For Ohio State Head Coaches, It Always Ends in a Whimper, Not a Bang

The phone rang at 3:30 a.m. on a winter January day in 1987.  On the other end of the line was Earle Bruce.  “I’m staying” he uttered into the receiver.

From the coaches’ convention in San Diego, ol’ Nine-and-Three was mulling over an offer to be the next football coach at a basketball school in Tucson.  In fact, Earle had at one point told the University of Arizona that he was taking the job before reversing course in the wee hours of the morning and pledging his allegiance to The Ohio State University.  The story of his departure was set to be run the next morning in the Columbus Dispatch–as it turns out, that story was never printed.  “I’m going with my heart, ” Bruce said, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

The very reason Arizona wanted to hire Bruce was the precise reason some in Columbus wanted him gone–he had just engineered another season where the Buckeyes lost 3 games (his Buckeye teams went 9-3 every season from 1980 to 1985).  After losing the first two games of the season, Ohio State won 9 straight before punctuating the season with a loss to That Team Up North in the game Wolverines quarterback Jim Harbaugh famously guaranteed a victory (he had two picks and TTUN only won because Ohio State missed a game ending field goal, but that doesn’t make for good copy).  But this time, rather than going 9-3, Ohio State defeated Texas A&M in the Cotton bowl 28-12, giving Earle Bruce a double-digit-win season in Columbus for the first time since his inaugural season when he went 11-1 with Woody’s recruits.  That, and his passion for all things Ohio State, brought Earle Bruce back.

The reason that Bruce even entertained the Arizona offer was because the OSU administration, led by then president Ed Jennings, would not allow the athletic director Rick Bay to further extend Bruce’s contract.  So he listened to other offers, and eventually made plans for his departure to the desert.  But in the end, Earle Bruce couldn’t leave Ohio State.

Things almost immediately deteriorated for Earle.  On March 12, 1987, Woody Hayes died.  It was generally held by insiders that Bruce, who was Hayes hand-picked successor and an assistant on Hayes’s staff in the late sixties and early seventies, was untouchable as long as the patron saint of Buckeye football still resided within earshot of Ohio Stadium (Woody still had an office in what would one day be called the Woody Hayes Athletic Center even though he was fired for punching an opposing player on the field).  Then, in March of 1987, news broke that star receiver Cris Carter had been implicated in a benefits scandal that resulted in him being kicked off the team.  As the Columbus Dispatch put it in the link above, “[t]hus were the beginnings of the cascade of events culminated by 3 straight losses late in the 1987 season that led to Bruce’s firing on the Monday of the week leading up to the regular season finale at Michigan.”  The lasting image of Earle Bruce for some was his players carrying him off the field wearing “Earle” headbands after upsetting Michigan 23-20 in Ann Arbor.  When Bruce walked away, his final record at Ohio State stood at 81-26-1.

Had Earle accepted the Arizona offer, he could have accomplished something that seemingly no Ohio State coach has ever been able to do–leave the school on his own terms.

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In the long cold Ohio winter of 1970, one Wayne Woodrow Hayes was putting in another coaching marathon session in his tiny and otherwise unremarkable office (with the notable exception of a worn couch that often doubled as the field general’s bed on more nights than the coach would care to remember), when a package arrived in his office.  Needing a break, Hayes decided to open it, whereupon he discovered a custom doormat with the following inscription:

1969: Michigan 24, Ohio State 12

1970: …?

According to Joe Menzer, the author of Buckeye Madness: The Glorious, Tumultuous, Behind-the Scenes Story of Ohio State Football, Hayes “didn’t need accompanying instructions to know exactly what to do with it; when the players arrived for spring practice, it was placed such that the players would trample it on their way to the practice field each day.”

The 1970 game, played only weeks after yours truly was born in Ohio (how could I not be a Buckeye fan?), could be seen as the rubber match of sorts in what would lead to the storied ten year war between Ohio State and Michigan.  In 1968, Ohio State’s “super-sophs” won a title for Woody, with the penultimate game a 50-14 routing of his rivals to the north, punctuated with a late 2 point conversion and Woody’s response to a reporter that he went for two because they wouldn’t let him go for three.

The Michigan players would not forget this.

