Ohio State’s investigation into football coach Urban Meyer now has a timeline. According to a release Sunday night, the investigation is expected to wrap within the next two weeks.
That release also revealed that former Securities and Exchange Commission chair Mary Jo White will lead an investigative team that will be directed by the members of the six-person working group Ohio State empaneled last week to look into whether Meyer properly handled allegations of domestic abuse against former receivers coach Zach Smith.
So what does all this mean?
Don’t assume that the timeline indicates a particular result.
For comparison’s sake, the investigation by law firm Pepper Hamilton at Baylor that resulted in the ousters of football coach Art Briles, athletic director Ian McCaw and president Ken Starr lasted from September 2015 until April 2016. But that was a wide-ranging look into how sexual assault cases were handled on the entire campus and included deep dives into dozens of cases. This investigation focuses on one case, and even if it turns up something else, it still deals with the same relatively small group of people. Investigators presumably will have access to the subject (Meyer), who said in a statement Friday that he wants to clear his name. They’ll also have access to all his work email and phone records. They’ll also have access to all of Meyer’s current coworkers and all the email and phone records of all current and past coworkers. Investigators can’t compel a past coworker to talk, but anyone who still works for Ohio State can be compelled to cooperate with the investigation. They can find out a lot in two weeks. White’s group will report to the working group—which includes members of Ohio State’s Board of Trustees. That group will report to the full board and President Michael Drake, and the board and president will make a determination involving Meyer.
White, 70, ran the SEC—not the one you’re used to reading about here, but the one that monitors financial markets—from 2013 to ’17. She served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993 to 2002. Her successor was James Comey, who would eventually go on to run the FBI and make all sorts of headlines. For those who follow fiction more than non-fiction, the prosecutor job White held was the job Paul Giamatti’s character held for the first three seasons of Billions. While at the Southern District—which is not-so-jokingly referred to by other federal prosecutors as the Sovereign District of New York—White dealt with everything from terrorism to mob cases to financial crimes. While at the SEC, she faced criticism because she had to recuse herself frequently from cases that involved firms that either she or her husband had represented in private practice. White is now in her second stint at law firm Debevoise & Plimpton.
Hiring an outside attorney or outside firm is common practice for universities investigating their own employees. The practice allows schools to put outside eyes on a case rather than employees who may be compromised because of their roles within the university. Potentially more importantly, it allows schools to use attorney-client privilege as a shield against open records laws and subpoenas. Pepper Hamilton produced minimal written product for Baylor for a reason. No one can subpoena documents that don’t exist.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a school is hiring the investigator to whitewash the case. Baylor took drastic action based on Pepper Hamilton’s findings. After a scathing Chicago Tribune report that interviewed dozens of former Illinois football players, that university hired a Chicago firm in May 2015 to investigate allegations against football coach Tim Beckman. Beckman was fired with cause in August 2015. It’s easy to say that it was easy to fire Beckman because of his poor record, but that certainly wasn’t the case with Briles, who had taken Baylor from a doormat to a pair of Big 12 titles.
Also, remember that this is Ohio State. The Buckeyes fired Woody Hayes, the best coach in the program’s history, the day after he punched a Clemson player during the Gator Bowl. When it became clear in 2011 that the NCAA would hand down penalties that would make it difficult to continue to employ coach Jim Tressel—who had been caught lying to NCAA investigators about an infractions case—Tressel was forced out. (He officially resigned, but that’s pure semantics.) Nothing about Ohio State’s history says it will bend to protect a football coach if school leaders believe the coach has done something fireable. There is good reason for this. The last time Ohio State went more than five years without a double-digit win season was from 1987 to ’92. Since then, the Buckeyes have won at least 10 games 19 times. This program is almost always going to be good no matter who is coaching, and nearly every coach in America will line up to take the job every time it opens. This means two things. Yes, Meyer could be fired if investigators find he didn’t handle the Smith situation or another situation properly. It also means that we shouldn’t assume the investigation was a sham if Meyer is allowed to return to work. The incentive here—financial and otherwise—is to do as thorough an investigation as possible. History says Ohio State can always win football games. So its reputation is the more important thing to defend.
Athletic director Gene Smith’s position with regard to this case remains a mystery.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Zach Smith’s media blitz on Friday was his assertion that Gene Smith knew about a domestic violence accusation against Zach Smith in 2015. We have yet to hear any public comment from Gene Smith since the investigation began, and if we’re going to question what Meyer knew and did, it’s only fair to question what Meyer’s boss knew and did.
The investigation should shed some light on this, but Meyer’s statement on Friday combined with Zach Smith’s interviews put Gene Smith in the crosshairs of the investigation as well. Meyer asserts he handled the accusations properly, and Zach Smith asserts Gene Smith knew. If both those things are true, then the onus could shift from Meyer to Gene Smith. Of course, Meyer asserted that he handled the accusations properly in the same statement in which he admitted to providing inaccurate information at Big Ten media days. His version of handling something properly might not align with someone else’s, just as his version of providing inaccurate information might just be called lying depending on who is hearing the words.
The Meyer–Zach Smith news dumps on Friday afternoon seem to put Meyer and Gene Smith in direct conflict, but we don’t know that for sure. And we may not know until the investigation wraps. But we do know when that might be, so we’ll wait to see what other information emerges between now and the close of the investigation.