Ohio State's culture of cover-up helped save Urban Meyer's job

On the morning of Aug. 1, a bombshell story broke suggesting that Urban Meyer had lied about not knowing of a 2015 domestic abuse allegation against former Ohio State assistant coach Zach Smith.

Minutes later, Meyer met with football staffer Brian Voltolini. Their first inclination, per the school’s investigation, was to figure out how to delete text messages from Meyer’s phone.

In other words, cover things up.

“Specifically,” the report reads, “how to adjust the settings on Meyer’s phone so that text messages older than one year would be deleted.”

And, indeed, when investigators eventually got a hold of Meyer’s phone, all text messages over a year old had been wiped clean. What Meyer had or had not been texting, specifically with his wife, Shelley Meyer, is unknown.

The investigation labeled that “concerning.”

You think?

Even more concerning is that the mindset at Ohio State didn’t change from the start to the conclusion of this scandal. Its inclination remained to conceal and protect, or at the very least, delay the truth from emerging.

Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer makes a statement during a news conference in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday. (AP)
Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer makes a statement during a news conference in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday. (AP)

On Wednesday night, Ohio State held a news conference to announce the suspensions of Meyer (three games) and athletic director Gene Smith (two weeks without pay) for improperly handling the Smith case.

Prior to the news conference, the school declined to release the “Independent Investigation Summary of Findings” to the media. It did so hours later.

In doing so, president Michael Drake, Gene Smith and Urban Meyer himself were not subject to questioning about the most problematic and pertinent discoveries in the case. Such as, why did Meyer want to delete text messages rather than preserve evidence that might exonerate him?

The school explained to reporters on hand the length of the report made it too much to consume quickly prior to the news conference. Except the report is 23 easy-to-read pages.

It was a cover-up of the cover-up, you could say.

Whether Meyer should have been fired, suspended or apologized to hardly matters at this point. That decision has been made. By choosing three games, the university pleased no one – most notably Meyer, who looked angry that he got sat in a corner for any period of time.

He’s lucky the school shielded him by not releasing the report before the news conference. He can now shift to “football-only” news conferences, claim everything has already been addressed and perhaps sit down for a single, friendly television interview that he can filibuster through. Give Ohio State this much, it’s effective PR work.

Make no mistake though, the actions of the coach and the school that emerge from the report show a disturbing pattern of dishonesty. The culture of deceitfulness is so prevalent, and centered on Meyer, that everyone else has to find ways to hide it, ignore it or explain it.

Consider how in 2015, when Gene Smith learned that Courtney Smith was alleging she had been physically abused by Zach Smith. Gene Smith told Urban Meyer about it and the two met, repeatedly to discuss it. They agreed to let law enforcement conduct its investigation rather than turn it over to compliance as Ohio State says they were required. When no charges were brought, it all fell by the wayside. This is why they were suspended.

The problem is when Gene Smith and Meyer were meeting about Zach Smith, Meyer knew this wasn’t the first time Zach had been accused of domestic violence. In 2009, while working for Meyer at the University of Florida, Zach was arrested for assaulting Courtney. Charges were eventually dropped but this is certainly an important detail to share.

Except Meyer didn’t share it with Gene Smith. Not when he hired Zach Smith in 2012 and, more incredibly, not when the two were discussing what to do with Zach Smith in 2015. This should have been one of the first things mentioned … “Gene, you should know …”

It is bad enough to be accused of domestic assault once. Twice rightfully changes the dynamics for an investigator.

It would be reasonable to assume that Gene Smith might have taken a different approach had he known this was now a pattern. It is also reasonable to assume that Meyer knew Gene Smith might take a different approach and thus that’s why he didn’t mention it.

Does leaving out the most important information you know in a case count as a cover-up?

That’s the kind of uncomfortable question that would have been asked if Ohio State had released its report prior to the news conference.

The investigators didn’t even frame the issue – arguably the most germane of the entire case – as it is above. It just cryptically noted, “We discovered no evidence that AD Smith was aware of the 2009 events before July 2018,” clearing Gene Smith and leaving the question of how Meyer could never bring it up unanswered. It likely never will be.

The report spent just 75 words on this central issue. It spent 228 words, more than three times as many, on a 2014 visit by Zach Smith to a Florida gentlemen’s club, which is only tangentially related to the situation but is sure to distract fans and media due to its titillating nature. What a coincidence.

Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, right, answers questions as athletic director Gene Smith and university President Michael Drake, left, listen during a news conference on Wednesday. (AP)
Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, right, answers questions as athletic director Gene Smith and university President Michael Drake, left, listen during a news conference on Wednesday. (AP)

Here’s another chilling one. Meyer said that just after the 2009 arrest, he met with both Zach and Courtney Smith in his office at UF. It was then they told him “the arrest of Zach Smith had been based on incorrect information provided to authorities by Courtney Smith and that, in fact, Zach Smith had not hit or otherwise been violent towards Mrs. Smith.”

This would be a major admission by Courtney Smith. She was saying that she falsely accused her husband of a despicable act. That alone is a crime in many jurisdictions. The problem is, Courtney told investigators that she never once met with Zach and Urban Meyer. Worse for Urban, Zach Smith backs that up and says that only he was at the meeting. It’s worth noting, the Smiths’ relationship is beyond toxic right now (and has been for years) and perhaps the only thing they agree on is that Meyer’s story is false.

The investigators agreed too.

“We find it more likely that only Zach Smith met with Coach Meyer in 2009, and that Courtney Smith likely did not recant her allegations of abuse at that time,” it reads.

Is that not a problem for Ohio State? Urban Meyer is inventing meetings that destroy the credibility of the accuser and exonerate he and Zach? Worse, how many times and to how many people did Meyer tell the story of the made-up meeting? If he told anyone in Columbus then it would certainly explain some of the distrust in Courtney’s story within Ohio State. After all, the head football coach said she recanted back in 2009, so why trust her now? If that happened, she never stood a chance.

None of this was addressed in the report or at the news conference, of course.

Again, rather handy.

The report does address Meyer’s chronic struggles with the truth. It repeatedly sides with the version of other people over the coach. It detailed how the athletic department completely ignored a July open-records request for Meyer’s emails, a violation of state open-records laws, which at least suggests they didn’t want to find what they thought they might find.

At the news conference, it was noted that Meyer’s words were clearly wrong at Big Ten media day, where he repeatedly said he had no knowledge of 2015 allegations against Zach Smith, but even then, an explanation of sorts was offered.

“While those denials were plainly not accurate, coach Meyer did not in our view deliberately lie,” investigator Mary Jo White said.

OK, then.

At one point the report states, “We also learned during the investigation that Coach Meyer has sometimes had 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.”

Well, in that case why should he ever have to tell the truth or be pinned to a previous telling of any story? It makes it even more amazing how sharp his mind is during the stress of the fourth quarter against Michigan.

Almost everything in the report is designed to excuse Meyer. Some of that is understandable from the school’s perspective. Meyer is an incredible coach and Ohio State will continue to win football games and make hundreds of millions of dollars as long as he is around. He is a unique and special talent, so unique and special the university will tolerate the lies.

Employers everywhere make similar decisions all the time.

It may make things tough for the many honest, ethical and decent people in the athletic department who have to bend their will and their ways to keep Meyer propped up, but hide and disguise is now clearly part of the job there.

It’s all in the (conveniently released) report.

Football questions only going forward, though.

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