Tate | Illini, Buckeyes exist in different football worlds these days

Tate | Illini, Buckeyes exist in different football worlds these days

Where once Illinois-Ohio State was a raging football rivalry, the goings-on in Buckeyeland aren't exactly front-line concerns here anymore.

History shows these two clashed in 100 of 103 seasons through last year. The string reached 88 consecutive seasons through 2002, the year Illinois took OSU's national championship team into overtime.

During the stretch from 1983 through 2007 — with Woody Hayes long gone — Illinois was a respectable 11-12 against the perennial powerhouse. And seven of those 12 losses were by a touchdown or less.

Today, these old rivals are not only in different divisions, they're residing in different football worlds ... OSU on top of it, and Illinois near the bottom. And starting this season, the two will meet just twice in the next eight seasons.

Viewing from a distance

So, from this distance, we tend to view Urban Meyer's missteps like more clumsiness at Missouri or dishonesty at North Carolina. Just outside our realm of concern.

And yet, Urban demands our attention. What was he thinking? We held this corporate-CEO view of him, and now this? Did you really consult an administrator about deleting old texts on your cell phone? Was your concern for the grandson of former Buckeye coach Earle Bruce greater than your regard for his beleaguered wife, Courtney Smith?

Suddenly, the overdue firing of assistant coach Zach Smith locked arms with the Maryland debacle as the most serious cases of Big Ten football misconduct since the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal at Penn State. In terms of impropriety, the conference is actually outdoing the SEC, no small feat.

What did he know?

I am reminded of the oft-repeated words of Howard Baker in the Watergate hearings: "What did the president know and when did he know it?" And also, the knifing comments of Joseph Welch in the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954: "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"

In this case, the elephant hiding in the corner is $38 million, the amount owed Meyer if OSU fired him without cause. Actually, the trustees had cause, but perhaps not in the legal sense. They certainly wanted to avoid a court battle over the dollars, and an embarrassing repeat of Zach Smith's multiple misdeeds. Yes, they were multiple.

— Police answered a call to Smith's Florida residence in 2009, Courtney saying he threw her pregnant body against a wall. In order not to damage his career, she declined to press charges: Meyer knew. Then head coach at Florida, he and his wife attempted to help the couple, although Courtney did not recall his involvement.

— Having joined Meyer at OSU, Zach Smith attended a strip club with high school coaches in 2014 and ran up a $600 bill: Meyer knew and created a morality clause for his staff.

— The investigation found that Zach Smith had sex with a secretary in the football office: Meyer surely found out since she was reassigned in 2015 to a different department.

— Zach Smith took explicit pictures of himself at the White House: Meyer surely didn't know.

— Zach Smith was arrested for DUI: Meyer apparently didn't know.

Signs were evident

Who is this guy?

According to the report, Zach Smith had sex toys delivered to the football office, was late for 2016 practices, didn't show up on recruiting trips, left early from a rehab center for substance abuse in 2015, had declines on his credit cards, received repeated non-written reprimands and was given raises all the way to $300,000 despite his reckless behavior.

Somewhere along the way, Meyer was sufficiently concerned about the marriage relationship that he warned, "If you hit her, you're fired."

It should have ended in 2015 when Courtney accused Zach of choking her. She had informed police that she feared for her life, but again no charges were filed. So it wasn't until July 23, after Zach violated an order of protection, that Meyer fired him.

Through it all, Meyer put AD Gene Smith in an awkward position, resulting in both being suspended. Meyer received three games, and appeared wooden and remorseless in his response (disregard earlier lying to the media; that doesn't count).

It is understandable why OSU trustee Jeffrey Wadsworth, who resigned, and a landslide of critics think the penalty was too lenient. For apparent personal reasons, Meyer failed badly in his supervisory duties when he allowed an irresponsible Zach Smith to wander too far off the reservation ... and into never-never land.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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