When Ohio State football Coach Urban Meyer learned this month that the ex-wife of his former longtime assistant and family friend was publicly accusing him of ignoring her claims of domestic violence, one of the first things Meyer did, according to a university investigation, was discuss with an assistant how to delete old text messages from his phone, so reporters couldn’t see them.
By the time Ohio State took Meyer’s phone, according to an investigative report produced by two former federal prosecutors, it was set to save text messages only for the previous year. A public records request from Ohio State’s student newspaper for messages Meyer sent during a few crucial months in 2015, the report suggested, will probably never get filled as a result.
Meyer’s apparent attempt to subvert public records requests was among several conclusions of the 23-page investigative report produced by Mary Jo White and David Sarratt, partners at Debevoise & Plimpton law firm, that Ohio State did not publicly release until 10:40 p.m. Wednesday, after a news conference announcing Meyer’s three-game suspension for how he responded to the allegations raised against former receivers coach Zach Smith, who has denied assaulting his wife.
The timing was convenient for Meyer, as he did not have to answer questions Wednesday about his sudden interest in his cellphone’s memory settings this month. Nor did he have to discuss several other aspects of the investigation that Ohio State omitted from a three-page summary circulated to reporters before the news conference.
Meyer didn’t have to give his thoughts on why investigators didn’t believe his recollection that, in 2009, Courtney Smith told him she fabricated a claim of abuse against her then-husband, which got Zach Smith arrested in Florida. Nor did Meyer have to respond to the conclusion, by investigators, that he and his wife, Shelley, probably did discuss Courtney Smith’s claims of abuse in 2015, even though both told investigators they never did. Meyer also didn’t have to answer why, as Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith mulled how to respond to a 2015 domestic violence allegation against Zach Smith, Meyer neglected to tell his boss about the 2009 arrest in Florida, which ultimately was dropped by police when Courtney wouldn’t pursue the case.
During the news conference Wednesday, White, a former U.S. attorney and former chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, was critical of Meyer at times, but ultimately absolved him of accusations by Courtney Smith that he ignored her pleas for help in 2015, then lied to reporters who asked about it.
“Coach Meyer impressed us with his sincere commitment to the ‘respect for women’ core value that he espouses and tries to instill in his players,” White said.
In response to questions from reporters, Meyer was vaguely apologetic and curt, and he pointedly avoided expressing sympathy or concern for Courtney Smith when a reporter asked Meyer whether he had any message for her.
“I have a message for everyone involved in this: I’m sorry that we’re in this situation. I’m just sorry,” Meyer said.
Here are some of the other highlights from the full report, which was based on interviews with more than 40 witnesses, Meyer’s texts from the last year, as well as photos and text messages provided by Courtney Smith. Investigators were unable to get text messages from Zach Smith, Ohio State football operations director Brian Voltolini — who apparently discussed with Meyer how to adjust text message memory settings on his phone — nor Gene Smith. The report does not explain why.
The 2009 arrest
In June 2009, when Meyer was head coach at Florida, police arrested Zach Smith on a charge of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman. Courtney Smith, then pregnant, told police her husband had thrown her into a wall.
Courtney Smith has said she only decided to drop that case after she was pressured by two friends of Meyer’s — former Ohio State coach Earl Bruce, also Zach Smith’s grandfather, and Hiram deFries, a former oil executive and longtime Meyer confidante.
“[DeFries] said, ‘If you don’t drop the charges, Zach will never coach again,’ ” Courtney Smith told Brett McMurphy, a former ESPN reporter, in a conversation recounted on McMurphy’s Facebook page this month. “ ‘He’s never hit you before. He was drinking. He’ll probably never do it again. You should think about giving him a second chance.’ ”
Meyer, in his interviews with investigators, claimed that both Courtney and Zach Smith met with him in 2009 and told him Courtney had given false information to the police. Courtney Smith said she never met with Meyer in 2009 and never recanted her claims.
“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,” the investigation found. The report also concluded the meetings Courtney Smith described with Bruce and deFries probably did happen.
The 2015 allegations
In October 2015, Courtney Smith contacted police in suburban Columbus and said her then-estranged husband had been abusing her for years. Ohio State campus police learned about the investigation and informed a Title IX coordinator in athletics, who contacted Athletic Director Smith.
After consulting with Zach Smith — who denied the allegations — Gene Smith and Meyer decided to keep track of the police investigation but did not inform the athletic department’s compliance office, which could have determined if an internal review was warranted. Police declined to press charges. (Gene Smith was also suspended on Wednesday, for about two weeks, for his handling of this allegation.)
