Opinion: Football 'Fraternity' Provides Shield from Scrutiny

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In 2016, Michael Rosenberg, the terrific Sports Illustrated writer, did a long feature on the Big Ten's football resurgence.

I dug it up the other day, expecting it to be sodden with retrospective irony.

It delivered.

"If you can surround yourself with greatness, you become a better individual over the long run. That's what the Big Ten is all about and always has been.''

That was from Mark Hollis, the now-retired athletic director at, um, Michigan State.

"You have to sell something you believe in,'' one Big Ten coach told Rosenberg. "And that starts with the facilities, hiring an excellent coaching staff and paying the coaches too. When people say 'commitment,' I'm not sure they know how much it means."

That Big Ten coach was Urban Meyer.

Meyer's job, reputation and hall of fame career now hang in the balance pending a university investigation of his handling of a series of domestic-abuse-related charges and allegations against one of his assistants.

Meanwhile, Maryland coach D.J. Durkin and two athletic department trainers are on administrative leave while that school investigates the culture of the football program in the wake of a player's death on the practice field earlier this summer.

Illinois in 2014 (Tim Beckman) and Indiana in 2016 (Kevin Wilson) have pushed coaches out the door after investigation alleged mistreatment of players. In 2015, Rutgers canned Kyle Flood amid evidence he attempted to influence his players' grades.

And, still lingering, there's the massive bundle of emotions evoked by the name Jerry Sandusky.

This is not to suggest, of course, that the Big Ten has, relative to the rest of college football, sold its soul or lost its way.

Big Ten hard-cores would say the SEC (for example) is just better, and more experienced, at burying the evidence.

That's simplistic, but Indiana and Illinois and Rutgers at least took their messes on, in public, and acted decisively. Penn State's recovery from Sandusky, at least in a football sense, has been all but miraculous.

More than the membership of any other conference, the Big Ten brethren is committed to each other. It's hard-wired into the business model.

They share bowl and TV revenue equally. Gate receipts from league games are also shared, although not quite equally (it's complicated).

The league's agreement with four bowls (Citrus, Holiday, Outback and Foster Farms) requires five different members to appear in them over a six-year period. With the Pinstripe Bowl, it's six out of six.

Remarkably, if a conference member fails to sell its allotment of bowl tickets, every member shares the cost.

It's one big family in some ways. Mostly good ones.

But a bigger fraternity, football, trumps it.

In 2009, Meyer was the head coach at Florida. Zach Smith was a grad assistant — an intern — on Meyer's staff. Police were called to Smith's home for a domestic disturbance, leading not to the usual mediating and cooling off police are trained for, but to Smith's arrest.

Everything else in the Meyer/Smith affair has air in it — years of dysfunction, lots of he said/she said, charges and counter-charges. "Duke lacrosse'' whispers in the background.

But there's no denying that once Meyer got the Ohio State job, in 2012, he hired Smith as a full-time assistant.

Meyer was and is an historically great coach. There had to be 200 impeccable resumes on his desk.

Didn't Smith flunk his internship? Didn't he at least fail to ace it? If not, what would it have taken?

These head coaches are sold to us as utter control freaks, absolutely and fanatically committed to excellence in every area.

Did Meyer not think, ''This is a potential existential threat to my program and my career?''

No. Smith played for Meyer. He's a Columbus kid. His grandfather is former Buckeye coach and Meyer mentor Earle Bruce.

It's a "family'' thing. You wouldn't understand.

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August 12, 2018


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