Ohio State started the 1969 season 8-0, outscoring their opponents by the tune of 371-69, setting up a showdown with “That Team Up North.”  Said Woody, “we were so far ahead in the polls, it wasn’t even close.”   But things had changed in Ann Arbor, as was often the case in the rivalry–the inability to beat your rival was often the final nail in the coffin for that coach, the precise scenario that played out for Michigan’s Bump Elliot (perhaps this is where the phrase bump on the log comes from), replaced by none other than Woody’s assistant, Bo Schembechler.  By the time the 1969 game had rolled around, Bo had Michigan fighting for its own share of a Big Ten Championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl.  Despite being underdogs, Michigan took a 24-12 halftime lead, a score that remained unchanged when the final gun sounded, with the Buckeyes crossing the midfield stripe just one time.  Said Hayes after the game, “They beat the greatest team that ever stepped on a college football field, the best team we ever put together.”

For Hayes, this set off a fanatical obsession with beating Michigan, punctuated byWoody’s legendary rants that came to be known as “megaton explosions.”  The Thursday before the 1970 game at practice, Hayes’s offense was marching down the field against the scout team defense when he noticed two players yukking it up on the sidelines.  When the players saw Hayes approaching, they knew what was coming, or at least they thought they did.  Hayes threw his play cards into the air and started ripping his shirt off.  Then he tore his latest watch off his wrist, threw it on the ground, and stomped on it until he smashed it into pieces, before falling to the ground in front of assistant coach Earle Bruce and crying:  “Earle!  Help me, Earle!” Hayes sobbed.  “They won’t play for me!  They won’t play for me! My God, it’s Michigan week and they won’t play for me.”  The players just stared at him, having never quite seen anything like this before–the Old Man was sobbing like a baby.  Regarding this tirade, Menzer notes, “they certainly had never heard Hayes use what they jokingly referred to as the ‘m-word.'”  In a game that featured the first time Ohio State and Michigan met both undefeated and ranked first and second in the AP poll, Ohio State won the rubber match by a tune of 20-9, officially launching the fabled ten year war between Woody and Bo.

During Woody’s 28 seasons as a head coach at Ohio State, he won five national championships, captured 13 Big Ten conferences titles, and amassed a record of 205-61-10.  But for many, Hayes is remember as much for his temper and on the field exhibitions as he is for his gridiron dominance.  There was the time he shoved a cameraman at the Rose Bowl, and the time he destroyed the sideline markers near the end of a loss to Michigan.  Ohio State players had seen it so often that some of them had prepared for it–since Hayes was left handed, if you stood to his left, he had to take a step back to throw his left hook, and you had a chance to get out of the way.  Perhaps it was inevitable that it would be Woody’s temper that would eventually seal the iconic coach’s fate.

The cauldron was near full boil as the 1978 season wound to a close.  Hayes was 65 years old when got to the sidelines of the 1978 Gator Bowl.  After five games that year, Ohio State had managed only a 2-2-1 record, which included a shutout loss to Penn State, a double digit loss to Purdue, and a collapse against SMU where the Buckeyes were able to salvage a 35-35 tie.  But Woody rallied the troops, winning five straight games heading into the annual tilt against Michigan in the Horseshoe.  Unable to score a touchdown against Michigan, Woody dropped his third straight decision to the Wolverines14-3, forcing Ohio State to play an upstart Clemson team in something called the Gator Bowl (for much of Woody’s career, you won the conference and played in the Rose Bowl or you went home for the season).  Rumors were swirling around Columbus that Hayes might be out as the Ohio State coach if he lost to Clemson, who, lead by young upstart Danny Ford, came into the game at 10-1.

For Hayes, the game of football was changing before his eyes.  Famous for his “three yards and a cloud of dust” running style that relied on wearing down the will of your opponent as much as moving the football and controlling the clock, Woody was so desperate to bring in a young gunslinger named Art Schlichter, that he not only promised the kid that he would start as a freshman, but that he would throw the ball at least 20 times per game (Woody was famous for saying “3 things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them aren’t good”).  As Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated explained it, “He [Woody] knew he had to adapt, but he didn’t know how to do it…every time Hayes seemed to embrace what football was becoming, he went back to what he wanted it to be.”

During one stretch of the Gator Bowl, Schlichter was hot, completing 13 out of 14 passes.  Per Rosenberg, “Ohio State had never had a quarterback like this, partly because the Old Man had never wanted a quarterback like this.  He wanted to win with brute force and clinical efficiency, like Hayes’s hero, Gen. George Patton.”  With barely two minutes remaining, and down 17-15, Ohio State was facing third-and-five from the Clemson 24 yard line.  Everything in the man’s soul told him to pound the ball on the ground, get his three yards, and kick the game winning field goal.  Instead, Schlichter would drop back to pass for what would be his twentieth attempt of the game, a number that represented a commitment the old man had made to the kid and his father, and perhaps an attempt to evolve from what the coach wanted to be to what he thought that he needed to be.  One of those two bad things was about to happen.

