COLUMBUS, Ohio — After a news report that raised questions about what the famed Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer knew about past domestic violence allegations against one of his closest assistant coaches, he wanted to know one important thing. How to delete old text messages on his phone.
Meyer and a top athletic administrator discussed how to adjust the settings, a university report released on Wednesday said, and when Ohio State’s investigators obtained the phone, they discovered no messages on it older than a year.
Still, they gave him the benefit of the doubt, a running theme in the report that found missteps on Meyer’s part related to his handling of the case but no unassailable evidence of a cover-up or that he “deliberately lied” about his knowledge of the case.
“We cannot determine,” the report said, “whether coach Meyer’s phone was set to retain messages only for one year in response to the Aug. 1 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,’’ the report said.
The university report, which led trustees to suspend Meyer for three games for not following proper procedures in informing administrators about a troubled employee, details a long list of problematic conduct by the assistant football coach Zach Smith: a 2013 charge of drunken driving; running up a $600 or so bill at a strip club on a recruiting trip; failing to show up at scheduled recruiting visits at high schools; taking sexually explicit photos of himself at the White House during a team visit; an addiction to a stimulant prescription drug used to treat A.D.H.D. that resulted in his being admitted into a drug treatment facility; and having a sexual relationship with a secretary on the football staff.
All along, Meyer found reasons not to act or said he was not aware of what was going on. There were no criminal charges filed in the domestic violence case. He had talked to Smith, who promised to do better. He was unaware of certain messages Smith’s wife had sent to his wife, Shelley. Ultimately, Meyer fired Smith on July 23 after Smith’s former wife obtained an order of civil protection against him.
“Repeatedly, Zach Smith’s conduct was met with reprimands and warnings by Coach Meyer, but never a written report, never an investigation and no disciplinary action until July 23, 2018,” the report said.
Confronted by investigators delving into what he knew and when, Meyer admitted, “I followed my heart, not my head,” when handling Smith, whose grandfather Earle Bruce, a revered former Ohio State football coach, was a mentor to Meyer.
“As I reflect, my loyalty to his grandfather Earle Bruce, who was my mentor, likely impacted how I treated Zach over the years,” Meyer said.
The decision to suspend Meyer came after a marathon private meeting of the university’s board of trustees that stretched close to nine hours on Wednesday. As the meeting wrapped up, a group of fans stormed the building in which it was held, chanting support for Meyer.
Against the backdrop of a nationwide, intensifying focus on addressing abuse of women, the board decided that Meyer’s missteps in the case did not rise to a cover-up but warranted punishment.
The board deliberated extensively over how many games Meyer should miss and painstakingly reviewed the report that had been prepared by investigators, and it brought Meyer and others in for questioning, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because it was a confidential session.
Meyer was also suspended, without pay, for the remainder of the preseason — crucial preparation time for college teams. He will miss the season opener against Oregon State on Sept. 1, as well as games against Rutgers and Texas Christian, a top 20 team. He will, however, be permitted to work with the team outside of games beginning Sept. 2.
Ohio State’s athletic director, Gene Smith, was also suspended without pay, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 16.
“Their handling of this matter did not exhibit the kind of leadership and high standards that we expect of our athletic director, head coach, assistant coaches and all on the football staff,” a university statement said.
Meyer, one of the most successful coaches in college football — he won national championships with Ohio State in 2014 and with Florida in 2006 and 2008 — appeared somber at a news conference on Wednesday night following the board meeting.
Meyer had been on paid administrative leave since Aug. 1 after allegations surfaced that Meyer knew Zach Smith had been accused of domestic violence since 2015, when the accusations were made. Meyer said in July that he had just learned of the case, but after being put on leave he released a statement saying he had misspoken and had “followed proper reporting protocols and procedures” after learning of the incident in 2015. Smith was fired in July.
The university’s report said Meyer “did not deliberately lie.” The report said that Meyer had learned of the domestic abuse case from Gene Smith, the athletic director, and that they had monitored the case for months without following university protocol to inform other officials.
The report, written by the former Securities and Exchange Commission chairwoman Mary Jo White and her team from the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, found that Meyer had acted in “good faith” in not reporting the allegations, but his actions were ultimately “not sufficient,” White said at the news conference on Wednesday night.
Smith’s lawyer, Brad Koffel, released a statement on Wednesday evening: “Zach Smith married a woman he should not have married. Vengeance against her ex-husband regrettably resulted in collateral damage to Urban Meyer, Gene Smith and the Ohio State University. Trying cases in the media is a dangerous precedent for every other coach in America.”
Meyer arrived midmorning to the site of the board’s meeting, the Longaberger Alumni House, just across from the football complex. Shelley Meyer showed up hours later. And in the late afternoon, some eight hours after the meeting began, Gene Smith entered the building.
As evening approached, the clamor of football practice nearby could be heard under the direction of the interim coach, Ryan Day.
The saga began in earnest on July 23, when Zach Smith was fired after the independent journalist Brett McMurphy reported on Facebook that Courtney Smith had requested a protection order against him. He also reported that Zach Smith had been accused of domestic violence in 2009, when he was an assistant to Meyer at Florida, and in 2015, when they were both at Ohio State.
Courtney Smith, who is now divorced from Zach Smith, had said that Shelley Meyer had extensive knowledge of the abuse allegations in 2015, McMurphy reported. Courtney Smith’s story was supported by text messages, according to the report.
A week earlier, at a news conference for the Big Ten Conference, Urban Meyer said that he had known of the 2009 accusations and that he and his wife had talked with the Smiths after a police investigation. But when confronted with questions about the 2015 allegations during the news conference, Meyer said he had learned of the accusations only the night before.
The next week, he retracted that denial, saying in his statement that he had failed to be “clear, compassionate and, most of all, completely accurate” in his previous comments.
Meyer, who has also coached at Bowling Green State and Utah, is entering his seventh year at Ohio State and has a career coaching record of 177-31, with an 11-3 record in bowl games.
At Florida, along with the national championships came a string of players who had trouble with the law. He left the university in 2010, citing health and family reasons, but was hired a year later by Ohio State when the team was reeling from a tattoos for cash scandal.
He righted the team quickly, going undefeated in his first season, though the team was ineligible for the postseason that year, and then won the national title in his third. He has not lost more than two games in any of his six seasons in Columbus. Ohio State’s revival has been mirrored by the rise of the Big Ten, which now rivals the Southeastern Conference as the best in the country.
Meyer is set to make $7.6 million this season, among the highest salaries for college football coaches, and his contract runs through 2022. Because of his suspension, he will forgo six weeks of compensation.
Ohio State has also been embroiled in a scandal over sexual abuse: More than 100 former students have said that Richard H. Strauss, a former university employee and team doctor, had sexually abused them. Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State while Strauss was there and has faced questions about what he knew. He has denied knowledge of the allegations.
An assistant diving coach has also been accused of being involved in an abusive relationship with a teenage athlete.
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