Unpacking the Text Messages That Led to Urban Meyer's Misplayed Media Day

Urban Meyer dug his own p.r. hole with the way he handled Zach Smith, but a fateful text thread leading up to Big Ten media days shows where he started down the path to a suspension.
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Urban Meyer started a group text thread the night before his Big Ten media days appearance. At 10:25 p.m. on July 23, hours after he fired wide receivers coach Zach Smith and hours before he was expected to address hundreds of media members for the first time in months about the upcoming season, he sent an urgent message to a few trusted Ohio State administrators: athletic director Gene Smith, sports information director Jerry Emig, director of football operations Brian Voltolini and director of player development Ryan Stamper.

Earlier that day, college football reporter Brett McMurphy had published a report of two accusations against Smith on his Facebook page: a 2009 arrest for aggravated battery against his pregnant wife Courtney, and a 2015 arrest stemming from an investigation of a domestic violence incident. (A subsequent version of the report removed mention of an actual arrest connected to the 2015 allegations.) In the past week, an Ohio judge had issued a civil protection order that forbade Smith from getting within 500 feet of his now ex-wife. Meyer would explain latery that his primary reason for firing Smith was the football program’s “zero-tolerance policy” relating to domestic violence, as a violation of one of Meyer’s core values: respect for women.

Meyer said he knew nothing about an arrest in 2015 and asked someone to check to see what he was missing: “Need some guidance here so when I speak to media I’m not wrong.”

Later that evening, Stamper responded that there was no record of Zach Smith being arrested in 2015, only records of he and Courtney Smith divorcing. “Stamp just confirmed there was no arrest in 2015,” Meyer responded to the group, having apparently assumed that the absence of an actual arrest meant that there was nothing to the allegations of any incident occurring in 2015.

“I would be careful,” his athletic director offered the next morning via text. “Do not get too detailed.”

According to the summary of findings, Gene Smith advised Meyer that whatever he said on this subject at media days should be said in his opening statement “and take no more questions on it.” Smith also suggested these remarks for Meyer: “As you are aware through our release, we have made a change in our wide receivers coaching position. As Zach dealt with his personal challenge I was aware of two legal instances in 2009 and 2015. This most recent issue is inconsistent with our values… Needs to be cleaned up in your words…Just a thought.”

Meyer texted back, “Thx.”

Emig followed up later in the morning with his opinion, writing, “Those are good points.” He also recommended that Meyer state that “there were no charges in 2015 and I really don’t even recall any details.”

According to the investigation report, Meyer did not respond to that text from Emig, just as he had not responded to his wife’s text the night before. “I am worried about Zach’s response,” Shelley Meyer texted her husband at 7:35 p.m. on July 23. “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.”

This text thread between five prominent members of the Ohio State football staff lends itself to an interesting case study in communication. The fact that it exists at all is odd in and of itself given the magnitude of this situation, and it seems to confirm that Meyer didn’t anticipate this story blowing up, as it did the following week when McMurphy cited texts from Shelley Meyer to Courtney Smith that indicated Urban Meyer knew of the 2015 abuse allegations at the time.

Meyer was in Chicago for Big Ten media day when he sent the initial text message, so an in-person meeting with top athletic administrators was impossible. What about a phone call? You can hash out details far more simply by talking to people on a conference call than texting. Choosing the latter for a situation of this gravity is so millennial.

As many non-millennials would attest, it’s difficult to truly understand how a message might be interpreted via text. The person might not receive it immediately, causing a delay in conversation, or worse, it might be misunderstood. Why something so important as getting the facts straight on an official statement before jumping into the media day gauntlet only warranted a few texts back and forth is another piece of evidence that Meyer didn’t take the matter seriously.

Meyer didn’t follow the advice of the group he sought counsel from, anyway. He did not address the Zach Smith situation the way Gene Smith had suggested in his opening prepared statement, but rather brushed over the news quickly in a way that left reporters with plenty of follow-up questions: “Obviously had to make a change on our coaching staff yesterday. It was in the best interest of our team. I’ll answer maybe a couple questions about that, but once again my focus is on our team and our players as we move forward.”

Meyer dug his own p.r. hole. Then when he was predictably asked whether he had any knowledge of the reported 2015 incident, he said he didn’t.

“I got a text late last night that something happened in 2015,” Meyer said. “And there was nothing. Once again, there’s nothing—once again, I don’t know who creates a story like that.”

According to the summary of findings, Gene Smith and Voltolini were surprised at Meyer’s statements. Ohio State staffers said in interviews with investigators that they believe Meyer was fixated on the “arrest” aspect of McMurphy’s original report, which was inaccurate, when he denied any knowledge of the 2015 incident. Meyer himself told investigators that he truly had no knowledge of the investigation when he spoke with reporters in Chicago, which led to one of the more notorious lines of Wednesday’s announcement of penalties handed down to Meyer and Gene Smith.

“Meyer falsely stated he lacked knowledge of all relevant events regarding alleged domestic violence by Zach Smith in 2015,” said Mary Joe White, the former Securities and Exchange Commission chairwoman who led the investigation and wrote the report. “While those denials were plainly not accurate, Coach Meyer did not, in our view, deliberately lie.”

Even if investigators determined Meyer did not deliberately lie, confusion regarding what happened in 2015 could have been avoided with better communication. And why didn’t Meyer’s response to Gene Smith warrant more than a “Thx”? Why didn’t he respond to Emig? He asked them for help. Did Meyer simply get what he wanted out of the conversation with his colleagues and then cut them off before receiving complete direction? This wouldn’t have happened, most likely, if the conversation didn’t happen via text.

“I did a poor job at media day,” Meyer said Wednesday night. “It’s a big reason why we are here today. I was not being as complete and as accurate as I should have been on Media Day and afterward but no intent to mislead.”

While the question of his intent took up two weeks of an independent investigation’s time, it could have been prevented with a more dedicated search for truth than the selective one Meyer launched the night before he faced the media.