SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken discusses reports that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer knew about domestic violence allegations against a former assistant. USA TODAY
It has never been enough for Urban Meyer to be just a football coach, even if being one of the best to ever do it should have been plenty.
For Meyer, the trophies, the massive paychecks and the adulation are part of a larger mission. In Meyer's world, he and he alone serves as the creator of leaders and virtuous citizens, the benevolent giver of second chances, the all-knowing arbiter of right and wrong. And anyone who has had the temerity to challenge the authenticity of his intentions when those decisions blew up in his face is typically cast aside not just as a critic, but a genuinely bad person.
The way Meyer views himself as a coach, the difficult calls are eventually made very simple by his sanctimonious, self-appointed sense of justice. Whether it was Aaron Hernandez running wild at Florida with no repercussions, Gators running back Chris Rainey texting “Time to die” to his girlfriend or star running back Carlos Hyde caught on video in a violent act before the 2013 season at Ohio State, Meyer needed nothing more than another stroke of his ego to justify giving someone chance after chance.
But the anvil that has finally cracked Meyer’s holier-than-thou image for good has arrived in the form of an alleged serial domestic abuser who was given a second chance on his coaching staff when a troubling incident came to light in 2009, then fired last week when Zach Smith’s ex-wife was granted a protective order.
As the truth unraveled Wednesday, and Meyer was put on administrative leave while Ohio State conducts an investigation, it’s now clear: there was a long history of domestic incidents, police reports and cries for help, including one to Shelley Meyer, the wife of the head coach, in 2015.
Text messages obtained by longtime college football reporter Brett McMurphy between Courtney Smith and Shelley Meyer make it clear that Urban’s wife knew enough to intervene, though it’s less clear what she did. What Urban Meyer knew either directly or indirectly about the horror one of his coaches’ wives was enduring is now cast as the difference between whether he gets to keep a job where he’s won 73 out of 81 games, including a national title, or gets fired and goes down in college football history as one of its biggest phonies.
Make no mistake: If Urban Meyer was covering for a serial abuser on his staff, he cannot stay at Ohio State. That’s not even controversial or worth arguing.
What’s more in question at this point is whether Ohio State's investigation tries to steer the narrative into the gray area. It’s certainly possible that Shelley Meyer didn’t tell her husband about the bruises in the photos, but it seems unlikely. Shelley Meyer isn’t merely the wife of a famous coach, she is a crucial part of the Ohio State operation, a front-facing figure with a large social media presence who is proudly and deeply involved in the lives of players and coaches. The Meyers are a close-knit family, and the genuine concern Shelley Meyer expressed in those text messages seems like something that would have risen to the level of telling her husband. And if not, why not?
No matter the answer for that question, this doesn’t feel like something that can be explained away with Meyer’s typical platitudes and denials, the likes of which he issued last week at Big Ten media days.
Throughout his career, Meyer has desperately cultivated a reputation as a coach who wanted to be about more than winning football games. He invited media coverage of the books he was reading, the leadership seminars he was studying, the motivational tactics he was employing.
And for years, that sense of a program about more than winning football games gave him cover to make decision after decision that cast him as the redeemer for wayward youth who needed the structure of college football – and needed him – to turn around their lives.
With Smith, though, there was nothing to turn around. If Meyer knew he was employing an abusive husband and did nothing, it looks like self-preservation under the guise of redemption. Remember, many coaches would have cut ties with Smith at the first sign of trouble in 2009 when he was an intern on the Florida staff.
But when you have an outsized view of your own sense of truth, it’s easy to believe in the mission you’re on over all else, including the humanity being wrecked right under your nose. It happened at Florida, where Meyer left a rotten locker room culture and a broken program. And with that belief in himself seemingly rising again above the truth that was right there in plain sight, history may be about to repeat itself.