone going gently into a suspension. He has long presented himself as one of the supposed good guys in college football. Treating women with respect was a “core value” of the program, a tenet inscribed prominently in the Ohio State football facility. In talks and in a book, he preached the virtues of “Above The Line” behavior.
In late September, Meyer returned to coaching, somewhat joylessly leading the Buckeyes to a 12-1 record and the Big Ten championship. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins had a spectacular season, becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist in his first year as the starter.
At his news conference Tuesday afternoon, Meyer cited the excellent status he would be leaving the program in; the ability to bequeath it to a respected assistant, and health issues, chiefly headaches stemming from a brain cyst that he has dealt with for years but that began to flare up anew more than a year ago.
Yet the discrepancy between Meyer’s public statements and behavior in August, on the one hand, and now, on the other, are unavoidably stark.
The university president, Michael V. Drake, who handed down the suspension in August, skipped the news conference Tuesday. He issued a statement praising Meyer: “Year after year, he forges close bonds with our student-athletes and helps them develop into leaders on the field and in our communities. His investment is total.”
Meyer appeared more relieved than triumphant during Ohio State’s 62-39 romp late last month over Michigan. He had conspicuous sideline meltdowns at frustrating moments against Indiana and Maryland. A loss at Purdue, which in retrospect devastated the Buckeyes’ chances of making the College Football Playoff, was greeted with less consternation than a similar loss last year to Iowa engendered, and more of a shrug. After defeating Northwestern in the Big Ten title game, Meyer’s campaigning for Ohio State to make the playoff seemed more rote than passionate.
Certainly, Ohio State’s ample struggles on defense contributed to this season’s feeling of malaise. And, of course, Meyer’s physical suffering may have been literally agonizing.
But no matter what each side ends up acknowledging, no one had denied that there was another thing: In August, a special relationship between the university and the coach was irrevocably severed.
It had been one of the most fortuitous marriages in recent college sports: a proud power brought low by a memorabilia scandal, matched with a brilliant native son in need of a change of scenery. Together they bore beautiful children: an undefeated season. Three Big Ten championships. A national title. A perfect record against their archrival, Michigan.
And then the rift, with a great public university forthrightly stating that Meyer, its most prominent (and best-paid) employee as well as an ostensible moral exemplar, had fallen short — not only in his mishandling of the assistant, but in his misstatements to the news media and his possibly deleting public records.
While many at the time said Ohio State was too lenient, there is every indication that, to Meyer, the suspension was too severe. Ohio State had to choose between a certain moral vision of itself and the certain moral vision of its coach. It chose the former. Meyer’s departure was, in retrospect, an inevitable consequence.