As Rosenberg described the play;

Pass protection had been weak for Ohio State all year, but it would not be a problem on this play.  The Buckeyes lineman expertly executed their assignments.  Poor Clemson nose-guard Charlie Bauman tried to make a move to the right and got nowhere.  Bauman went left, and Tim Volger blocked him.  Bauman could have rushed for another 15 seconds and he never would have touched Art Schlichter.  Schlichter was in the pocket, going through his progressions.  He looked for a receiver, Doug Donley, but Donley was covered.  Next he looked for Ron Springs, who was open.  Schlichter threw to Springs.  He didn’t see Bauman, who was near the line of scrimmage after failing to get to Schlichter.  Bauman stepped to his left, intercepted the pass and took off…Bauman kept running, finally pushed out of bounds on the Ohio State sideline, right next to the Buckeyes’ 65 year-old head coach…Bauman got up, looked up at all those Southerners in the crowd and raised his hands in celebration.

What happened next is a matter of some debate.  According to one source I read, Bauman directed a verbal expletive at Hayes, who was suffering from diabetes (and rumors had it that he would not take medicine on game days for fear that it would cloud his judgement–go figure).  Bubba Brown, a Clemson linebacker who was running behind Bauman on the return, claims he heard Woody yell at Bauman, “you SOB, I just lost my job.”  What is not a matter of debate is that Hayes grabbed the back of Bauman’s jersey, wound up and punched him in the chest, just below the neck.  Bauman didn’t strike back or even push Hayes away, instead he just retreated toward his teammates on the field as Hayes kept grabbing at him.

As Rosenberg put it, “former Ohio State players and coaches were watching the Old Man’s career disintegrate in their living rooms.”  The next morning, Hayes called Paul Hornung of the Columbus Dispatch, who was not just the Buckeyes beat reporter at the time, but a close friend of Woody’s, and told him off the record, “I am resigning as of now.”  At 3 a.m, in a Jacksonville Shearaton where Hayes had fallen asleep in the sport coat he had worn to the game, Hugh Hindman, Ohio State’s athletic director, showed up and gave Woody an opportunity to resign.  Indignant, or perhaps just stubborn, the old man would not, and Hindman fired him.

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Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel raises the trophy after the Fiesta Bowl game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona on January 2, 2006. The Buckeyes won 34-20. (Photo by Gene Lower/Getty Images)

On January 18, 2001, at the halftime of a basketball game between who else, Ohio State and Michigan, the Buckeyes introduced James Patrick Tressel as its next coach to its rabid fanbase.  To a raucous crowd, Tressel exclaimed, “I can assure you that you will be proud of your young people in the classroom, in the community,” he said, “and–most especially–in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan.”  It was this line that was the take-away from Tressel’s introduction, as it was the success against Michigan, or more aptly put, the lack thereof, that created the void that Jim Tressel would fill literally and figuratively.

In large part because John Cooper engineered an upset of Michigan in the 1987 Rose Bowl while coaching at Arizona State University, Ohio State selected him to replace Earle Bruce as its next head coach.  And for the most part, John Cooper was a success at Ohio State, posting a record of 111-43-4 while elevating recruiting to a national level according to most pundits.  But for all of his success at Ohio State during his Hall of Fame career, Cooper could only manage a 2-10-1 mark against the Wolverines, marring some of the best Ohio State teams ever assembled in 1995, 1996, and 1997.  But what seemed to bother Ohio State fans almost as much as the losses was Cooper’s overriding theme that Michigan was just another game, another quality opponent that Ohio State needed to beat.  For Buckeye fans, he just didn’t understand the rivalry.  Donnie Nickey, safety for the 2002 Ohio State championship team, summed it up this way: “I think the pressure [Cooper] faced from all of the Michigan stuff forced him to try to downplay it because he wasn’t very successful against Michigan…I think that happens.  I think coach Tressel had a fresh view.  This is Michigan.  For a head coach this is your job.  This is how you stay in Columbus.”

Before coming to OSU, Jim Tressel was the football coach at Youngstown State for 15 seasons, where his teams won four NCAA Division I-AA Football Championships, compiling a 135-57 record along the way.  But not everyone was enthused with the Tressel hire, in large part because Ohio State fans thought that they should have been able to attract a better candidate for the job (believe it or not, the leading candidate was Minnesota coach Glenn Mason).  That half time statement at the basketball game went a long way in winning some of those fans over.  And Tressel immediately backed up this claim with a win over # 11 Michigan in Ann Arbor 26-20, in what was otherwise a lackluster 7-5 season that fell a bit flat in an Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina.

