The Urban debate is a battle for the heart of OSU

Urban Meyer is an unquestioned winner on the field. Is that what will matter most to his future?

Much has changed at Ohio State since I obtained my undergraduate degree there in the 1980s.

We will see how sweeping the changes have been in whether embattled head football coach, Urban Meyer, is retained or dismissed.

Meyer is on administrative leave for something, either for harboring a serial domestic abuser on his staff, or for repeatedly lying about his knowledge of that latest incident of abuse in 2015.

Or both.

We’re not exactly sure why the coach is on the shelf because no one in authority at OSU has spoken.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

One person in power has spoken.

That person is Urban Meyer.

Meyer released a rambling, eight-paragraph statement on social media on Friday that could have been summarized in four sentences totalling nine words.

“I lied. So what? Fire me. I dare you.”

Initially, I wasn’t sure if Meyer went rogue with his statement or released it as a trial balloon with OSU’s approval to take the temperature on how his comeback tour would play if allowed to keep his job.

I’m now sure Meyer went out on his own, probably in heavy consultation with his legal team, to put Ohio State on notice that he has no intention to resign or settle for less than the $38 million he’s owed on his contract.

Had OSU been in on the crafting of Meyer’s statement, it’s a reasonable assumption either the official OSU football Twitter account, or those of the university or school president Michael Drake would have retweeted it.

None did, however, sending the clear message that, right now, at least, Meyer is speaking only for himself.

His words, though, have great weight, because there is no one more powerful at Ohio State than Urban Meyer.

He has bosses in theory only, for Drake, nor athletic director Gene Smith nor any of the members of the university’s Board of Trustees carry the impact Meyer does on all matters of import to the school, not just football.

That’s because nothing opens the wallets of donors like the football success Meyer virtually guarantees with his brilliance as a recruiter, motivator and coach.

He is only the best football coach Ohio State has ever had. With 73 wins over six seasons, one national championship, two playoff berths and three Big Ten titles, the comparison to any of his predecessors is not even close.

Meyer’s teams have lost, respectively, 0, 2, 1, 1, 2 and 2 games in his six years at Ohio State.

Football teams that routinely go 9-3, or worse, don’t fund multi-million dollar medical center expansions or the other pricey projects OSU is amid.

You can tell how delicate this balance between football and funding truly is in the hesitance so far of anyone from Ohio State but Meyer to attach their name to anything regarding his status.

The official school announcement Wednesday of his administrative leave did not have Drake’s, Smith’s or anyone's name attached.

Same with the announcement Thursday of the investigative committee appointed by the board to look into Meyer’s behavior.

Sunday night, the school's announcement that it's Urban Renewal Committee would complete its work within 14 days included no words from Drake, Smith or any trustee.

So it’s clear, if Urban Meyer’s head is going to roll, no one is going to willingly step forward and admit to having wielded the machete that lopped it off.

That isn’t to say, however, that Meyer will still be the Buckeyes coach after all this shakes out.

Whether he is will hinge on what Ohio State is most committed to -- what it’s always been or what it purports to be.

Back when I graduated, school officials didn’t much care for their image as a Football Factory, but they found it a hard portrayal to shake given that the academic enrollment standards guaranteed any graduate of an Ohio high school a spot in the classroom.

Somewhere after that -- probably about the time the school ceased being, Ohio State, and insisted on being known as, The Ohio State University -- there hatched a utopian notion at the heart of what message the decision on Meyer’s  future will send.

For some time now, OSU has endeavored to become a Harvard of sorts in the classroom, while remaining the equal of Alabama on the football field.

This uneasy alliance flourished throughout the first decade of the 2000s with the perfect hybrid to front both the football program and the university in the form of the scholarly, sweater-vested, senatorial Jim Tressel.

All good things must come to an end, though, and the Tressel fairy tale finally soured when he got caught lying to the school and the NCAA.

Eventually, the higher-ups determined the damage Tressel had done to OSU’s reputation nationally outweighed his popularity locally.

That came only after three months of fitful deliberations, during which story after unflattering story from all manner of media sources finally convinced those in charge they should cut ties with Tressel or suffer death by 1,000 paper cuts to all the values OSU professed to embrace.

The timetable for a decision on Meyer is much more compressed, with the season less than a month away.

The delineation, though, on how this will play out is entirely the same as it was during the Tressel’s scandal.

Will the school decide Meyer has damaged its national reputation so much that it’s willing to suffer the local blow-back for letting him go?

A sampling of national opinion-shapers in the aftermath of Meyer’s statement on Friday suggests Ohio State cannot win with them unless it dismisses the head coach.

Yet inside Ohio, the only way OSU will win with its legion of fans whose self-image rises and falls in lockstep with the Buckeyes’ fortunes on fall Saturdays will be to discipline Meyer delicately enough so that he remains the school’s head coach.

Good luck bridging that canyon.

However it shakes out, we’ll finally know whether Ohio State’s top priority is upholding values like integrity and honesty that are typical of a top academic institution, or whether OSU is more committed to being a school that its football program can be proud of.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Bruce Hooley

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