Football coaches talk a lot about creating a family atmosphere in their programs.
They walk into the homes of teenagers and tell the loved ones of each recruit: We’ll make him not only a better player, but a better person.
College football media guides are filled with coaching staff bios accompanied by photos with smiling wives and children. Players call the team a brotherhood. Coaches’ wives bond over the shared experience of an unorthodox and transient life. They become team moms.
All of this makes sense. As seriously as we take college football – too seriously, clearly – we’re talking about unpaid 18- to 22-year-olds playing a game. This business doesn’t need to be all business. But what has transpired over the last three weeks at Ohio State is a lesson to all coaches. Your football program is not a family.
Urban Meyer treating Zach Smith like family almost cost one of the most accomplished coaches in college football his job. A case can be made that it should have. Instead, Meyer is suspended for the first three games this season.
It’s OK to run your football program as a family right up until the point when it gets dysfunctional. When families are confronted with a troubled or troublesome relative, they tend to close ranks. They search for solutions within and often look to mom and dad to clean up the mess.
Meyer thought he knew best how to handle Smith, a former player for him and the grandson of his mentor, the late Ohio State coach Earle Bruce.
Instead of acting like the vice president in charge of football for THE Ohio State University, and protecting the employer that pays him millions to be the face of a $7 billion institution, Meyer’s instinct was to shield his family.
“As I reflect, my loyalty to his grandfather likely impacted the way I treated Zach Smith,” Meyer said Wednesday night, part of a dispassionate reading of a statement. “I should have demanded more from him and recognized red flags.”
The red flags started in 2009 when Zach Smith was arrested in Gainesville, Florida, where he was working for Meyer and the Gators. Smith allegedly picked up his pregnant wife, Courtney, and threw her against a wall. He denies that.
The family closed ranks. Courtney decided not to press charges. Meyer and his wife sent the couple for counseling and came away doubtful of her allegations, according to the report delivered by independent investigators into Meyer’s handling of domestic violence allegations against Zach Smith.
After Meyer hired Smith at Ohio State in 2011, one thing after another could have led to Smith being fired for simply being bad at his job. The investigation called it a “pattern of troubling behavior.”
Smith brought a high school coach to a strip club while on a recruiting trip. Meyer warned him to not do it again.
Smith had credit cards declined when setting up recruiting trips and was delinquent in paying for other expenses. Meyer said he vaguely remembered those issues.
While Smith’s marriage was falling apart, his performance at work suffered. He was late and no-showed on some responsibilities, the report said. Meyer’s boss, athletic director Gene Smith, recommended Smith be fired. He wasn’t.
In 2016, Meyer directed Zach Smith into a drug treatment facility. Meyer did not tell Gene Smith about this – or that 2009 arrest in Florida.
So it should be no surprise when confronted with allegations Zach Smith physically assaulted his wife in 2015, Meyer merely scolded Smith and threatened to fire him if Meyer found out he hit Courtney Smith. Charges were never filed.
Last month, Meyer finally fired Zach Smith after Courtney Smith received a protective order against her ex-husband. According to investigators, Meyer texted his agent that his plan for Big Ten media day was to keep the reasons in-house. “I will not tell media,” Meyer wrote.
The text Meyer got back from his agent: only “a matter of time before he did something that did substantial harm to you or the program.”
“While we do not doubt that Coach Meyer respects women and is dedicated to fostering an environment of respect for women in his program,” the report said, “his apparent blind spot for Zach Smith seems to have impaired his judgment and his management of the behavior of at least one of his assistants.”
That blind spot now leaves a permanent mark on Meyer’s legacy.
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