But that win over Michigan set the groundwork for a magical 2002 season.  With a roster full of juniors and seniors recruited by John Cooper, Jim Tressel guided Ohio State to a perfect 12-0 start, not that there weren’t a few scares along the way to include this one and this one.  This set up a matchup in Columbus on November 23, 2002 against Michigan in a scenario that John Cooper found himself in apparently too many times–beat Michigan, and Ohio State would play in a bowl game with a chance to win a national title.  Utilizing a conservative style of play dubbed “Tressel ball,” where the punt was often his favorite play (no, really). Ohio State was trailing 9-7 with  about eight and a half minutes to go.  Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel completed “gun-switch right dart 59 X skinny wheel” to Maurice Clarrett down to the six yard line.  Two plays later, with 4:55 left, Krenzel fed Maurice Hall on an option pitch and he took it two yards to put Ohio State up 14-9 after the extra point.  But Michigan would not go away.  After a lost fumble by Ohio State with fifty seconds remaining, Michigan took over at their own 20 yard line with one last gasp effort.  It wasn’t until Will Allen intercepted a John Navarre pass in the Buckeye end zone with one second remaining that Ohio State was able to put the game against Michigan away and earn a trip to Tempe to play for a national title.  Ohio State would indeed cap off that season with a perfect 14-0 mark, knocking off the defending champion Miami Hurricanes in a double overtime thriller for the ages that would immediately cement Tressel’s legacy in Columbus.  All was right in Buckeye Nation.

But it wouldn’t last long.  On July 12, 2003, the New York Times quoted an OSU teaching assistant as saying running back Maurice Clarett received “preferential treatment.”  On July 29, 2003, Ohio State confirmed the NCAA was investigating Clarett’s claim that more than $10,000 in clothing, CD’s, cash, and stereo equipment was stolen in April from a 2001 Monte Carlo that Clarett had borrowed from a local dealership.  On September 9, 2003, Clarett was charged with misdemeanor falsification of a police report, which resulted in Ohio State suspending him the next day.  On December 17, 2003, Ohio State announced that a university committee found no evidence to support allegations of misconduct by Clarett.

But the star running back would never return to Ohio State, instead leaving school and filing a lawsuit to challenge the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement that prohibits players from playing professional football until 3 years removed from high school.  Ohio State was unable to defend their title, dropping a tough game to Wisconsin before ending the season with a loss to the fifth ranked Wolverines, 35-21.

On December 20, 2004, one month after Ohio State shocked Big Ten Champion Michigan in Columbus, 37-21, quarterback prospect Troy Smith was suspended for the 2004 Alamo Bowl and eventually for the 2005 season opener for accepting about $500 from a booster.  This was now the second time on Tressel’s watch that an allegation of improper benefits had marred his program.

Fast forward to April 2, 2010 at 2:32 p.m. to be exact, and Jim Tressel received an email from a Columbus lawyer named Christopher T. Ciccero, the first of 12 exchanges that would take place between the two.  Ciccero, a former OSU walk-on player in the eighties, said he had been told current Buckeyes players had been selling signed memorabilia to tattoo parlor owner Edward Rife who was under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.  If so, this would constitute a NCAA infraction (apparently things that are given to you are not your possessions until you graduate, at least according to NCAA logic).  Tressel does not tell athletic director Gene Smith, any of his superiors, the school’s compliance department or legal department, or the NCAA about the information, instead signing a NCAA compliance form on September 13, 2010 avowing that he was unaware of any NCAA violations that would have occurred on his watch.

Oh yeah, on November 27, 2010, number eight Ohio State routes Michigan 37-7.  Unbeknownst to Tressel and officials at Ohio State, everything was about to unravel.

The focus of the scandal would soon shift from what the players did wrong to what Ohio State officials, particularly Jim Tressel, did wrong.  On December 22, 2010, the NCAA notifies OSU of a five game suspension for 5 players involved in tattoo-gate including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor.  On December 23, 2010, Ohio State announces the suspensions at a press conference, with Tressel saying, “the players must have known what they were doing was a violation of NCAA rules.”  There was no mention of the Ciccero emails or NCAA compliance forms in this press conference.  Ohio State would ultimately follow protocol and appeal the suspension, with all five players playing in a January 4 Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas, 31-26.

