It wasn’t quite a pep rally, although with several media members “welcoming” Urban Meyer “home,” it certainly didn’t have the elements of an interrogation. The Nov. 28 press conference introducing Meyer as Ohio State’s new football coach – one of the worst-kept secrets in sports over the past week – was a feel-good session designed to show off Meyer’s changed personality and new commitment to “balance” in his coaching and personal lives.
In all fairness, these events are rarely forums for tough, direct questions. They are designed to build excitement and serve as launching pads for future success. The term “winning the press conference” was concocted for a reason; schools want their new coaches’ first steps to be enthusiastic and dramatic, as if declarations like “We will play hard” lead directly to victories on the field.
In many ways, Meyer’s first meeting with the media was ordinary, almost cliché. He smiled at the right moments, talked tough when necessary and generally assured all Buckeye fans the future was bright. The circumstances leading to his hire, however, were not typical and displayed the influence wielded by ESPN on the college sports world and journalism these days.
That Meyer, who left Florida after a five-loss performance during the 2010 season to “spend more time with his family” and address “health concerns” would end up in Columbus after just one year is equal parts good fortune and calculation. The chance part of the equation comes from the dismissal of former OSU coach Jim Tressel this past spring. There is no way Meyer could have imagined that the Buckeyes job would be open when he left Gainesville. But the memorabilia-for-cash-and-tats scandal that rocked the program ended Tressel’s tenure in Columbus and created an opportunity for Meyer, who had already hooked on with ESPN and was preparing to be a college analyst for the 2011 campaign. Though he vehemently denied any desire to return to coaching this past spring and summer and even said during his OSU press conference, “A year ago I was, in my mind, convinced I was done coaching,” Meyer’s name began surfacing quickly as a potential full-time replacement for Tressel. (Former Ohio State player and assistant Luke Fickell was named interim head coach.) There were even rumors that Meyer was going to replace Joe Paterno at Penn State, even before the horrific allegations of abuse against former Nittany Lions assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and the subsequent institution-wide cover-up came to light.
Meyer stonewalled the chatter, often in a haughty, dismissive way, and continued his new career. Meanwhile, ESPN abetted him, happy to have a two-time national championship coach among its analyst ranks. By using Meyer as a coach-in-residence, ESPN was able to benefit from his knowledge and experience while also sanitizing Meyer’s reputation, which had taken a hit because of several player arrests while he was at Florida (31 arrests of 25 players from summer, 2005-fall, 2010, according to USA Today), allegations that he had run up the score against Miami and due to some heated confrontations with the media. Meyer came across as a measured presence, making it hard for anyone to believe he was capable of those previous incidents.
Meyer was also free to visit different schools around the country to speak with fellow coaches, watch practices and add to his knowledge of the game and how to run a program. He even spent some time at OSU’s archrival, Michigan, speaking with new coach Brady Hoke, neither man knowing Meyer would land in Columbus within a year.
The most valuable part of Meyer’s tenure at ESPN was the consideration he received from the network’s legions of college football analysts and reporters. Usually, rumors of coaching comings and goings spawn plenty of activity at ESPN headquarters and from its people in the field. Yet, in October – before the Sandusky scandal – when it was widely believed throughout coaching circles that Paterno and his staff would not be retained, and that Meyer, who had become friendly with Paterno and was a favorite of then-PSU president Graham Spanier, was the leading candidate to replace him, there was nothing said by the network. This although others, including Yahoo! Sports, with which ESPN competes for on-line traffic, was speculating that Meyer was a candidate at Penn State and Ohio State.
Further, when Ohio State began pursuing Meyer as a replacement for Fickell in earnest, ESPN was quiet, letting Meyer’s brusque denials stand. Of course he hadn’t spoken to anyone from OSU. But had his agent? And if his agent hadn’t spoken with anyone from the school directly, had he made contact with a consultant retained by Ohio State? In deference to one of its own, ESPN let other media take the lead on the Meyer-to-Columbus story, letting various Ohio outlets report the story in the days prior to the Michigan-Ohio State game and honoring Meyer’s desire to refrain from commenting in advance of the contest. It even removed him from the ABC broadcast. (ABC Sports is under ESPN’s aegis.) If Meyer were a coach who didn’t work for ESPN, the network wouldn’t have been so deferential.
When the announcement was made, formally, on Nov. 28, ESPN was ready, finally, to cover the story. It broadcast the press conference on ESPNU, had its analysts comment on the hiring and “scored” a one-on-one interview with Meyer for its 6 p.m. EST SportsCenter broadcast. It was interesting that several of the people it asked to weigh in on the hiring – Kirk Herbstreit, Robert Smith, Chris Spielman – were Ohio State products, guaranteeing praise for the decision. One of the others, Jesse Palmer, played at Florida, although not for Meyer. No one talked about whether it was a worry that Meyer had recruited players who had so many run-ins with the law or that he had been extremely combative during his final months at Florida. ESPN’s people accepted the vague “I was concerned with the state of college football” line Meyer used during the press conference to describe part of his motivation for stepping down from Florida after the 2010 season.
It will be interesting to see how the network and its multiple platforms cover Meyer going forward. Will ESPN celebrate his every move, or will its many reporters/analysts/commentators/writers delve into the darker side of the “rock star coach” and his tenure in Gainesville? Meyer’s time at ESPN may not have given the network a huge ratings boost, although it did add gravitas to its college football coverage, but the year on TV did much more for Meyer. It allowed him to re-cast himself as a family man, a pristine coach and a highly desirable job candidate. Further, Meyer was able to seek employment away from ESPN’s renowned magnifying glass and choose his own time to speak fully about the job. Talk about a big win.
Expect Meyer to have Ohio State in contention for a league title next year and a national crown soon thereafter. And pay attention to how ESPN covers those pursuits. It will be interesting to see how it treats a former employee.
Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.