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Urban Meyer scandal is a warning to other coaches

And it’s time once again to warn against the cult of personality.

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NCAA Football: Ohio State Spring Game Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The termination of Ohio State Buckeyes wide receivers coach Zach Smith just days ago wasn’t the end of a scandal now engulfing head coach Urban Meyer, who was placed on paid administrative leave by the school on Wednesday while it investigates whether Meyer knew about Smith’s long history of domestic abuse.

New text messages reported by former ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy and an interview with Smith’s ex-wife forced Ohio State to take action.

Now Meyer’s job seemingly hangs in the balance, a surprising development given Meyer’s success in Columbus. In the past, winning a national championship and consistently competing for conference titles would often be enough to protect a coach in a similar situation.

Not any more.

The increased sensitivity to issues of sexual assault and domestic violence comes as the Baylor scandal is still producing court settlements, Michigan State deals with the fallout from the Larry Nassar scandal, and Ohio State itself deals with extensive allegations of abuse committed by a former team doctor.

And so the outcry against Meyer was swift. At USA Today, Dan Wolken wrote that Meyer should be fired if he protected Smith. Former Texas linebacker Emmanuel Acho, who is now a college football analyst for ESPN, echoed that call:

For activist Brenda Tracy, the decision by Ohio State and potential pending termination of Meyer was a warning to other coaches across college football and other sports:

Schools are increasingly coming to understand the massive costs associated with failing to ensure that their programs are free of those who would enable sexual assault and domestic abuse.

In fact, the new contracts just revealed for several Texas A&M assistants allow the school to fire those assistants for cause if they fail to report complaints or accusations that come to their knowledge:

The university states the assistants are to contact the school’s Title IX coordinator, the athletic department’s senior woman coordinator or law enforcement regarding the specified situations: “in the case of an emergency situation… alleged or suspected illegal gender discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, intimate partner violence, stalking and/or related retaliation.”

The university states the assistants are to contact the school’s Title IX coordinator, the athletic department’s senior woman coordinator or law enforcement regarding the specified situations: “in the case of an emergency situation… alleged or suspected illegal gender discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, intimate partner violence, stalking and/or related retaliation.”

Texas head coach Tom Herman isn’t completely outside the scope of this scandal, either — when he coached for Meyer, Smith was his wide receivers coach. And Herman could be in the running for the Ohio State job if Meyer is terminated.

More importantly, it’s a reminder not to build a cult of personality around a coach who rose to prominence under Meyer and took many of his program-building techniques from him.

That’s a specific warning for a specific program that applies to any team across any sport, especially college sports, where coaches like to build themselves up as critical figures in molding the lives of young men.

With Art Briles, professions of faith and a belief in second chances hid an out-of-control program that repeatedly covered up and enabled sexual assault.

Meyer used similar tactics to build up a cult of personality around himself in an effort to claim the moral high ground and insulate himself from player misbehavior, which was particularly egregious just before he left Florida, as Wolken explains:

Throughout his career, Meyer has desperately cultivated a reputation as a coach who wanted to be about more than winning football games. He invited media coverage of the books he was reading, the leadership seminars he was studying, the motivational tactics he was employing.

And for years, that sense of a program about more than winning football games gave him cover to make decision after decision that cast him as the redeemer for wayward youth who needed the structure of college football – and needed him – to turn around their lives.

The line between righteous and sanctimonious is a fine one, so fans should take notice when a coach goes out of their way to sell their high mindedness. Hugh Freeze, anyone? And they should reject all cults of personality around coaches to reduce the possibility that those coaches have enough protection to cover up and survive misconduct.

Administrations should take proactive measures to conduct due diligence when hiring coaches and ensure that allegations of sexual misconduct or domestic violence made against coaches or players aren’t ever covered up. As Tracy says, it’s far better to be proactive than reactive.

Things are different now.