On March 7, 2011, Yahoo! published a story claiming that Tressel knew about the NCAA violations but had failed to report them.  What transpired the following day can only aptly be described as a clown show, with Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee (stick to making popcorn dude) stating, “[t]he institution is very surprised and disappointed in Coach Tressel’s lack of action in this matter.”  Had Gee stopped there, Ohio State might have been spared at least a little embarrassment, but instead, Gee took the opportunity to lavish praise on Tressel and AD Gene Smith.  His encore performance included the following: when asked if he considered firing Tressel; Gee, apparently mistaking the moment for open mic night at the local comedy club, jokingly quipped: “No, are you kidding?  Let me just be very clear: I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”

On May 30, 2011, with Ohio State facing NCAA sanctions, Jim Tressel resigns as the head football coach at Ohio State.  He finished his Buckeye coaching career with a 106-22 record, winning a share or outright Big Ten title six times, and posting a sterling 8-1 record against Michigan.  He guided Ohio State to three BCS finals winning the title in the aforementioned Fiesta bowl against Miami in 2003.

Bill Livingston of the Cleveland Plain Dealer paints a scathing critique of the man that came to be known as the Senator in this piece.  To wit:

Tressel’s downfall surprised true believers who felt his sins of omission in the monitoring of Maurice Clarett, then Troy Smith and finally Terrelle Pryor and the rest of the memorabilia hawkers were aberrations, not the norm.  Those who knew Tressel were skeptical of this.  His hair was always in place.  His American Flag pin was always skewered to a stylish lapel.  His organizational skills were formidable.  His planning was impeccable.  Negligence was not an option in his lifestyle.  But hypocrisy proved to be.

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The Florida Gators football team assembled in a campus meeting room on December 26, 2009, for what was expected to be a team meeting in preparation for the Sugar Bowl against the Cincinnati Bearcats.  Players expected to pick up some per diem cash for the trip to New Orleans, but the coaching staff, at least initially, didn’t show up.  Just across the hall, the nation’s premier college football program was unravelling.  Eventually the coaches walked into the room in tandem, most with their heads facing the floor and making little eye contact.  The man, who moments earlier had tried to reassure his assistants about their future, began speaking to the team at large.  While wearing Gators apparel but no longer oozing his trademark confidence, he started reading uncomfortably from a sheet of paper, shoulders slumped slightly and with minimal voice projection.  Urban Meyer, who had been hospitalized weeks earlier after suffering chest pains in the hours after the Gators’ SEC championship loss to Alabama, said he was stepping down as the head coach for health reasons.  As ABC reported, emotions in the room ranged from shock to panic to anger to skepticism, as just weeks earlier, Meyer was high-fiving players having just come off of a new deal that would pay him $4 million dollars a year while, on the field, the Gators had won 22 of 23 games.  Things were so good in fact, that some wondered about the sincerity of Meyer’s words.

A day later, Meyer told the team that he had changed his mind.  Lawrence Marsh, a defensive tackle at Florida, described Meyer as “the master of mind games,” wondering whether the coach concocted the episode as a giant motivational ruse ahead of their upcoming bowl game.  But by the following Wednesday, the 46 year old Meyer announced again that he was resigning saying that, “I think I am doing what’s best for the University of Florida, my players and myself and my family.  This time, Urban Meyer looked relaxed at the news conference in Gainesville.

Meyer won titles at Florida in 2006 and 2008, amassing a 64-15 record with the Gators before his departure. What once seemed like an invincible program would quickly disintegrate into chaos; after Meyer resigned for good after the 2010 season, the Gators stumbled to a 29-21 record in four subsequent seasons under Will Muschump (not sure on the spelling here), who famously hinted that the cupboard was bare upon his arrival.  Stories were rampant of a broken culture in Gainesville where, according to reports, Meyer let the inmates run the asylum in the form of an inner sanctum known as the “circle of trust.”  Those that Meyer trusted to win him games on the field for him played by their own rules.

Within a matter of weeks upon his departure from the University of Florida, Meyer had contracted with ESPN to do color commentary for games, and within 9 months was announced as the head coach at Ohio State.

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Urban Frank Meyer started his coaching career at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati Ohio under legendary head coach Steve Rasso, where he met members of the Ohio State coaching staff.  His first collegiate job would soon follow; a two year stint as a graduate assistant coaching tight ends at Ohio State under head coach Earle Bruce (donning a porn stache depicted to the left that was never in vogue).  He spent the next 13 years as an assistant–two at Illinois State, six at Colorado State, and five at Notre Dame.

From a USA Today article entitled Nick Saban and Urban Meyer made the best of a 25-year old oversight comes what would be an interesting intertwining of fate that would play out on the football field several times in the years to come; Meyer called then Toledo head coach Nick Saban’s home and and spoke to his wife to inquire if a coaching position was available.  Saban, however, never returned the call, later admitting, “I was so kind of caught up and busy with what I was doing, I never really followed up on that.  Obviously, that was a huge mistake on my part because the guy’s a fantastic coach.”  Urban Meyer would recover from this oversight.

