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Musings from Arledge: Urban Meyer, Nike, and the All-Time USC Corners

Sorry for the delay in getting Musings published this week.  I was smarting over being picked by Athlon as the 87th best columnist for USC football-related websites.  I’m hoping with a big year I can overcome the doubters and move up the rankings.  I don’t have a plan to accomplish that yet, but I will be harnessing love, and I suspect that will do the trick.

Yes, that is a reference to the Democratic debate.  It’s the off-season, and PRP’s are closed.  There’s nothing to talk about.  So I’m going to talk about things that interest me and hope that they interest a few of you.

(If you don’t know what the line above refers to, do yourself a favor and google Marianne Williamson and the Democratic debate.  And, no, this is not a political post because I don’t think Marianne Williamson is really about politics, at least not in any recognizable way, which I admit seems like a strange thing to say about somebody running for President of the United States.  But just listen to her and ask yourself whether she seems interested in politics.  What is she about?  I’m not entirely sure, but it involves love and putting the New Zealanders in their place.  And it’s glorious, easily the most fun you’ll ever have watching a bunch of blowhard Senators and Governors preen on stage. Any debate she participates in is a debate I will watch. Now back to football.)  

There has been a fair amount of Urban Meyer chatter on the board recently, no doubt because there is so little to talk about this time of year and because of the (almost certainly false) assertion by former Meyer assistant Zach Smith that USC is sending certified correspondence to Urban’s house.  (Yes, certified mail: USC wants to be sure Urban received their communication, and the best way to do that is to have somebody at his house sign for the letter.  This is far better than, say, contacting his agent.)

Before wading into what I think is an interesting issue for debate, let me get a few things out of the way.

First, I have no idea whether Urban Meyer will coach again or whether he’d be interested in coaching at USC if he did.  My opinion on those issues would be such obvious speculation that I’m not going to go there.  Okay, maybe I will, but I won’t do it today.

Second, I have no idea whether USC’s administration would hire him if he were interested.  Ever since USC made the AD position a reward for TD’s scored in the 1960’s and 70’s, we’ve had a string of athletic directors who I’m not sure I would trust to run a kid’s lemonade stand.  I’m not going to predict what the latest occupant of that office might do when forced to make an important decision.  We can only be certain of death, taxes, and that tomorrow there’ll be sun.  

Third, it is far better for USC if Clay Helton surprised many of us – and justified the rest of us – by turning things around this year.  Look like a USC team rather than a San Jose State squad dressed in USC uniforms and these Urban Meyer discussions go away.  Will that happen?  Who knows?  I’ll save my season predictions for August, and the truth is that nobody can draw any solid conclusions about a USC turnaround until the games start anyway. 

Fourth, even if Clay turns things around, he is not and never will be Urban Meyer as a coach.  Meyer is one of the all-time greats.  He’s been remarkable at three schools, going undefeated at least once at all three, and winning multiple national titles.  He’s simply a great football coach, and that’s not debatable.  He’d absolutely kill it at USC if he is healthy and interested enough to coach like he has throughout his career.  (This is still in question, of course.)  His peers are coaches like Nick Saban and Pete Carroll.  He operates in a different universe than every coach USC has had in its history other than three.  That’s just the way it is.  And that’s why he keeps coming up on USC message boards.

With that out of the way, what do I find interesting about the Urban Meyer discussions, you ask?  The debate on whether Urban is even hirable, or whether he is untouchable.  

I’m willing to concede that some coaches are untouchable because of their behaviors off-the-field.  I would never hire Art Briles, for example.  The guy is a very good football coach – not Urban Meyer good, but top-shelf.  He is also, it appears, a revolting human being.  Aggressively trying to cover up a shocking number of rapes and sexual assaults by your players makes you untouchable.  Good coach; bad guy; no thanks.  Briles is an easy case.

Meyer is a tougher call.  I’ve never liked Urban.  He always struck me as a little bit phony and dishonest; a highly skilled, very successful used-car salesman who says what he must to get what he needs.  His statements to recruits over the years about God wanting them in Urban’s program really rubbed me the wrong way, especially when Urban’s programs housed so many miscreants.  (We might question whether God was really so eager to see these young men playing with pillars of society like Aaron Hernandez.) 

The high percentage of miscreants and their accompanying arrests are a problem.  All programs have legal issue; USC is obviously no exception.  But Urban has had a lot of arrests over the years; he put up big, big numbers in that regard.  He was the Wilt Chamberlain of player arrests.  And that’s a problem.  

Do either of these issues make him untouchable? Not for me. If you don’t want a coach who stretches the truth in recruiting, you probably are limited to a very small number of potential coaches. And Urban could be forced to pass on players with known bad character.  Don’t allow him to bring in guys with known character issues, and the arrest numbers should go way down. 

The bigger issue, of course, is his handling of the spousal-abuse problem with his assistant coach at Ohio State.  There is no indication that Urban beat up his wife or anybody else.  If he had, it would be tough to overlook.  Although I note that there wasn’t any major upheaval among USC fans when Ed O was hired as an assistant or interim coach, despite the fact that Coach O did have domestic violence and other legal issues in his past.  And I think USC fans (and now LSU fans) were right not to try to exclude O because those events were in the distant past and it appeared O had turned his life around.  But they weren’t in the all-too-distant past when Hackett hired O as an assistant in the late 90’s, and at the very least the legitimacy of hiring someone with a history of alleged domestic violence does indicate that we might be less quick to find untouchable someone who has not himself engaged in that conduct.  It is at least a relevant precedent.   

