COLUMBUS, Ohio – The decision on the future of Urban Meyer as the head coach at Ohio State is expected to come at some point later this week. Meyer has been on a paid leave of absence since Aug. 1, as the university conducts an investigation into the alleged domestic abuse of former assistant coach Zach Smith.
With the investigation ending on Sunday, Yahoo Sports spoke to a dozen people familiar with the investigation to get a feel for its direction. This includes people familiar with university decision-making and familiar with the personnel on the panel appointed to oversee the investigation. Yahoo also spoke to sources around the university to get a feel for the political backdrop at Ohio State, which is also grappling with a complex sexual molestation case that could impact decision-making at the highest level.
It’s difficult to parse what exactly will happen this week, as the university’s decision will hinge on the facts of the case that have been discovered the past two weeks. Only the investigators know those facts. What’s clear is that the investigation’s potential to expand beyond what appeared to be the initial intent – what Meyer knew about the allegations of domestic abuse in 2015 and how he handled those allegations.
Public revelations of untoward behavior at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, and on a team trip to the White House, by former assistant coach Zach Smith would also inevitably fall under the purview of what the investigators will explore and what the committee will look into. The sheer volume of reckless behavior that’s been revealed about Zach Smith – including a DUI in 2013 – also looms as an important issue, as it could create an undercurrent of uncertainty by risk-averse university officials of what else could come out after they make a decision on Meyer’s fate.
With the general understanding that the facts of the case are the variable that will dictate the decision, here’s a look at some of the other factors that could impact the case.
What’s known about the Urban Meyer investigation so far?
There was a cynical notion on the outside when Ohio State announced the investigation that it would be a whitewash that nudges Meyer back to the sideline as soon as possible. The reality has been quite the opposite, according to multiple sources.
The Ohio Attorney General reportedly set a budget of $500,000 for the New York City law firm, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, that’s handling the investigation from the outside. They are not to receive more than $1,620 per hour, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
According to sources familiar with the investigation, it’s become increasingly clear as the investigation has unfolded that it has been rigorous and meticulous. Sources told Yahoo Sports the interviews have spanned different departments, and included checking cell phone records, email correspondence and conducting multiple interviews with multiple parties over the two weeks.
What is Ohio State actually investigating?
Ohio State has been careful not to define what it’s specifically looking into. A news release on Aug. 5 simply calls it, “the investigation involving Urban Meyer.” While the domestic abuse allegations against former assistant coach Zach Smith prompted the probe, the investigation has inevitably gone deeper the past two weeks.
Courtney Smith, ex-wife of Zach Smith, met with the investigators on Aug. 13. She was expected to detail to the investigators the same behavior that has been reported regarding Zach Smith on Stadium, which included photographic evidence of a sexual encounter with a staffer in the office. That’s an obvious violation of university policy, not to mention a public relations nightmare.
The timeline of how long the investigation took makes it likely the investigators thoroughly vetted all these claims. And it’s likely they got a window into other claims that haven’t gone public, which will give university leaders a sense of potential negative headlines down the road.
The general sense of the investigation is that it has stretched far beyond whether Meyer followed proper protocols in regards to the one specific allegation against Smith in 2015. “Once investigators and the media start looking into something and show up on your campus, oftentimes predictably much more is going to be found beyond the narrow context of the original scope of the investigation,” said Stu Brown, an Atlanta-based attorney who is not affiliated with the case. “Ohio State is a typical example of that.”
What are the logistics of how things will unfold?
According to the university’s timeline, the investigation concluded on Sunday. Next, they are preparing a report.
The six-person panel appointed to oversee the investigation will share the report with the Board of Trustees in an executive session scheduled for Wednesday at 9 a.m.
From there, the university has said that President Michael V. Drake will make a decision “following deliberations with the board, and appropriate time for consideration.” If all that plays out, a safe estimate for an announcement on Meyer would be late this week.
What’s known about the working group directing the investigation?
There are three officials from the university’s Board of Trustees and three from outside. Among their jobs is to provide full communication to the board on the matter.
