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Buckeyes should be wary of cult of coach

11/29/2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It was just a couple of weeks ago, as the sordid mess played out at Penn State and led to Joe Paterno's firing, that many of us questioned whether it was dangerous to have a coach who is bigger than the school. ESPN.com's own Ryan McGee wrote a thoughtful column about how the Jerry Sandusky case should end for good the culture of coach worship on college campuses. He was, and is still, right.

Less than a month later, Ohio State hired Urban Meyer as its new football coach. As Adam Rittenberg correctly pointed out Monday, Meyer has rock-star status and brings a new level of fame to the Buckeyes' sideline. The school had better be wary.

The only reason Meyer is in Columbus, of course, is because of Jim Tressel's actions. Tressel was an icon who delivered a national championship, a string of Big Ten titles and repeated wins over rival Michigan. He became so powerful that he thought he could lie to his superiors and cover up an obvious NCAA violation as he chased more BCS glory. Even after Tressel's deception became clear, Ohio State's administration tried to hold onto him as long as it could. Who will ever forget school president E. Gordon Gee's infamous "I just hope he doesn't fire me" comment?

Meyer has never been accused of major NCAA violations, and there's no hint of scandal associated with him. Ohio State could scarcely had made a better hire or found a seemingly better fit for its style.

But Meyer does have some baggage. His time at Florida, though wildly successful on the field, was marred by several off-the-field incidents. The Orlando Sentinel reported that there were more than 31 arrests involving 25 Gators players from the summer of 2005 to early 2010. The arrest count made national news. Meyer addressed that during his news conference on Monday.

"I see numbers of arrests, and the numbers I see are exaggerated," he said. "I know what we've had to deal with. If we had one, that's too many. Our job as a coaching staff is to mentor, to discipline and to educate young people. And we've had a pretty good track record. We ran into some bumps in the road at the University of Florida.

"Does that mean we had bad kids? I'll fight that forever. No, absolutely not, we did not have bad guys. Did they make stupid mistakes? Yeah, I've made a few stupid mistakes. We're going to correct them. We're going to go really hard and try to recruit really good people to represent Ohio State."

Maybe those incidents were overblown, and maybe Meyer doesn't have those issues in Columbus. But Ohio State obviously had some problems monitoring its players' activities off the field in the past couple of years, which led to two separate NCAA notices of allegations and some forthcoming sanctions. Athletic director Gene Smith insists those were isolated incidents and that the program has taken steps to tighten control of things. That has been the crux of the school's argument to the NCAA.

But what if the pattern at Florida repeats itself? Will Ohio State take steps to correct that, or will it bow to Meyer's judgment if he is winning Big Ten titles and beating Michigan like Tressel did?

Meyer was a larger-than-life figure in Gainesville, but in some ways he held Florida's program hostage by waffling over whether to retire in 2009 and 2010. He bristled at any perceived media criticism of his players or program.

Buckeyes fans have been understandably effusive in their praise of the Meyer hiring, and some of the questions at Monday's news conference bordered on fawning. Meyer is already being hailed as the savior of a program that has been mired in controversy for the past year.

He will likely win lots of games and do big things at Ohio State. The school had better just be wary of him getting too big.