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Urban Meyer's Media Day Denial Looms Large Within His First Public Statement on Leave

The initial force with which Urban Meyer claimed ignorance of former assistant coach Zach Smith's complete record of domestic incidents casts doubt on his latest public statement.

On Friday, Urban Meyer addressed the public for the first time since the Wednesday report that he’d been aware of allegations against Zach Smith, the former Buckeyes receivers coach he fired on July 23. The coach’s statement, written as a letter to “Buckeye Nation,” was a clear defense of his actions three years ago. In it, he says he has “always followed proper reporting protocols and procedures” when he has “learned of an incident involving a student-athlete, coach or a member of our staff by elevating the issues to the proper channels”—and that he did so when allegations against Zach Smith surfaced in 2015.

The course of action Meyer presented in the statement seemed appropriate in the wake of the allegations: at the time, Zach Smith was accused of committing domestic violence and felonious assault. Problem is, 10 days earlier, Meyer had categorically denied knowing anything at all. By his telling on July 24 in Chicago at Big Ten football media days, he’d had no information at all in 2015 to pass up the line.

It is clear now that Meyer knew about Courtney Smith’s allegations, whether it was through his wife, Shelley, who had texted with Courtney Smith about her circumstances, or through Ohio State and its athletic director, Gene Smith. In a Friday evening radio interview on Columbus’s 105.7 The Zone, Zach Smith said Gene Smith had called him in 2015, informing him of the allegations and pulling him off a recruiting trip. Ohio State knew what was going on. Meyer knew. So why did the coach, in nine separate, direct questions at media days, deny as much?

Meyer’s initial comments on the subject—the denial that’s coming back to haunt him today—came a day after former ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy, who’s broken every wrinkle of the story, wrote that Zach Smith had been served an order of protection in 2018. In the wake of that news, Meyer fired Smith. After that, he had more than 12 hours to prepare for the questions he knew would be rightfully awaiting him the next morning: about the termination, about past allegations from ’09 and ’15, about what he knew and what he’d done.

In front of the assembled media in Chicago, Meyer said he knew about the 2009 incident, in which Smith was arrested for aggravated battery on a pregnant victim. As for 2015? “I got a text late last night something happened in 2015,” Meyer said that day. “And there was nothing. Once again, there's nothing—once again, I don't know who creates a story like that.”

There it is: The coach flat-out denied knowing anything about 2015. He doubled down a few hours later in a smaller media session, when columnist Doug Lesmerises asked the coach to clarify his earlier words. Lesmerises took Meyer through almost every element of his earlier statement, piece by piece. “I can’t say it didn’t happen because I wasn’t there,” Meyer said of the ’15 allegations. “I was never told about anything. … I never had a conversation about it.”

In his Friday statement, Meyer addressed the contradiction. “Unfortunately, at Big Ten media days on July 24, I failed on many of these fronts,” he said. “My intention was not to say anything inaccurate or misleading. However, I was not adequately prepared to discuss these sensitive personnel issues with the media, and I apologize for the way I handled those questions.”

How else, though, did he say what he said without intending to be inaccurate or misleading? And how was he not prepared, almost a full day after learning the allegations against Smith—which he had known the ins and outs of for years—went public?

And why did Meyer draw a line between 2009 and ’15? Why was one incident deemed permissible to discuss—Meyer said he and Shelley had advised the Smiths to seek counseling and that he “saw a very talented young coach and we moved forward”—and the other was worth putting his job on the line to lie about?

Meyer’s statement should be taken as a strong push to clear his name—and keep his job. He’s alleging he did everything right in a bad situation, correctly handling allegations against a coach who maintains publicly that he did nothing wrong, a coach he turned around and fired three years later when similar allegations arose.

There are few more powerful coaches in college football than Meyer, and few savvier. But on Friday, it became clear that the coach had tripped over his own false statements. Now it’s time to ask why Meyer thought a coach he’d already fired, for allegations that had already gone public, was worth lying about at all.