A late Friday afternoon records release by Ohio State University sheds new insight into the 2018 controversy involving former Buckeyes wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Zach Smith as well as former head coach Urban Meyer’s handling of the matter. The records release, which contains more than 2,000 pages of emails, texts, performance evaluation sheets and contracts, was issued in response to media requests under the Ohio Open Records Law. Many of the pages were heavily redacted.
A brief summary of what took place last year
The public controversy began on July 23, 2018, when Ohio State unexpectedly fired Smith. At the time, the 34-year-old coach was active in the Buckeyes’ recruitment of high school players and was well-regarded for his instruction and mentoring. Ohio State fired Smith on account of his then-wife, Courtney Smith, filing for a temporary restraining order against her husband and on account of Smith’s accompanying trespassing charge (which was later dropped when Smith pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct).
The following day, Meyer addressed Smith’s firing at Big Ten media day. Meyer downplayed the extent to which he was aware of Smith’s past issues with domestic violence. Meyer acknowledged familiarity with a 2009 incident in Gainesville, Florida, where Smith was arrested for allegedly battering Courtney Smith, who was pregnant at the time. A police report stated that Smith had “grabbed the victim by her t-shirt, picked her up and threw her into the bedroom wall. The victim is pregnant with the defendant’s child.” The charge was later dropped.
Meyer claimed ignorance with respect to an alleged 2015 incident where Smith was again accused (but not convicted) of battering Courtney Smith. “I got a text late last night [that] something happened in 2015,” Meyer insisted. “And there was nothing. Once again, there's nothing—once again, I don't know who creates a story like that.” Stadium’s Brett McMurphy disputed Meyer’s characterization of the 2015 incident and reported that Meyer knew much more than he had acknowledged.
Ohio State then launched an investigation, which was handled by, among others, former acting U.S. Deputy Attorney General Craig Morford and former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio Carter Stewart. Their findings led Ohio State president Michael Drake to suspend Meyer for three games and athletic director Gene Smith for two weeks.
Specifically with regard to Meyer, investigators found that he had failed to fully notify Gene Smith of Zach Smith’s past when OSU hired Smith in 2012. Smith had been hired at Meyer’s urging. Meyer’s conduct also proved inconsistent with reporting obligations found in both the university’s sexual misconduct policy and in Meyer’s employment contract. Investigators also rebuked Meyer for “misstatements” in the press conference.
In December, Meyer stepped down as head coach. The 55-year-old cited health reasons for his departure. Meyer is now an assistant athletic director for athletics initiatives and relations at Ohio State. In 17 seasons as a head coach at Ohio State, Florida, Utah and Bowling Green, Meyer compiled a record of 187-32. That translates to a winning percentage of .853, the third-highest in college football history.
Smith, for his part, staunchly denies ever abusing his wife. He describes himself as a “false DV abuse claim survivor.”
5 key observations from the document release
First, Meyer did not preserve older electronic records and he also was guarded in his written words. The preservation point was noted by investigators last year. Meyer set his phone to delete messages older than one year. The record release illustrates this dynamic. The release contains more than 2,000 documents but most did not involve Meyer. Also, when he did text, Meyer often seemed to write as little as needed to make a point.
Second, a text exchange between Meyer and Smith on Jan. 18, 2018 suggests, although does not establish, that Meyer was aware of Smith’s issues with his wife. Meyer texted that he wanted Smith to stay at Ohio State. The text was in response to Smith being offered a position on Nick Saban’s coaching staff at Alabama. Meyer used an interesting sequence of words. Specifically, these phrases:
“I have personally invested far too much in u to get u in a position to take the next step.”
“U need to step away from other situation and let’s go win it all . . . again.”
“From this point forward . . . All grown ass man conversation, never again childish s---….”
Smith, for his part, expressed that he is “loyal” to Meyer for “everything” he had done on his behalf.
Meyer declined to specify the “other situation” or the “childish s---.” Smith, likewise, refrained from explaining the reasons why he was so loyal to Meyer. The two obviously had a meeting of the minds that obviated the need to spell out their references. A reader might assume that Meyer and Smith were referring to Smith’s issues with his wife, though again, that would be an assumption.
Third, other football staff expressed, in writing, concerns with Smith’s behavior. On Jan. 23, 2016, Jennifer Bula—who at the time was the administrative service manager for the athletic department—emailed associate athletic director Brian Voltolini. The email raised concerns about Smith’s handling of electronic devices. Bula wrote:
[I]n spring/summer Zach left his iPad on a Net Jets plane. They held on to it for a couple of days thinking he would call and pick it up. When he didn't they shipped it to me and I told [Voltolini] I had it and for Zach to come over and get it. It was in my office for 4-6 weeks and I finally sent it over to football. It was curious that he didn't have his iPad for over a month and didn't seem too concerned (??). I don't even know if he was aware I had it??
Although it’s not expressed if Smith’s university iPad contained the Buckeyes’ playbook or any other trade secrets, someone as organized as Meyer would presumably be irate if an assistant coach was not careful with electronic devices. Bula’s email could also shed insight into why, two years later, Meyer used the word “childish” in his text exchange with Smith.
Fourth, Urban Meyer’s wife, Shelley Meyer, raised serious concerns about Zach Smith in a text sent to an unidentified person. The text was sent at 9:35 p.m. local time on July 23, 2018, the day Smith was fired. Meyer, an instructor in Ohio State’s nursing school, noted that Smith “drinks a lot.” She also questioned “how stable he will be” and worried “he will do something dangerous.” Likewise, she opined that “it’s obvious he has anger/rage issues.” To the extent Urban Meyer and Shelley Meyer discussed Smith, Shelley Meyer’s text suggests that she described Smith in a concerning light.
Fifth, Ohio State’s release contained a printout of an email sent by an anonymous person on Aug. 19, 2018 to attorney David Sarratt, a partner at the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton. Sarratt was one of the attorneys hired by Ohio State to investigate. The person claimed to have been an employee of Sibcy House at Lindner Center of Hope, a mental health and addiction center in Mason, Ohio. The person wrote that Ohio State had directed Smith to seek treatment at the center on account of “multiple substance abuse addictions and/or stimulant overuse or misuse” and also “to determine or rule out if he had a sex addiction.”
The emailer went on to write that Smith prematurely left the program, a point which led the emailer to opine “it didn’t make sense to me why a school like Ohio State would keep him as a coach if he had all of these domestic violence issues, didn’t complete his rehab and the other things he reportedly did in the past several years.”
The accuracy of the email’s claim is, of course, unknown. But if it is true that Smith failed to complete his treatment, it would suggest that Ohio State was aware of issues with Smith long before he was fired.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.