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Urban Meyer investigation: What’s at risk for Ohio State, Buckeyes coach
Published on Aug. 11, 2018 | Updated on Aug. 20, 2018
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Urban Meyer remains on paid administrative leave in the aftermath of the firing of assistant coach Zach Smith on July 23.
The investigation by a panel appointed by the Ohio State University Board of Trustees has concluded its invesgitation. The next step will be for the Board of Trustees to meet on Wednesday. The board members will discuss the findings of those. After those deliberations, Ohio State president Michael V. Drake will announce the decision regarding Meyer’s future.
As the uncertainty surrounding the football coach continues as the season opener against Oregon State on Sept. 1 nears.
Sporting News breaks down the most frequently asked questions heading into the second week of a controversial situation. SN college football writer Bill Bender answers those questions.
Did Urban Meyer commit an offense that merits termination?
That’s on the investigation to figure out, and this Sports Illustrated report does an excellent job of laying out the grounds of trying to find out whether Meyer lied to his superiors or violated university policy as it pertains to reporting alleged misconduct by employees who report to him.
Most of the investigation will center around a 2015 incident involving Zach Smith and his ex-wife Courtney Smith, which was first detailed in a report by national college football writer Brett McMurphy. Meyer originally denied knowledge of that incident at Big Ten Media Days, but contradicted that in a statement released on Friday in which he said he “followed proper reporting protocols and procedures” with the incident. Meyer kept Smith on the staff until firing the assistant coach just hours after McMurphy’s original report on July 23.
That still leaves unanswered questions. If Meyer knew Smith was involved in a pattern of domestic violence allegations, the question centers around why Meyer kept Smith on as an assistant coach on his staff until 2018 — and whether athletic director Gene Smith had a role to play in that decision.
The university must determine whether Meyer’s response was adequate. If so, the grounds for firing Meyer will be more complicated.
If Ohio State fires Meyer without cause, it could owe the coach more than $38 million and face a potential lawsuit — but there is a clause within Meyer’s contract that could be a sticking point. Those terms read:
“Failure by Coach to promptly report to Ohio State’s Deputy Title IX Coordinator — Athletics or Ohio State’s Title IX Coordinator any known violations of Ohio State’s Sexual Misconduct Policy (including, but not limited to, sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, intimate violence and stalking) that involve any student, faculty, or staff or that is in connection with a university sponsored activity or event.”
What helps Meyer’s case to stay at Ohio State?
After a 2009 arrest at Florida, Zach Smith was never arrested for any incident involving his ex-wife during his tenure at Ohio State — according to a revised 2015 report from the Powell (Ohio) Police Department. Meyer admitted to knowing about the 2009 incident at Big Ten Media Days and followed protocol there.
The only proven mistake Meyer made is failing to offer an explanation with the media at Big Ten Media Days. The details surrounding Zach Smith and Courtney Smith are still be played out in court, and Zach Smith will appear in court on Aug. 14 in association with criminal trespassing charges stemming from a May incident.
Meyer also has the support of a faction of the Ohio State fan base. He’s a popular coach with a 73-8 record, including a 6-0 record against rival Michigan, and led the Buckeyes to their last national championship in 2014. Fans started an online petition over the weekend and plan a rally on Monday in support of Meyer at Ohio Stadium.
What hurts Meyer’s case to stay at Ohio State?
Meyer’s statement and Zach Smith’s interview on “SportsCenter” on Aug. 3 did not mesh well, especially when Smith “it would be a crime” if Ohio State fired Meyer. That was a poor choice of words given the history of domestic violence allegations and incidents involving his ex-wife. Zach Smith’s defense of Meyer might have hurt more than it helped.
As for Meyer, his statement came with an air of defiance. It closed with, “I look forward to rejoining (the team) soon.” That hints that Meyer is going to fight for his job, and he’s willing to speak out while on paid administrative leave to make his case.
— Urban Meyer (@OSUCoachMeyer) August 3, 2018
Friday’s media circus was not a good look for Meyer, Zach Smith or Ohio State, and Meyer’s credibility as a head coach has been damaged through this process. Meyer’s history at Florida — where 31 players were arrested during his tenure — only further fuels the perception he has a win-at-any-cost mindset.
That Meyer and Zach Smith both said they reported the 2015 incident through the proper channels puts some of the scrutiny on the Ohio State athletic department. That’s another unsettling layer that needs to be peeled back.
Is Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith also on the hot seat?
If Smith had the same knowledge about the incidents for which Meyer is being investigated — and which Meyer made clear he’d told Gene Smith, corroborated by Zach Smith’s “SportsCenter” interview — then he would seemingly face further investigation from the university, especially if he was the highest up the chain of command to know of the incident. That’s another question the investigation must face, and it will be interesting to see how Drake answers.
What are the possible outcomes of the investigation?
Meyer will either be fired or retained, possibly with some form of suspension. Given the line-in-the-sand nature of Meyer’s statement on Friday, those appear to be the only courses of action following the investigation; there is no in between. There’s another scenario gaining traction, one in which Gene Smith gets fired and Meyer is suspended, though that seems like a half-measure. It’s more plausible both will stay or go together. There’s also the chance that Meyer and the university could reach an agreement to part ways with a buyout, but that seems unlikely, too.
What’s Ohio State’s biggest risk in retaining Urban Meyer?
It opens the university up to more scrutiny, given a similar scenario that unfolded in 2011 with former coach Jim Tressel, who was originally suspended for two games before resigning amid the Tattoogate scandal. If Ohio State retains Meyer, detractors will use that as affirmation the university values football over everything else — a fair criticism if Meyer faces no punishment.
Meyer’s job status has become a divisive issue in Columbus, and it’s being challenged in a climate where domestic assault and sexual abuse have become leading social issues. Even though Smith has not been charged, the court of public opinion has a strong influence, too. That might not matter in Central Ohio — but again, it opens the program up to more scrutiny and could have long-term consequences down the line if Meyer becomes involved in another scandal.
How much money is on the line at Ohio State?
Meyer is scheduled to make $7.6 million in 2018 and has a buyout for a little more than $38 million. If Ohio State can fire Meyer with cause, he won’t be able to collect that buyout. If Ohio State can’t prove a cause, they could face a potential lawsuit. Forbes.com reports that this also could have an impact on the program, which is worth more than $100 million. Revenue and television deals could be impacted if Meyer is fired.
If Meyer is fired, would he be a head coach in the FBS again?
That will depend on the results of the investigation. If Meyer is fired at Ohio State, other FBS schools will be hesitant to bring in a coach connected to a domestic violence issue involving a former staff member.
Still, schools will be tempted, given his track record of success on the field.
Meyer is 177-31 through stops at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State. He wins everywhere, and he wins big. Art Briles just got another coaching job, albeit overseas. Another FBS program would likely, eventually, bet on the reward over the risk with Meyer — just like Ohio State did in 2012.
How would the Ohio State football program respond if Meyer is fired?
There would be an up-and-down transition with interim coach Ryan Day, but the long-term health of the program would be the same. Jim Tressel won at a high level before he resigned in 2011. John Cooper won at a high level but struggled against Michigan and in postseason games. Earle Bruce and Woody Hayes won at Ohio State, too, but they also had unceremonious exits.
In other words, more wins aren’t going to help Meyer in this case.
Meyer’s departure would hurt in the short term, but the next coach will have the same resources to work with at a Big Ten powerhouse, one of the most consistent winners in the sport. The next coach would face the same high standards, but they’ll have the same opportunity to win big.
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