Urban Meyer may have weathered scandal at Ohio State, but not without a lasting stain as an exhaustive report detailed behavior that could easily have taken down a coach of lesser stature.
The investigation released soon after Meyer answered questions from reporters about his suspension Wednesday night showed that he tolerated bad behavior for years from assistant coach Zach Smith, including domestic-violence accusations, drug addiction, lies and other acts that directly clash with the values Meyer touts publicly.
The findings represent a new turn in the saga , showing how the superstar coach — who preaches “core values” like honesty, treating women with respect and not using drugs or stealing — failed to live up to those ideals when handling several issues squarely within his control while dealing with the grandson of legendary Ohio State coach Earle Bruce.
Ohio State issued Meyer a relatively light, three game suspension — granting enough leeway to still let him prep the Buckeyes for two games they’re unlikely to lose. He will also lose six weeks of salary in a year he’s slated to earn $7.6 million under a deal that runs through 2022.
Meanwhile, his football team was back at practice without him on Thursday, preparing for the opener against Oregon State on Sept. 1. Co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ryan Day will continue to coach the team during Meyer’s absence.
Smith has denied being aggressive with his ex-wife. His attorney said Wednesday that Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith were “collateral damage” from Courtney Smith’s desire to hurt her ex-husband. Courtney Smith’s attorney did not comment on Thursday as Ohio State’s decision reverberated through the sports world.
“I knew (firing) wasn’t going to happen because it’s too big of a program, and he’s too much of a high-profile coach,” Ohio State student Justin Johnson said Thursday. “So I knew he wasn’t going to get fired and I knew that they weren’t going to keep him off the field for too long.”
For some, the punishment won’t be enough.
“He is so influential and so many people listen and adore him, and for the fact that he’s just like sliding it off and focusing on the football team and his career is kind of selfish,” Ohio State student Natalie Sanchez-Carrillo said.
Meyer, 54, kept his job through the bizarre chapter but likely will never be the same — or be considered in the same way.
Ohio State’s report found Meyer “went too far” in allowing Smith to remain on the staff for so long, without explicitly covering up or condoning any of Smith’s misconduct.
The report details some of the missteps:
— Meyer and his wife Shelley clearly didn’t believe Zach Smith had committed domestic abuse against his now-ex-wife Courtney. Despite an incident in 2009 that resulted in Zach Smith’s arrest, and another accusation in October 2015 and a recurring investigation by police, Meyer gave his protege the benefit of the doubt. The report suggests Shelley Meyer, who swapped text messages with Courtney Smith after the 2015 accusation, “had doubts about the veracity of Courtney Smith’s allegations” and for that reason didn’t share it with her husband. Courtney Smith said Zach Smith put his hands around her neck and shoved her against a wall, which he denies. He was never charged.
— Because Smith wasn’t arrested for domestic violence in 2015, neither Meyer nor athletic director Gene Smith believed they were obligated to report it to university officials. Gene Smith was suspended for two weeks for his role in the handling of Zach Smith. Meyer said he regrets it and insisted he’s “a different person now.”
“My awareness of domestic violence and how serious it is whenever you hear that kind of accusation, absolutely has grown,” he said during the Wednesday night press conference to announce his suspension. “I will be very cautious.”
— Meyer became aware that Zach Smith had visited a Miami strip club with at least one other Ohio State football coach and high school coach during a recruiting trip in May 2014, spending $600 of his own money. Meyer reprimanded and warned Smith not to do it again. It also led to the addition of the morality clause in the Ohio State coaching manual. But Smith kept his job.
— Meyer knew Smith was regularly late to practice and workouts during his divorce proceedings and failed to appear for scheduled recruiting visits. Meyer issued a warning. Gene Smith suggested replacing the young receivers coach, but Meyer refused. In June 2016, Meyer urged Zach Smith to get treatment for an addiction to a prescription stimulant but didn’t tell the athletic director about it.
— While the report stops short of saying Meyer lied when asked about his knowledge of the 2015 domestic abuse allegations against Zach Smith, the report found that he intentionally misled reporters about what he knew, and talked to a staff member about possibly deleting some text messages from his phone. He told investigators he had no memory of being told about the 2015 events, even though Gene Smith sent him a text about how to handle questions about it.
“Although it is a close question and we cannot rule out that Coach Meyer was intentionally misleading in his answers, we do not ultimately find that he was,” the report concluded. “He clearly misspoke and made misstatements, but the reasons that happened are complex.”
Those reasons, according to the report, included “significant memory issues in other situations where he had prior extensive knowledge of events. He has also periodically taken medicine that can negatively impair his memory, concentration and focus.”
Associated Press reporter Angie Wang contributed to this report.
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