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ESPN didn’t break the Urban Meyer story, but Ohio State’s fans didn’t seem to care at rally

Ohio State fans brought signs to a rally in support of Urban Meyer and against ESPN. (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

A group of Ohio State fans gathered Monday outside the Buckeyes’ football stadium ostensibly to show their support for embattled Coach Urban Meyer, who has been placed on administrative leave by the school amid an investigation into whether he knew about domestic violence allegations against assistant coach Zach Smith. But by reading the signs carried by those in attendance, many in the crowd of “more than 100″ (per ESPN’s story from the scene) or “more than 200″ (USA Today) instead seemed more interested in attacking ESPN.

One fan ginned up a mock bracket to determine the worst journalist:

It was an interesting comment, considering the reporter who broke the Meyer story — Brett McMurphy — was laid off by ESPN in April 2017 and published the article on his personal Facebook page. Another of the people listed in the bracket, Mark May, was let go by ESPN in the same round of job cuts and mostly has stayed out of the spotlight, bar for one tweet on Friday in which he urged Meyer to “STOP DIGGING WHEN YOU’RE IN A HOLE.” Sage Steele, meanwhile, is anchoring “SportsCenter” these days and was on camera last week when Zach Smith, the assistant in question, gave ESPN an interview.

That leaves Finebaum, who hosts a daily college football show that airs on the ESPN-owned SEC Network and on ESPN Radio. His comments on ESPN last week spurred Jeff Hamms to organize the rally and drive all the way up from his home in South Carolina to lead it.

“Paul Finebaum said . . . that Urban Meyer’s a fraud and he has no compassion for mankind,” Hamms, known as “Tennessee Jeff” to listeners of his calls into Fan 97.1 radio in Columbus, said to kick off the rally, leading to a cry of “he’s a jackass!”

Here’s what Finebaum said last week on “First Take.” He was critical of Meyer, sure, but no more so than many other commentators over the past week or so, couching his opinions by saying such things happen at other big-time college football programs and not just Ohio State.

“The immediate reaction was Urban Meyer cannot survive this [at Ohio State], and that’s before I even finished the first paragraph,” Finebaum said when asked about his initial reaction to last week’s McMurphy report, in which Courtney Smith, Zach Smith’s wife, said Meyer must have known about the 2015 incident because she had told so many people about it, including Meyer’s wife. “As you got deeper and deeper into the story, it got progressively worse, and since then I haven’t seen any indication from that school or from anyone else that [Meyer will retain his job]. The second they put him on administrative leave, that telegraphed to me and I think many others that they were looking for a way out, whether it’s a settlement, outright fire for cause, I don’t know. But I can’t imagine, with what Urban Meyer said last week at Big Ten Media Days, and the fact that he hasn’t said anything yet, that he is going to have anything more to say. . . . Let’s not forget, and this is irrelevant to the point we’re talking about, but this was one of the top four teams in the country, and now it not only looks like that is gone for him but perhaps one of the great careers in college history.”

Finebaum’s comments on “First Take” aired before Meyer issued a statement Friday in which he offered a different recollection of an alleged 2015 domestic violence incident involving Zach Smith, then the Buckeyes’ wide receivers coach. One week after saying at Big Ten Media Days that he had no memory of the 2015 incident, Meyer in his statement claimed he had followed the proper protocol in reporting it to school officials.

“I think what stands out is his disregard for humanity,” Finebaum said when asked what by Stephen A. Smith about what most alarmed him about the Meyer situation. “We all want to be fair here: We’re hearing one side of the story. But, man, it is an overwhelming side of the story.”

Finebaum then condemned Meyer for “blatantly lying” about the 2015 incident when asked about it at Big Ten media days.

“When we’re talking about arrogance, that seems to go hand-in-hand with Urban Meyer,” Finebaum continued. “And listen, I have always liked him personally. I’ve respected his coaching ability. But you can’t look past the University of Florida. He left a disaster down there. Oh yeah, he won two national championships — thank you Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin and countless other players who have been in the NFL since then — but he left his entire legacy in burned ashes. And he also sent Aaron Hernandez to the NFL and gave him a recommendation. . . . Listen, don’t stop the presses and start blaming Urban Meyer for Aaron Hernandez; that’s a whole different issue. But he did enable him, and Urban Meyer admitted later on that he gave players too many chances. But guys, not to get off the lead here, but all coaches do that. This is what big-time head coaches do: They enable. And on top of all that, this is a good ol’ boy network, where yeah, when we’re in front of the camera, we want to nod our head and say this is terrible and this is outrageous. But all of you guys know what happens inside that locker room and it’s a different world and I think we’re seeing part of that world today.”

Finebaum goes on to say such enabling happens at just about every big-time college football program and that coaches are there to win games and little else, but then Smith steers the conversation back to Meyer, specifically how he handles questions from reporters.

“College football coaches are, by and large, control freaks,” Finebaum said. “And when they can’t control every single thing that happens, they get obsessed over it. Listen, it doesn’t matter if it’s Urban Meyer or Nick Saban . . . they all say they don’t care, they all say they don’t read, but they do. They genuinely hate the media unless they do what they want them to do. . . . They only tolerate it when they have to, and they want to control every aspect of it.”

Finebaum then was asked what Meyer’s time at Florida, where numerous Gators players were arrested over his tenure, says about his legacy and perhaps could be foreshadowing of his immediate future.

“I think it says that he had Tim Tebow to shield him at the University of Florida,” Finebaum said. “All the good publicity that Tim brought helped overshadow the negativity. But remember one thing about Urban Meyer at Florida: He wins the championship in ’06, he wins it in ’08, he loses against Saban [in the 2009 SEC championship game], and he’s rushed to the hospital that night and then he decides to quit. Remember, he announced he’s leaving and the next day he comes back. It was one of the biggest mistakes he made professionally. The next year was a disaster [Florida went 8-5 in 2010, his worst record and final season as the Gators’ head coach]. He lost control of the program and it burned literally to the ground. Just ask [Meyer’s replacement at Florida] Will Muschamp in private what he inherited down there. So that is his legacy, and there’s no way you can scrub it away. Yeah, Urban’s written books. He went to work for ESPN for a year, where he culled relationships and coddled people. Remember, he wanted to spend time with his family — that’s why he gave up his job at Florida — and then he immediately took the ESPN job and then he immediately replaced Jim Tressel [at Ohio State in 2012]. I wonder what Jim Tressel is thinking this morning. He got fired for going through a yellow light compared to this.”

It’s all pretty strong stuff, sure, but it’s also exactly the reason ESPN pays Finebaum a salary and gives him a prominent role: both to have an opinion and get people talking about his opinions. Meyer’s supporters at the rally didn’t particularly like that opinion. Suddenly, one guy’s take became the default opinion of an entire network. Signs were made, and a rally in support of Meyer became — at least outwardly — a chance to bash ESPN. It was deflection of the highest order because, again, the actual story that sparked all of this wasn’t an ESPN creation at all but was reported by an ESPN cast-off.

Finebaum had one more point to make about that last week.

“I hope you see more reporting on this because my big issue in college sports, Stephen A., is there is so much covering up by the media. The media is intimidated by Urban Meyer. The media is intimidated by Nick Saban, so they’re not going to go after anyone. It took a guy who got fired from ESPN to break this story . . . he had nothing to lose, so Brett McMurphy went out and dug this up. I wonder if anyone else would have dug something like this up, especially someone who works on a local beat. Because if you go against Urban Meyer in Columbus, Ohio, you think you’re gonna have your job for long? I don’t think so,” Finebaum said.

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