Columbus, Ohio — The Urban Meyer investigation is costing Ohio State $500,000, but whether the superstar football coach keeps his job still comes down to whether the university wants to stick with him based on how he’s already been tainted by the scandal.
Meyer is on paid leave while Ohio State pays an outside firm to investigate and a six-member university committee considers whether he responded properly to accusations of domestic abuse made against one of his coaches, Zach Smith, who has been fired.
But Meyer has already given his bosses plenty to consider — he says he knew of domestic violence allegations against Zach Smith before he brought Smith to coach wide receivers at Ohio State, and that he reported new accusations properly when they surfaced in 2015.
University officials expect to make a decision within about a week in what could come down to a public relations balancing act involving the school’s reputation, $38 million in future salary under Meyer’s contract and other jobs at stake.
Why fire Meyer?
Meyer knew about a 2009 domestic incident in Gainesville, Florida, when Smith was a graduate assistant coach for Meyer’s Florida team. A police report says that during an argument Zach Smith picked up a pregnant Courtney and threw her against a wall. Zach Smith was never charged.
Knowing that, Meyer allowed Smith to stay on staff at Florida and then brought Smith in at Ohio State. Meyer also knew about the 2015 abuse allegations, but Smith — the grandson of former Ohio State coach and Meyer mentor Earle Bruce — kept his job until Courtney Smith filed for a restraining order on July 20.
“At the end of the day, (Meyer is) the highest-paid state employee in Ohio, and you have a lot more responsibility than coaching,” said B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University in Athens. “And clearly there was enough smoke with Zach Smith that they should have gotten rid of him a long time ago.”
Ohio State didn’t put Meyer on leave until Courtney Smith talked to a reporter, saying she was abused for years by her ex-husband. Zach Smith has denied her abuse allegations and has never been prosecuted for abuse.
The Meyer investigation plays out at a time when the school itself — and college athletics at large — is under scrutiny around the handling of misconduct allegations.
Ohio State has a growing list of more than 100 former students and athletes who say they were groped and otherwise mistreated by Dr. Richard Strauss, a deceased athletic department doctor who worked at the university for nearly 20 years. There are questions about whether Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan knew about the abuse when he was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State during the same time.
At least three federal lawsuits have been filed against Ohio State by men who say they were abused by Strauss.
Don’t expect fans and critics to separate the scandals when a decision is made on Meyer.
Why keep Meyer?
Meyer said he followed “proper protocol and procedures” after finding out about the 2015 abuse allegations.
“Please know that the truth is the ultimate power, and I am confident I took appropriate action,” Meyer said in a tweeted statement.
Meyer didn’t detail those actions but the crafted statement was clearly a public defense of his job.
Meyer signed a contract extension in the spring with new language that requires him to promptly report any “known violations” of Ohio State’s sexual misconduct policy to the school’s Title IX officials. The policy includes sexual harassment, intimate violence and stalking “that involves any student, faculty or staff.” The clause doesn’t specify how Meyer should treat older accusations.
Meyer may have limited responsibility for reporting because of the scope of behavior covered by the misconduct policy and Title IX, according to Micaela Deming, staff attorney with the Ohio Domestic Violence Network.
Both the policy and Title IX focus on incidents on-campus or at university-related events, she said. So in the case of Zach Smith’s 2015 arrest, “this off-campus, non-student-involved domestic violence incident seems to be largely excluded from both the sexual harassment policy and Title IX,” Deming said.
If Meyer did everything he was supposed to do, Ohio State then faces the question of whether to fire him without cause, leaving the university on the hook for $38 million to pay off the balance of his contract.
Dissolving the deal would certainly invite a challenge from Meyer, adding legal costs and leading to new rounds of public scrutiny.
There’s also winning to consider.
Meyer is 73-8 with a national title in six seasons with the Buckeyes. Winning generates money and prestige, while his dismissal would certainly cause turmoil for the football program.
Nobody at Ohio State wants a repeat of 2011, when the Buckeyes had a losing season after coach Jim Tressel was fired for lying to the NCAA about player violations.
Ohio State could suspend Meyer rather than fire him, if university leaders want to retain him while still delivering some punishment for keeping a coach around for so long despite accusations of domestic abuse.
The investigation also has implications for other athletic officials.
Athletic director Gene Smith and Meyer’s wife Shelley Meyer, an instructor in Ohio State’s nursing school, also knew of the 2015 incident, Zach Smith and Courtney Smith has said.
A key detail for investigators will be whether the Title IX office or athletic director responded properly — if they were indeed informed. Citing the investigation, the university would not make those officials available for comment when contacted by The Associated Press.
What about the Smiths?
Zach Smith lost his $340,000 job, but still faces a court case where more details could emerge about his situation with Courtney Smith, including their friendships with the Meyers.
Zach Smith said he was never aggressive with his ex-wife and that any injuries she suffered were the result of him defending himself against her aggression.
The Smiths are due in court next month for a hearing on the restraining order, which Courtney sought after Zach drove to her apartment to drop off their son after he had been told to stay away. He was charged with criminal trespass as a result.
Courtney Smith has spoken with Ohio State investigators, her lawyer said.