In 2001, Meyer consulted with Lou Holtz when he was offered the Bowling Green head coaching job.  Meyer expressed some concern about taking the job because Bowling Green hadn’t had a history of winning and Meyer wanted to get his head coaching career off to a good start.  Lou Holtz quipped, “that’s why they are offering it to you.”  Meyer quickly engineered one of the quickest turnarounds in NCAA history leading the Falcons to an 8-3 record his first season.  When he left for Utah after his second season, his overall record at Bowling Green was 17-6.  In his first year at Utah, he was named the Mountain West Conference coach of the year after leading the Utes to a 10-2 record.  In 2004, Meyer lead the Utes to an undefeated season earning a BCS bowl bid for Utah, something that had never been done by a team from a non-automatically qualifying BCS conference team.  Meyer would soon be on the move again.  With both Notre Dame and Florida vying for his services, Meyer signed a seven year $14 million dollar contract with the Florida Gators, almost immediately elevating the program Ron Zook had established talent wise (though the man couldn’t coach his way out of a paper bag), culminating in the two national titles referenced above.

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During the Indiana and Ohio State game on October 6, 2018, an eventual 49-26 Buckeyes win, cameras caught coach Urban Meyer on one knee, grabbing his head.  During the telecast, it was reported that a camera man had collided with Coach Meyer, but after the game, Meyer admitted that he went down to a knee due to a severe headache.  In the days that would follow, Urban would uncharacteristically open up about his medical condition–a cyst that was discovered in 1998 for which Meyer had surgery was still causing lingering health issues.  Though Meyer had said he had learned to manage the pain, many were openly wondering if stress was again impacting Meyer’s health.  That is because, the 2018 season had been anything but smooth sailing for Urban Meyer.

But Meyer’s challenges in 2018 did not stem from on the field action, at least not initially, as Ohio State had started off 6-0 including a thrilling come from behind victory in Happy Valley.  With Ohio State ranked third after the win against Indiana, many pundits believed that only Ohio State was equipped to keep Alabama from winning another title.  For Urban Meyer, at least on the field, it was business as usual.  But off the field was a different matter entirely.  In August, just before fall camp, a story broke that Urban Meyer was aware of a domestic violence incident involving an assistant coach despite his apparent denial of any knowledge of the incident at Big Ten Media days.

Zach Smith, the grandson of his mentor Earle Bruce, was again in trouble for alleged domestic violence against his wife, this time violating an order of protection.  In 2009, while an assistant for Meyer in Florida, it was alleged that Smith picked up his then pregnant wife Courtney and slammed her into the wall.  When police investigated, Courtney declined to file charges.  When Meyer left Florida, he and Zach Smith went their separate ways.  But when he returned to coaching in 2011 at Ohio State, Meyer decided to once again hire Zach Smith as his wide receivers coach, declining to tell Ohio State about the previous allegation.  In 2015, AD Gene Smith got a call from his Title IX Coordinator because the coordinator had gotten a call from the Columbus police–there was another allegation that Zach had hit his wife.  Gene Smith ordered Zach to return back to Columbus from a recruiting trip and informed Urban of the allegation.  According to Urban, he contfronted Zach and told him “if I find out you are hitting Courtney, you are fired.”

Ohio State decided to let the police investigation play out, and again, no charges were brought and Zach kept his job.  But Zach’s work performance began to decline as he was going through divorce proceedings, gripped by an alcohol abuse problem that was not a closely guarded secret around the Woody Hayes Atheltic Center.  This prompted Gene Smith to advise Meyer to fire Zach Smith, but he refused to do so.  Then, on July 23, 2018, after reports about the violation of the order of protection surfaced, Meyer finally relented and fired Zach Smith.  What ensued next gripped the college football world for a month in August 2018, and what you believe will turn primarily on whether you believe Urban Meyer.  At the Big Ten Media days, Meyer was asked a question about whether he knew about a felony arrest for domestic violence in 2015 and Meyer answered that he did not.  Paperwork revealed that Zach Smith’s arrest in 2015 was for a misdemeanor and not a felony, and Meyer would later explain that this is why he denied having any knowledge of the incident.  But within days, a story would break that Meyer did indeed have knowledge of the 2015 incident, and Ohio State acted swiftly and placed Meyer on administrative leave while they empaneled an independent committee to investigate the claims.