The knock against Meyer is that he looked the other way after receiving evidence that Zach Smith battered his wife, and that Meyer lied publicly about what he knew.  

Both are serious charges.  I generally don’t believe in firing an employee merely because of an allegation of criminal wrongdoing.  Allegations aren’t always true.  But waiting for a criminal conviction is not always necessary either if enough evidence of wrongdoing exists.  Here, I believe Smith was arrested while Meyer was at Florida but Smith wasn’t charged and he and his wife stayed married.  Would I have fired Smith under that set of facts?  I’m not sure I would have.  Certainly, I would need to know more, probably a lot more, before taking that action.  As I understand it, there were no additional allegations of domestic violence until some years later at Ohio State.  Meyer reported what he knew to the administration.  Did he take sufficient action or timely enough action in disciplining Smith at this point?  I just don’t know.  I think if not for the next issue, Meyer would have come out of this looking very different.

The next issue, of course, was the lying.  The lies were in some ways more troubling.  Disciplining a long-time employee because of legal problems, especially one who has been close to your family for a long time, is a difficult thing.  That doesn’t excuse Meyer for screwing it up, but I can see that it’s hard.  You’re affecting this person’s career and life, and that of his kids, and you’re doing so based on imperfect information.    

But the lying was all about Urban.  Urban lied to the media, and he did it to make himself look better.  That’s not okay.  It’s obviously dishonest, but it’s also stupid, because that sort of lie almost always comes to light.  This is a serious problem.  Would it keep me from hiring him?  I don’t know.  But we would need to have a very in-depth discussion of the handling of Smith and the lies in any job interview, and I would need to see real contrition there.  If that sounds like a cop out, so be it.  But I think the publicly known facts don’t make this an easy case one way or the other.  Hire Meyer and you become a top-5 program overnight.  Are you selling your soul to get there?  Maybe.  Probably.  The question is how much of your soul are you selling, and I just don’t know the answer to that.

I’m going to go on a mostly off-topic rant right now.  I say mostly off-topic because Nike is obviously a major figure in college sports, including as a source of funding for USC and other university athletic programs. (Really, Nike is a major player at all levels of practically every sport in this country.)  So what Nike does is always somewhat relevant.

It is being reported that Nike has withdrawn one of its products in China after the designer of the shoe (who is from Japan) tweeted support for the Hong Kong demonstrators.  If so, this is shameful behavior by Nike, and yet another example of how western businesses are willing to sell their souls for the profits that come from pacifying the totalitarian dictators in Beijing. 

For those who don’t know, a large percentage of Hong Kong’s population has taken to the streets to protest Beijing’s (usual) breaking of its promises; in this case, a promise to allow Hong Kong largely to govern itself for the first 50 years after the British turnover.  Beijing isn’t big on freedom and isn’t all that interested in keeping its promises, so it has been chipping away at Hong Kong independence for some time.  Now it threatens to extradite alleged wrongdoers to the mainland for trial, a policy that would obviously chill Hong Kong residents from exercising any of those freedoms that they came to enjoy under British rule and could not conceivably keep once the Communist party’s boot is squarely on their necks.

The Chinese regime is responsible for murdering more people than any regime in history.  Their numbers dwarf even those of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.  Yes, I know Mao is dead, and the body count isn’t nearly as high these days – just as the body count in the Soviet Union dropped substantially after Stalin’s death.  But the camps stay open, and the police still arrest people for saying things the state doesn’t like, for worshipping a God they don’t approve of, for trying to live as a free human being rather than a non-questioning subject of the all-powerful Communist party.  

The tanks rolled through Tianenman Square 30 years ago, but the same goons are still in power, and those goons still don’t allow anybody to talk about what happened then, or what’s happening now.  It’s well past time that people in America and the west — who are supposed to care about liberty and human rights — spoke the truth about the Chinese regime.

This isn’t a Nike problem only.  Much of corporate America has been tainted the same way.  So have our politicians.  And, yes, so have our universities.  I understand why we’re too cowardly to tell the truth about the thugs that run China.  A billion plus consumers is one hell of an incentive.  I just hope there will come a day when we are embarrassed by our willing participation in the stamping of human rights by China’s totalitarian dictatorship, and I hope those politicians, university administrators, corporate CEO’s and other willfully blind friends of the Chinese regime will someday feel shame for their actions. 

That all-time USC team is almost completed.  Two things jump out at me.  The first is how difficult it is to compare players from different eras.  Charles Young is a college football Hall of Famer and was the 6th overall draft choice.  Tight ends almost never go that high, and this shows just how remarkable Young was.  At the same time, his numbers at USC were pedestrian by today’s standards.  Fred Davis’ numbers crush Young’s.  It’s just hard to compare players who played 40, 50, or 60 years apart.

The other thing that jumps out at me is the historical weakness at corner, especially in light of the awe-inspiring talent at RB, OL, LB, and safety.  USC has Adoree and two (stud) safeties as its top three corners on our poll.  Strange.   

Chris Arledge

Chris Arledge is a graduate of USC’s Gould School of Law and is the co-founder and managing partner of an intellectual property law firm. Chris’s forgettable football career started at Elsinore High School, where his Tigers defeated Kyle Wachholtz’s Norco squad for the league title (Bring on Brad Otton’s team, too!), and ended at William Jewell College, where Chris was a team captain and an all-conference defensive back.

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