After the lawyered-up statement portion of Ohio State’s press conference concluded Wednesday night, Ohio State president Michael Drake uttered the most honest sentences of the entire affair in response to a question as to why it took 10 hours of deliberation for Drake and Ohio State’s Board of Trustees to decide to suspend football coach Urban Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith.
“This is one of those circumstances where there is no right answer. It’s very difficult to—it’s not possible—to do something that makes everyone happy,” Drake said. “So in that circumstance, we’re trying not to seek the sole perfect answer for everyone, but to be fair, to be just, to be equitable, to be appropriate and to do what we can to make our program stronger.”
Had Drake and the trustees been King Solomon, they would have gone through with the threat and actually split the baby. They’ll probably get roughly the same response Solomon would have gotten.
Those who wanted Meyer fired for the way he handled the entirety of former receivers coach Zach Smith’s employment will not be satisfied that he will miss three games but be allowed to coach during the weeks of the Rutgers and TCU games. (He also will be docked six weeks’ pay.) Those who believe Meyer followed proper protocols because Gene Smith knew of Zach Smith’s issues and also did nothing will be angry that their coach is being punished when he most likely fulfilled his contractual obligations in this case. (Smith is suspended from Aug. 31 to Sept. 16 without pay.) Gene Smith knew that Powell, Ohio, police were investigating Zach Smith late in 2015 because Zach Smith’s then-wife Courtney had accused him of physical violence. Meyer knew about it, too, because Gene Smith told him. Police never arrested Zach Smith in that case, but Meyer knew Zach Smith had been arrested in Florida in 2009 because of a similar accusation from Courtney Smith. Courtney Smith, who was pregnant when the incident took place, has claimed she was talked out of following through with the charge, which was later dropped.
When Meyer took the stage at Big Ten media days in Chicago last month, everyone wanted to know why it took until 2018 for Meyer to fire Zach Smith given the incidents of 2009 and 2015. (We would learn later that aside from those incidents, Zach Smith had been a problem in myriad ways.) In a prepared statement that he read Wednesday night, Meyer expressed the kind of contrition that probably would have kept him working had he simply said it a month ago instead of making a statement that suggested an incident he clearly knew about had never happened. Instead of coming off as cold and callous toward multiple accusations of domestic violence, Meyer probably would have been criticized but not completely pilloried for having an obvious—and crippling—blind spot for the grandson of mentor and former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce that allowed him to keep someone who we now know was a horrible employee on Ohio State’s staff for six years. “I want to apologize to Buckeye Nation. I followed my heart and not my head. I fell short in pursuing full information because at each juncture, I gave Zach Smith the benefit of the doubt. As I reflect, my loyalty to his grandfather Earle Bruce—who was my mentor and like a father to me—likely impacted how I treated Zach over the years. I did not know everything about Zach Smith—which was what Zach Smith was doing—and I’m pleased that the report makes this very clear.”
That last sentence will remain problematic for Meyer. It’s likely that Meyer didn’t know the totality of Zach Smith’s actions. But for us to believe Meyer didn’t know about Zach Smith’s biggest issues, we must believe that Meyer wasn’t smart enough to notice obvious red flags in his program. Meyer painted himself repeatedly Wednesday as an incompetent manager who didn’t know all that was happening right under his nose. Unfortunately for that particular narrative, Meyer’s incredibly successful coaching career (three national titles, a 177-31 record as a head coach and a 73-8 record at Ohio State) has been built on a painstaking attention to detail. When an obviously smart person tries to convince us that he’s stupid, it only raises more questions.
