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July 24, 2013
Inside the rivalry: Urban Meyer dogged by criticism
Ohio State is coming off a 12-0 season, is the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten title and is considered the league's best hope at ending the SEC's national dominance, yet Michigan's biggest rival is facing incredible scrutiny as the Buckeyes set to open fall camp.
Coach Urban Meyer probably spent most of his offseason with a smug smile stretched across his face. Here was a man that in one season rescued Ohio State from despair, beating U-M in the process, in establishing OSU's claim to be the Midwest's top program and the lone (perceived) threat to the SEC. After all, if anyone is to take down Alabama and LSU shouldn't it be one of their own.
But Meyer wasn't celebrated Wednesday during Big Ten Media Days. He was barely asked about his team. Meyer was on the defensive, on two fronts, one relating to his time at Florida (2005-10) when he was responsible for recruiting and mentoring accused murderer Aaron Hernandez, and the second thanks to three arrests of Ohio State student-athletes in the last week.
Over the past 10 days, freshmen Marcus Baugh (underage drinking, false ID) and Tim Gardner (obstruction of official business) were arrested as well as cornerback Bradley Roby (battery) - the latter an All-American in 2012 - while tailback Carlos Hyde was named a person of interest in the assault of a woman; YahooSports.com said there is video that shows Hyde did not strike the woman, however.
When he first stepped to the podium for his 15-minute media session in front of hundreds of local and national press, Meyer tried to turn the attention to his current team, but that didn't last long.
"It's been a tough couple of days, but I'm going to focus on the positives, positives created by tremendous momentum from last year's team to an excellent recruiting class, positive spring practice, and one of the best academic performances in recent history at Ohio State," he said.
"This year's team has high expectations, riding off the coattails of what those kids did last year, and it's very simple that if we get tremendous leadership from our coaching staff, but most importantly our players, then we'll have a success."
Then, the questions began, and 8 of 11 reporters asked about Hernandez or the off-field issues plaguing the Buckeyes.
"We just have to evaluate the facts, and once I evaluate the facts, then we'll make some decisions," said Meyer, who did dismiss Gardner, suspended Baugh and is still deciding the fate of Roby and Hyde.
"In the last 12 months we've had three legal issues, and it all happened in three days, I think, three or four days. And we had two freshmen that have been with us I think just over three weeks make two stupid decisions that were dealt with very firmly. One's been sent home. One lost his scholarship.
"It drives you insane that you have to deal with that nonsense. My concern is just I don't want to disrupt this team. And I talk to them all the time about it. We have an incredible amount of resources and time spent educating players how to do the right thing at the right time. And when a mistake happens or something happened, you have to react and get it done.
"So I'm disappointed. I think furious might be the word that would best describe when I first got the phone call, because, like I said, for 12 months it's been really, really good."
The focus, at least over the next few weeks, will not be about the team, though. Meyer spent another 30 minutes in a smaller media session answering the very same questions he faced in the larger ballroom, and tomorrow he'll be forced to sit for two hours, with every reporter afforded an opportunity to sit around his table and ask whatever they'd like. He'd like to move on, but he doesn't get to dictate when that happens.
Does any of this truly matter to Michigan? In some ways, no. The team that shows up in Ann Arbor Nov. 30 will have moved on from these incidents and will be just as motivated as any Buckeye team in the past. The program, however, has been damaged and that could have implications for recruiting.
The biggest black eye, though, rests on Meyer, who has seen much of his incredible resume called into question by the very same writers and reporters that were lauding his performance at Florida and in his first year with OSU. Instead of being revered, instead of being the golden child, he is being called a 'win-at-all-costs' coach, and that's not a compliment. Critics are smearing his name, saying he recruits thugs and doesn't truly care about his players personally. Are those claims unjustified? Meyer certainly thinks so.
"We're not the only program in America that makes mistakes," he said. "We've had too many. I've self-evaluated. I've evaluated our staff and how we do our business and we're making sure we do it the right way.
"You asked the question about the responsibility of a head coach. I think the head coach needs to set a standard, needs to direct, guide, mentor, push and direct these guys. Ultimately, though, every person is ultimately held accountable for their decisions they make."
If that sounds like he wants to pass the buck, he insisted it doesn't, but he also knows he has to go on the offensive some, making sure he comes out of all this with a shred of respect so that recruits still want to play for him.
He'll survive. Ohio State will survive. It's a black cloud, sure, but winning cures everything, and the Buckeyes will win this season. Enough for this to all be a little blip. Michigan, thus, has to do the only thing within its control - beat its rival. Do that, and well, Meyer might just feel some real heat.