COLUMBUS — The landscape of Ohio State football was similar seven years ago.
The Buckeyes were one of the country’s dominant programs, piling up wins and highly ranked recruiting classes. Oh, and their coach was embroiled in a scandal.
The outpouring of support for Jim Tressel, who was let go in May, 2011, after lying to the NCAA about players who accepted improper benefits, is similar to the encouragement Urban Meyer is currently receiving.
On Monday, a rally with about 200 fans took place outside Ohio Stadium in support of Meyer, who is currently on paid administrative leave amid an investigation into what he knew concerning allegations of domestic violence against former assistant coach Zach Smith. The rally was complete with chants of Meyer’s name, Ohio State songs, and signs supporting Meyer, blasting the media, and one mocking the #MeToo movement.
Tressel received the same treatment, as a couple hundred fans marched nearly a mile to his house in Upper Arlington, Ohio, after he parted ways with the school in 2011. One of the march’s organizers, Tawni Shaffer, was an OSU student at the time. The 2009 Bryan High School graduate is now Tawni Cashon after getting married; she graduated from Ohio State in May with a doctor of optometry degree, and she remains a Buckeye to the core.
READ MORE: Attorney: OSU never contacted Courtney Smith
“A lot has changed in college sports,” said Cashon, 27, who lives in Columbus. “The allegations toward teams and coaches have become more serious versus tattoos and memorabilia to now domestic violence and other offenses. It’s hard for me to have a strong viewpoint until we find out everything, especially considering there’s a victim involved. Knowing that someone was potentially injured and abused is scary.
“My hope is that [Meyer] did the right thing. With a wife and daughters of his own, I would hope he felt the need to do the right thing.”
Smith’s ex-wife, Courtney Smith, called police in both 2009 and 2015 to report accusations of domestic violence against the former OSU receivers coach, though charges were not pursued in either case. Last month, she received a domestic violence protection order against Zach Smith, who was fired July 23.
The events of recent weeks have featured a potpourri of reactions from Ohio State’s ardent fan base. Some have refused to believe Meyer could do wrong, some have attacked the credibility of Courtney Smith, and some have taken a more reasoned approach.
Pam Mason is in the latter category. The 1976 Ohio State graduate was born and raised in Columbus. Her father was a member of the board of trustees, and OSU football games were a childhood activity.
Mason now lives in Princeton, N.J., but living 500 miles from Ohio State has not diminished her fandom. What might is if the football program harbored a domestic abuser.
“I felt physically ill when I read about it,” said Mason, 64. “My immediate thought was you’re not holding your assistant coaches to the same standard that you hold your players to. That’s what bothered me.
“I have never defended Jim Tressel. I’ve always thought Jim Tressel made an enormous error of not going down the hall and telling [director of athletics] Gene Smith about the tattoo-gate situation. But it was tats for trinkets, and that was something I could move on from. Nobody got hit, nobody got hurt, nobody died, no children got molested. I’m good.
“Domestic violence is a completely different story for me. I’ve experienced it in my own family. When I listen to Courtney Smith, everything rang true to me.”
Mason, who goes by “Princeton Pam” when she calls into 97.1 The Fan in Columbus and “Pam from New Jersey” on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland, returns to Columbus to attend games and bought Rutgers season tickets in past years simply to attend the OSU game. She’s been on the Buckeye Cruise for Cancer three times, an excursion that raises funds for Ohio State’s James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.
Through it all, she’s seen Ohio State change coaches while the results stay the same.
“I’ve seen Woody [Hayes], Earle Bruce, [John] Cooper, and Tressel all get fired, and Ohio State hasn’t missed a beat,” Mason said. “If Urban goes, we’ll be fine because we’re Ohio State. We’re not Texas, we’re not USC, we’re not Miami, we’re not Alabama. We don’t crumble when we lose a great coach because there are guys lining up to take this job.”
August is a celebrated month across the country, especially in Ohio, where football is king. But as the calendar flipped last week, Mason’s enthusiasm was tempered.
“It really knocked the excitement right out of me,” she said.
When Mason returned to work Monday, she was repeatedly questioned about what’s going on at Ohio State. She doesn’t know how to fully answer that question until the truth about what Meyer did or didn’t do in 2015 is known. But Mason’s always wondered if Meyer’s tenure would end unceremoniously.
“When the rumors began that Ohio State was going to hire Urban Meyer, I was not 100 percent onboard with it,” she said. “And the reasons were because of his track record at Florida with the off-the-field incidents with his players. Everybody has player arrests. But the amounts with his were very high, and it was the kinds of crimes they were involved in — guns, domestic violence, stalking, things that were really bad. So I was concerned.
“Then I got very encouraged because I saw that he took this hard line with players like Storm Klein and Carlos Hyde. There’s been very little in terms of arrests; everyone that played in the Cotton Bowl graduated. So there are very positive things that have happened. But I always had this feeling in the back of my mind waiting for the other shoe to drop. Something is going to come back to bite us.”
On that humid June night seven years ago, hundreds of people were scattered about on Tressel’s lawn when he took the microphone.
“We’re going to be Buckeyes for life,” he said. “What’s that old saying, ‘Buckeye born and bred, I’ll be a Buckeye ’til I’m dead.’”
“Don't forget,” Tressel added, “Nov. 26 we’re going to kick [Michigan’s butt].”
Ohio State lost a school-record-tying seven games under interim coach Luke Fickell in 2011, including its first loss to Michigan in eight years. Meyer was hired two days after the Michigan game, and OSU football didn’t miss a beat.
“With the alumni and resources we have,” Cashon said, “one coach doesn't have to be the entire program.”
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