The Committee had advised they would need two weeks to investigate this incident with the University announcing that a decision would be made and communicated in a press conference on August 22, 2018.  What ensued could aptly be compared to a white Bronco chase down the highway of Los Angeles in the early nineties, as a local fan site monitored the commings and goings of the principal players in the tragic screen play that was the Smith’s marriage, with all kinds of rampant speculations and insider leaks suggesting that Ohio State was considering firing Urban Meyer.  At 8:57 CST time, with the committee having deliberated all day, the University announed that Meyer and AD Gene Smith would be suspended for the first 3 games of the season.  A beleagured Meyer would eventually take to the podium and fumble through an awkward press conference that wasn’t all that different from the one detailed above at Florida, where his poorly chosen words seemed to take responsibility for his inaction because of some sense of loyalty to his mentor’s grandson; what was missing from the statement was a clear apology to Courtney Smith, who most of America now assumed had been the victim of repeated domestic violence.  Though Meyer had run a tighter ship at Ohio State, at least in terms of player arrests and discipline, this time it was his loyalty to an assistant that was getting him in trouble.  It sure looked like things were beginning to unravel for Urban Meyer at Ohio State, just like they had at Florida.

*******

On January 12, 2015, Meyer stood on a stage at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington Texas as the face of the first “undisputed” champions of the College Football playoffs.  It had been an unlikely journey for sure as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, Braxton Miller, suffered a season ending injury in fall camp.  Starting 1-0 after a win over Navy, the fifth ranked Buckeyes would host Virginia Tech at the Horse Shoe in a primetime matchup.  With JT Barrett starting only his second game, Bud Carson used a version of the old Bear 46 defense and stunned the Buckeyes on their home turf, winning 35-21 (this of course would be the game yours truly traveled back to see).  Though it was only week 2 and Ohio State only fell to #8, it didn’t stop ass clowns like this guy from claiming that the Big Ten had already been eliminated from the playoffs.  Ohio State would have some close calls in 2014, but didn’t lose another game heading into the Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin on December 6, 2014.  And though Ohio State did again get by That Team Up North, the victory was a costly one, as signal caller JT Barrett left the game in the fourth quarter with what would later be determined to be a season ending broken ankle.  This meant that the fate of the Buckeyes would be in the hands of what would effectively be their third string quarterback, known at this point in his Buckeye career for a bad tweet and little else.  Perhaps what fueled the Buckeyes playoff run was the sad death of one of its most popular players on the team inside of the lockerroom, a man who did the dirty grunt work on the practice squad with a smile on his face–on November 30, 2014, the body of missing Ohio State student and football player Kosta Karageorge was found in a dumpster near his apartment.  This fueled the Buckeyes, who destroyed favored Wisconsin in the title game 59-0, sweeping them into the playoffs amid some controversy (that really shouldn’t have been, explained here).  Ohio State would go through Alabama (afterwords it was reported that Urban and his wife sung the “wicked witch is dead” song from the Wizzard of OZ over and over again in a car ride home from the game) and Oregon, both times the underdog, to ascend to the top of the college football world.

Despite the fact that Meyer has had Ohio State in playoff contention every year since the 2014 title, cracks in the foundation were beginning to show.  In 2015, as favorites to repeat for the title, Ohio State lost at home to a Michigan State team that was forced to play their back up quarterback on a last second field goal; that lone loss kept Ohio State out of the playoffs.  In 2016, after 11 of the first 102 NFL picks were Ohio State players, Meyer still guided that young Buckeyes team to a playoff spot.  But despite a veteran quarterback and a roster that would feature 7 more players selected in the next NFL draft, Clemson pounded Ohio State to the tune of 31-0.  For a coach who built his reputation as one of the early architects of the spread offense, it was a particualy bitter pill to swallow.   It was the first time Ohio State had been shutout since 1993 (yes, that’s right, it was that Team Up North, 28-0).  In 2017, after an epic come from behind win against Penn State in the Horse Shoe, and again in control of their own playoff destiny, Iowa destroyed Ohio State at Kinnick, 55-24.  For most pundits, it was this loss that kept Ohio State out of the playoffs, as a one loss Alabama who didn’t win their own conference got the final spot.  Then, in 2018, with a team some opined might be the best collection of talent Ohio State ever assembled, Purdue beat Ohio State by a tune of 49-20 at Ross Ade stadium on October 20, 2018.  For the first time in Meyer’s coaching career, he was getting blown out in games, in the latter two cases, to teams Ohio State was heavily favored to beat.

