The wide receivers coach has been fired. The head coach is serving a three-game suspension and, aside from one meeting, hasn’t been allowed around the team for nearly a month. The athletic director will also serve a suspension. And, don’t forget, a game has yet to be played.
It’s fair to say fifth-ranked Ohio State has never approached a season quite like this one, engulfed by the scandal over former wide receiver coach Zach Smith’s alleged domestic abuse of his ex-wife and how much head coach Urban Meyer knew about it.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a town impacted, positively or negatively, by a typical Saturday afternoon, the result of a football game, let alone when something like this happens to its program,” former Ohio State quarterback and ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “So it’s kind of uncharted waters, I think, for the university and for that fan base.”
The investigation found Meyer, who is 73-8 in six seasons with one national championship, mishandled the allegations, but didn’t cover them up. That resulted in him keeping his job, but suspended for games against Oregon State, Rutgers and No. 16 TCU. He will return to the team after the opener on Sept. 2 and will be allowed to lead practices, though he is barred from attending the subsequent two games.
Meyer admittedly lied, during the Big Ten Media Day on July 24, about not being aware of a 2015 domestic violence incident involving Smith, who was fired July 23. Meyer also knew about a 2009 domestic violence report filed against Smith, who was arrested, but not charged, for aggravated battery, and didn’t inform Ohio State about it before hiring Smith upon taking the Buckeyes job in November 2011. Meyer didn’t seem to help himself in his press conference the day the suspensions were announced. When asked what he would like to tell Smith’s ex-wife Courtney, Meyer said, “I’m sorry we’re in this situation.” Two days later, he tried to make amends with an apologetic written statement.
In Meyer’s place will be Ryan Day, the team’s 39-year-old quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator. Ohio State passed over coordinators and former college head coaches Greg Schiano and Kevin Wilson, each of whom has dealt with their own off-the-field issues in the past.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Day said on Monday when he met the media for the first time since the suspensions were announced.
On paper, Ohio State entered the season a title contender, led by potential No. 1 NFL draft pick Nick Bosa at defensive end, big-armed sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins, the experienced running back duo of Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins and the usual array of highly regarded NFL prospects on each side of the ball. But this was before the scandal broke, before Meyer lied about what he knew at Big Ten Media Day, before the Buckeyes lost their leader for three games.
It’s hard to tell how they will respond. In many ways, the Ohio State situation is eerily similar to what Michigan State men’s basketball team dealt with during the 2017-18 season, after a Jan. 26 ESPN “Outside the Lines” report alleged sexual assault and violence against women by a number of football and basketball players over the previous decade. A loaded team with national championship aspirations was weighed down by scandal that at the time didn’t involve any of the players. That was on top of the NCAA investigation into the Michigan State athletic department over the handling of sexual abuse cases involving former sports medicine doctor Larry Nassar. The Spartans started the year 15-1 and featured a stellar roster that included lottery picks Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges. They failed to reach the Sweet 16 and lost two of their last three games.
“You could see it as the season went along,” said Chris Solari, who covered that Spartans team for the Detroit Free Press. “It wore on those guys. I’m talking about the players who had nothing to do with it. They were constantly asked about it. They were kind of shell-shocked by it in some ways.”
Ohio State players will be dealing with the same issues. The questions won’t stop. The heat on Meyer isn’t going to die down. Columbus has never seen a season quite like the one on the horizon.
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