Yes, it’s back on the field. Spring practice is underway on college campuses across the country. Diehards have spent the past few weeks pouring over vague practice reports and booking their tickets to their teams’ spring games.
And, yes, it’s back off the field too. In fact, the game’s two biggest headlines this week had little to do with Xs and Os.
First, Bobby Petrino was ousted as coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. He deserved it. Even so, the Arkansas athletic director, Jeff Long, should be commended for his handling of the situation. Having lived in Arkansas from 2009-2011, I can attest to the massive significance the state places on Razorback football. For perspective, imagine a version of Ohio where there wasn’t decent college basketball or any pro football, baseball, basketball, or hockey presence at all. In such a focused market, it takes stones to dethrone the University and state’s most public leader, even in the wake of public embarrassment. It also takes a brand of ethics and conviction that Gene Smith has never shown in Columbus.
Second, a barrage of vitriol was directed at Urban Meyer for the alleged collapse of the Florida football program in his last years as head coach, courtesy of Matt Hayes from the Sporting News. The article detailed a culture of preferential treatment that, for lack of a better phrase, allowed the inmates to take control of the asylum. It also contained numerous factual inaccuracies, according to its subjects.
So what does this have to do with current Ohio State football? Well, nothing. But you wouldn’t know it by the tenor of the week’s conversation.
The average Ohio State fan’s reaction to the week’s events was twofold: Mockery of Bobby Petrino and the Razorbacks coupled with outrage at Matt Hayes’ profile of Meyer.
Laughs at Arkansas’ expense are cheap. That’s especially true when they come from a fan base that knows the pain of national embarrassment. Fans whose program has recently been dragged through the mud are particularly prone to schadenfreude, which is exactly what happened this week. But Arkansas fans and players didn’t bear any more responsibility for Petrino’s recklessness than did Ohio State fans and players for Jim Tressel’s deceptions. We should show them more respect.
Indignation at Matt Hayes’ indiscretions is more understandable. This week, he’s a symbol of the national media’s carelessness and inattention to detail. By directing his fire at Ohio State’s new coach, he ripped the stitches out of a wound that’s still healing for most Buckeye fans. His colleagues ruthlessly shred the Ohio State program during Jim Tressel’s fall and that hasn’t been forgotten. Now we have a shiny new coach, so it’s natural to be protective. But knee-jerk defenses of Meyer’s time at Florida won’t change what was written, and won’t change the legacy that Urban will build in Columbus.
The fan base’s fixation on the story is revealing of an even deeper problem: we won’t look forward. None of this is progressive. The Buckeyes are a new team under Urban Meyer and Urban Meyer is a new coach at Ohio State. Allowing Arkansas and Matt Hayes to dominate the Ohio State spotlight for a week is akin to living in the past, which would be foolish considering the promise of the Buckeyes’ present and future.
But some refuse to let go, a fact that is proven by fans’ disproportionate reaction to the week’s events. The logic: we lost our coach under humiliating circumstances, so let’s make sure to pile on the Razorbacks when the same thing happens to them. And a member of the media wrote a story tangentially related to and critical of the Buckeyes, so let’s make sure he doesn’t forget he and his colleagues’ misbehavior a year ago.
Almost twelve months after his departure, the ghost of Tressel is haunting the Buckeye fan base during a time that should be reserved for hope and celebration. Jim Tressel was a great coach, whose achievements at Ohio State are unique in Buckeyes history. But he’s gone as a result of his own mistakes, not the media’s.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes, under Meyer’s direction, are making substantial improvements. On Wednesday, according to Meyer, the Buckeyes completed one of the best spring practice’s he’s ever seen.
His praise: “If you want to see a ball practice, that was a ball practice.”
Someone’s got his priorities straight after all. Follow his lead.
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