*******

When Urban Meyer returned to coach Ohio State against Tulane on September 22, 2018, having served his three game suspension, much of the discussion was no longer about his 3-0 Buckeyes.  Urban had become obssessed with the Zach Smith affair.  He explained it at the press conference.  He tweeted about it.  He apologized again.  With the Buckeyes playing down to opponents seemingly every week, and with stories running about Meyer’s headaches, about the Zach Smith affair, and this uncorroborated story first broke by a “journalist” fired by ESPN, it seemed like only a matter of time before the distractions would catch up with Meyer’s Buckeyes.

On Saturday, November 24, 2018, the 115th installment of The Game will be played.  Both teams are 10-1, and the winner will face Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game and a possible trip to the playoffs.  And once again this season, all that some are talking about is the fate of Ohio State’s head coach.  According to the radio airwaves resident carnival-barker, and two alleged unnamed sources, Urban Meyer is going to walk away from Ohio State after the season, just like he did in Florida in 2010.

Iconic Woody Hayes could not do.  Earle Bruce could not do it.  John Cooper could not do it.  Jim Tressel could not do it.  Even the guy who invented the golden pants could not do it.

Will Urban Meyer walk away from Ohio State on his terms?

I believe that he will, and here’s why.  When he left Florida, it was amid health concerns, as he was rushed to the hospital for what Urban thought was a heart attack.  Fast forward to 2018, and Meyer has been seen countless times with hands on knees on the sidelines in apparent agony.  We know that this is more than game agnst, at least one time, because of an interview where Meyer openly talked about severe headaches he has been incurring in recent years.  You have to ask yourself, how exactly does that help Meyer recruit in the slimy infested shark-eat-shark waters that is the dirty buisness of college recruting?  I suspect a known snake-oil-salesman in the corn fields of Pennsylvania is likcing his proverbial chops.  Negative recruiting ceases to be a problem when you aren’t planning to recruit at all.  And why has Urban Meyer continued to address the Courtney Smith situation publicly, at least for a few weeks after he returned, when any PR guy will tell you the best way to make a story go away is to stop talking about it?  Because maybe on your way out what you care about most is your legacy. And why would Ohio State publicly talk about hiring a coach in waiting when the present guy is 184-32 all-time, a surefire Hall of Fame coach who will go down as one of the best coaches the game has ever seen?  Perhaps because the school knows something and life must go on after Urban Meyer.

But for me, the biggest reason I believe Meyer walks away from Ohio State is because of his history and that of his mentor’s–Meyer has been savvy in his career every step of the way, climbing the ladder of success and making calculated business decisions.  For example, when he was going to leave Utah, and despite the fact that he was a Catholic and listed Notre Dame as one of his dream schools, he picked the University of Florida instead because it was an easier place to compete for a title.  For Ohio State fans, given the circumstances surrounding his departure from Florida, the incident in the Indiana game when he went down to one knee and his willingness to open up about it could foreshadow a departure after the season.  Finally, and as Cowherd suggested in the link above, it does not sound like a stretch to believe that Meyer has lingering negative feelings about the events that culminated in his 3 game suspension to start the season.  From Meyer’s initial clumsy attempt to apology to Courtney Smith, one reasonable interpretation is that while he would obviously regret that she might have been the victim of domestic violence, Meyer does not believe that his actions played any role in incidents that would have happened off campus and behind closed doors of another couple’s house, but that public pressure demanded that he personally apologize.  If Meyer indeed feels this way, then the 3 game suspension probably still sticks in his craw.

Should Urban Meyer walk away, it is fitting that the 115th installment of the game could be the last significant chapter in his Ohio State coaching career, a chance to once again win the conference and possibly play for a national title, just like it used to be when Woody and Bo roamed the sidelines almost five decades ago.  Urban Meyer has often said that he learned almost everything he knows from his mentor Earle Bruce.  Even though Meyer claimed in his August presser that this incident made him love Ohio State even more, he knows what happened to his mentor when Earle “went with his heart.”  Though it seems that history is not without a sense of cruel irony, here’s to betting that Meyer won’t make the same mistake that Earle made that fateful January morning in 1987.  And here’s to betting, based on both Meyer’s history on and off the field, that Urban Meyer goes out with a bang and not a whimper.

To all those who have found this piece, stayed, and read at least some of it, happy Thanksgiving and enjoy the 115th installment of The Game on Saturday.



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2 replies

  1. Very well written Mr. Ziemba. I thought I was pretty educated on the history of Bo/Woody/ The Game. I found a lot in here that I had never known.

  2. Thank you Taylor. I made it a point to research this and look for some stories that weren’t the often repeated ones. Glad you and enjoyed it and thanks for taking your time to read it.

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