Why would Urban Meyer risk his legendary career over one troubled assistant?

Pat Forde

COLUMBUS, Ohio — An out-of-control assistant coach who should have been disposable, but wasn’t, has further jeopardized Urban Meyer’s already tenuous standing at Ohio State.

The latest and most lurid bombshell allegations dropped Friday by Stadium.com’s Brett McMurphy complete the portrait of former Buckeyes wide receivers coach Zach Smith as a profoundly troubled Ohio State employee. Self-made photographs allegedly of Smith having sex with an Ohio State staffer in the football facility; photographs of Smith’s penis during a White House visit to honor the Buckeyes’ 2014 nation title team; and a shipment of sex toys to the Woody Hayes Athletic Complex were all part of the revelations McMurphy published Friday.

This adds a new level of embarrassment to a situation that already has sullied the reputation of a school that also announced Thursday that it is under federal investigation for its handling of allegations of sexual misconduct by former university physician Richard Strauss. The succession of news stories leave a scandal-weary city wondering what could be coming next, and whether it can get any worse.

The school should be at its saturation point with jaw-dropping Zach Smith headlines by now.

We should know about that saturation point soon. The administration announced earlier Friday, before McMurphy’s latest report, that its independent inquiry of Meyer will be concluded Sunday and a decision on his fate is expected sometime next week. Meyer has been on administrative leave since Aug. 1.

There is no proof that Meyer knew of these latest alleged activities by Smith. But they further expose a reckless lifestyle that was impossible to keep completely hidden from his coworkers and superiors.

At least two instances of alleged domestic abuse by Smith against his ex-wife, Courtney, were known by Meyer — one at Florida in 2009 and one at Ohio State in 2015. Smith was arrested in the first instance but not charged, and no charges were filed in the second incident. There were multiple other calls to police from Courtney Smith during the couple’s time together in Columbus.

Urban Meyer put up with plenty from Zach Smith (L). How could a receivers coach possibly be worth all the trouble? (AP)
Urban Meyer put up with plenty from Zach Smith (L). How could a receivers coach possibly be worth all the trouble? (AP)

A 2013 arrest for operating a vehicle while intoxicated was kept from Meyer, according to Smith’s attorney — but the credibility of both Smith and his lawyer are open to considerable doubt at this point. Smith was delusional enough that he planned this month to ask for reinstatement to his job, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

The new allegations further portray Zach Smith as an employee with no apparent concern for repercussions. (The least important allegation is mailing sex paraphernalia to the football complex; far more problematic are the assertions of sex with a staffer in the office and the White House insanity.) He took brazen entitlement to a new level. And his employment continued at Ohio State until his disputes with Courtney, and her allegations of abuse, went public last month.

It could be an ironic ending for Meyer, a three-time national champion coach whose gilded run at Florida was in part tainted by his tolerance for troubled athletes. There were at least 31 arrests of Meyer’s Gators between 2005-10.

He put up with Aaron Hernandez, who would become a convicted murderer years later and then hang himself in prison. He put up with Percy Harvin, who reportedly attacked an assistant coach and failed drug tests, then repeatedly found trouble in the NFL ranks. He put up with Carlos Dunlap, who was suspended the week of the 2009 Southeastern Conference championship game for driving under the influence but then reinstated shortly thereafter for the Gators’ bowl game.

There was a player charged with firing an AK-47 outside a nightclub; another charged with ringing up dozens of fraudulent charges on the credit card of a deceased woman; another who was accused of sending death threats by text message to his girlfriend.

Meyer navigated through all that. And now a wide receiver coach, basically a dime-a-dozen employee in college football, might singlehandedly end his Ohio State tenure.

The question that has gone unanswered thus far in this increasingly surreal story is why Urban Meyer risked one of the greatest coaching careers in the history of the sport on behalf of Zach Freakin’ Smith. Not Dan Mullen or Charlie Strong or Tom Herman, star coordinators who went on to successful head-coaching careers. Zach Smith, who has never been more than a position coach.

There is no way to argue that Meyer was oblivious to his assistant’s issues — even if he didn’t know all of them, he knew enough of them that he should have been profoundly concerned. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith knew enough, too.

Was it loyalty to Smith’s grandfather, former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, a mentor of Meyer’s? If so, that was spectacularly misplaced and unrewarded loyalty.

Was it some missionary zeal to help Smith deal with his demons? If so, that’s a job better left to trained therapy professionals.

Was it an internal belief that Meyer was too big to fail, or too self-important to admit a profound staffing mistake?

One thing that was clear in talking to students and fans on and around campus Friday: Ohio State football is bigger than even the most successful coach, and if he ever thought otherwise he was ruinously mistaken. Woody Hayes found that out in the 1970s, and Jim Tressel found that out within the last decade.

Both won national titles, and both were pushed out when scandal struck. Urban Meyer may be next, undone by a previously anonymous assistant coach who was not worth the trouble his boss tolerated for many years.

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