According to the 23-page report produced by the investigative group led by former Securities and Exchange Commission chair Mary Jo White, Meyer told investigators that the reason he made the “I don’t know who creates a story like that” statement at Big Ten media days was because he was focused on correcting a story that claimed Zach Smith had been arrested in 2015 when he hadn’t. This is a somewhat plausible explanation. But Meyer also told investigators that Gene Smith and operations director Brian Voltolini reminded him later of the 2015 incident and “until that point, he had no recollection whatsoever of the 2015 domestic violence investigation of Zach Smith.” A domestic violence investigation into an assistant coach isn’t an easy thing to forget, but we are supposed to believe Meyer did just that. His job performance over his career suggests he is not the type of person who forgets significant details. But perhaps Meyer suffered from memory failures in the fall of 2015, because that period also coincides with his biggest professional memory lapse. That November, he forgot tailback Ezekiel Elliott was on the team for most of the second half of the Michigan State game.
Another troubling detail in the report involves text messages sent to and from Meyer’s phone:
(ii) Upon seeing [McMurphy’s Aug. 1] report when it first came out (at about 10:17 a.m.), Brian Voltolini, who was on the practice field with Coach Meyer, went to speak with him, commenting that this was “a bad article.” The two discussed at that time whether the media could get access to Coach Meyer’s phone, and specifically discussed how to adjust the settings on Meyer’s phone so that text messages older than one year would be deleted. (iii) Our review of Coach Meyer’s phone revealed no messages older than one year, indicating that at the time it was obtained by OSU on August 2nd , Coach Meyer’s phone was set to retain text messages only for that period, as Coach Meyer and Brian Voltolini discussed. We cannot determine, however, whether Coach Meyer’s phone was set to retain messages only for one year in response to the August 1st media report or at some earlier time. It is nonetheless concerning that his first reaction to a negative media piece exposing his knowledge of the 2015-2016 law enforcement investigation was to worry about the media getting access to information and discussing how to delete messages older than a year.
According to the report, Ohio State staffers also ignored an open records request from student paper The Lantern in late July. Had that request been fulfilled before Aug. 1, investigators would have been able to discern whether Meyer’s phone settings had been changed following Brett McMurphy’s report. One text that did survive the purge came from Meyer’s wife Shelley on the night Zach Smith was fired. “I am worried about Zach’s response,” Shelley Meyer wrote to her husband at 7:35 p.m. on July 23, 2018. “He drinks a lot and I am just not sure how stable he will be. Afraid he will do something dangerous. It’s obvious he has anger/rage issues already.”
Gene Smith admitted Ohio State’s background check when Smith was hired in 2012 was insufficient, but that doesn’t explain why Gene Smith didn’t find out about Zach Smith’s ’09 arrest in Florida until McMurphy wrote about it in ’18. When Smith relayed the information to Meyer in ’15 about the Powell police department’s investigation into allegations against Zach Smith, that’s the part where a normal human would have said, “That’s interesting. When I employed that person at my last job, he was arrested and accused of something very similar.” Had Meyer revealed that information in ’15, it seems highly unlikely Zach Smith would still be working at Ohio State in ’18. Meyer told investigators that since that charge was dropped and since he didn’t believe Zach Smith had engaged in domestic violence in ’09, he did not pass along that potentially valuable piece of information.
The background check is an issue that Ohio State hopefully will remedy. A large organization in Ohio shouldn’t be expected to know that for $24, anyone with an Internet connection could go to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s site and find every arrest (and just about every police interaction) for anyone in that state. But nearly every major university subscribes to the archive service Nexis. Entering Zachary E. Smith and Smith’s birthdate or state of residence into the Public Records search on Nexis will quickly produce a record of a 2009 arrest in Florida’s Alachua County.
If this leads to more thorough background checks of job candidates of a large state’s flagship university, then maybe a sliver of good will come from this sorry situation. Because at this point, it’s tough to tell if anyone actually learned anything. Meyer turned a blind eye to what was going on in his program. Gene Smith failed to lead. Michael Drake and the Ohio State trustees split the baby, and by the middle of next month, life will go on at Ohio State as if nothing happened.
Let’s hope that unlike a few years ago, the key players will choose to remember what happened this time and never let it happen again.