What’s known about the six? Jo Ann Davidson, 90, is the chair and holds an impeccable reputation in the state. The other two outsiders are Mary Jo White, who is leading the investigative team, and former acting U.S. Deputy Attorney General Craig Morford. White is known in NFL circles for leading the “Bounty Gate” investigation and the probe into former Ohio State star Ezekiel Elliott’s off-field behavior. The three university trustees are Alex Fischer (a CEO), Janet Porter (public health leader) and Alex Shumate (a lawyer).
“Given what I know about the people involved in the review, I have no doubt this review will be thorough and fair and go where the facts lead,” said David Wilhelm, a notable local figure who is the former chair of the Democratic National Committee under Bill Clinton.
What’s the political climate around OSU as decision nears?
Multiple sources suggested this could be a factor in Meyer’s future. There’s a searing sexual abuse scandal that’s shrouded the university since April. That’s when the university announced that it was looking into sexual misconduct allegations against Richard Strauss, a former Ohio State team doctor and professor who worked with the wrestling team and other athletes. (Strauss killed himself in 2005.)
Since April, at least 100 former Ohio State students have made allegations against Strauss. The national attention on the case has been amplified because Jim Jordan, a prominent congressman who is a candidate for House speaker, is a former wrestling assistant coach who has denied knowledge of Strauss’ abuse. According to the New York Times, a lawsuit includes allegations that eight wrestlers have “come forward and accused Mr. Jordan of turning a blind eye to the abuse.” (Jordan has denied this.)
What does this mean for the Meyer situation? The university is likely to be facing massive payouts in the Strauss scandal. “I would guess the Board of Trustees feels scandal-weary,” said Mike Curtin, the former editor and associate publisher of the Columbus Dispatch. “I would not say the university feels that way.”
Who is Michael V. Drake, the president who’ll decide Meyer’s fate?
If you live outside Ohio, there’s little chance that you’ve heard of Drake. He served as UC-Irvine’s chancellor before coming to Ohio State in June of 2014 and his background is in the medical field.
Drake is considered relatively anonymous even in Columbus, where the university president is one of the most prominent people in a city that’s the 15th-largest in America by population. Yahoo Sports spoke to a half dozen politically affiliated people in Ohio on Sunday, and the general consensus is that Drake is perceived generally as a weak president who lacks the charisma and political touch of his predecessor, Gordon Gee.
“He does not have a presence that extends outside The Oval,” said Curtin, essentially referring to the Ohio State campus. “He’s just not a presence in the community. He’s a nice and cultured and articulate man, but he’s someone who doesn’t have gravitas beyond the university itself.”
The only moderately comparable decision so far in Drake’s tenure came in the summer of 2014 when he announced he was firing band director Jon Waters. The Ohio State band is a beloved institution on campus, and while the notion of a band director’s firing may elicit chuckles, it was a big deal at Ohio State. An investigation yielded a 92-page report that detailed a culture of hazing and sexual harassment. It was a huge story locally, and may be the defining decision of Drake’s tenure thus far. Drake’s statement firing Waters summed it up this way: “The investigation determined that Director Waters was aware or reasonably should have known about this culture but failed to eliminate it.”
Could those be ominous words for Urban Meyer?
What’s at stake for the university financially?
It’s difficult to conceive a scenario where the university parts ways with Meyer without firing him for cause. Meyer is owed nearly $38 million on his contract, and there’s little chance the university both fires him and is willing to pay the entire amount.
In college sports, buyouts have evolved the past few years from a hard number to a negotiation point for universities.
Meyer’s Aug. 3 statement he released on Twitter – his only public remark since being put on leave – clearly stakes his grounds for not being fired for cause in terms of following proper university protocols in the Smith situation. It also set the narrative for other schools potentially interested in him in case he is fired – “I have always followed proper reporting protocols and procedures when I have learned of an incident involving a student-athlete, coach or member of our staff by elevating the issues to the proper channels.”
If Meyer is let go, his statement hints that his side is ready to dig in to attempt to receive the money he’s owed. There’s little chance this ends cleanly with a Meyer firing, unless there’s some type of negotiated settlement. That appears unrealistic given the stakes, timeframe and potential tensions.
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