As the police investigation was underway, Courtney Smith was sharing her allegations, and photos she claimed showed injuries she sustained during assaults by her husband, via text message with Shelley Meyer, the investigation found. Shelley Meyer contacted police in Powell, where the Smiths lived, to get more information but was told police couldn’t release anything. Powell police ultimately closed the investigation without a criminal charge.
Shelley Meyer told investigators, according to the report, that she did not tell her husband about her texts with Courtney Smith in 2015 because she had doubts about Courtney Smith’s truthfulness. Urban Meyer also said he didn’t recall ever discussing the allegations with his wife. Investigators didn’t believe them.
“We believe it is likely that Shelley and Urban Meyer had at least some communication about these allegations in late 2015 and were concerned about them,” the report stated.
In his interviews, Gene Smith told investigators he had no knowledge of the 2009 arrest of Zach Smith until last month. Meyer did not mention it in 2011 when he hired Zach Smith, nor did he mention it when the 2015 allegations were raised, the coach acknowledged to investigators. A standard background check performed before Zach Smith’s hire did not turn up the arrest.
Zach Smith’s other problems
Zach Smith has never been convicted of assaulting his wife, but there were other reasons to be concerned about his continued employment at Ohio State, investigators found.
In May 2014, while he was representing the university on a recruiting trip to Miami, Smith took a few high school coaches to a strip club, an incident that drew a stern rebuke from Meyer. As he was divorcing his wife in 2015 and 2016, Zach Smith skipped recruiting trips and then falsely reported he had actually attended. Athletic Director Smith suggested firing him, but Meyer kept him on instead.
Meyer finally fired him last month, investigators found, when he learned through inquiries from reporters about a series of legal issues Zach Smith had not disclosed, including a criminal trespassing charge Smith is disputing and protective order his ex-wife obtained.
On July 23, hours after Smith was fired, Shelley Meyer texted her husband, according to the report, expressing concern about how Zach Smith would handle losing his job.
“He drinks a lot and I am just not sure how stable he will be. Afraid he will do something dangerous. It’s obvious he has anger/rage issues already,” Shelley Meyer wrote. Urban Meyer did not reply.
Hours after Meyer fired Smith on July 23, McMurphy — the former ESPN reporter — published a story on his Facebook page alleging Zach Smith had been arrested on a domestic violence charge in 2015. The report was incorrect on one point; there had been an investigation but no arrest.
The next day, Meyer was scheduled to appear before reporters at Big Ten Media Days, an annual publicity event for the football conference in Chicago.
“I know nothing about this,” Meyer texted several athletics administrators that night. “Is there a way to find out exactly what his issues were. I know about 2009 [it was dropped] and last week. That’s it. Need some guidance here so when I speak to media I’m not wrong.”
Gene Smith reminded Meyer of the 2015 investigation, the report stated, and then texted Meyer suggested remarks for the next day.
“As Zach dealt with his personal challenge I was aware of two legal instances in 2009 and 2015. This most recent issue is inconsistent with our values … just a thought,” Gene Smith wrote.
“Thx,” Meyer replied.
The morning of the news conference, Jerry Emig, an athletic communications staffer, followed up with another text, supporting Gene Smith’s suggestions and adding Meyer should consider emphasizing the 2015 investigation didn’t result in an arrest. Meyer never replied. Several hours later, Meyer denied any knowledge of the 2015 investigation.
Several Ohio State staffers, in interviews with investigators, said they believe Meyer was fixated on the arrest aspect of the McMurphy report when he made his blanket denial of any knowledge of the 2015 investigation.
Meyer, however, repeatedly told investigators he honestly had no recollection of the 2015 investigation when he spoke with reporters in Chicago that day, and he blamed his communications staffers for not adequately preparing him for the news conference.
“We cannot logically square Coach Meyer’s responses on Big Ten Media Days broadly denying knowledge of the 2015 events regarding Zach Smith with his extensive knowledge of those events in 2015,” investigators wrote.
They noted a possible explanation, however, “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.”
The missing text messages
On July 25, the day after Meyer’s appearance in Chicago, Ohio State athletics received a public records request from the school’s student newspaper, “The Lantern.” Student journalists asked for any text messages in late 2015 sent between Meyer and Zach Smith, and between Meyer and Gene Smith.
The same day, Julie Vannatta, a lawyer on Ohio State’s general counsel office, forwarded the requests to Gene Smith and one of his senior associate athletic directors, with instructions to collect the pertinent messages from Meyer’s phone. The next day, Vannatta emailed two other athletics staffers, including Voltolini, the director of football operations.
“Go get [Coach Meyer’s] phone and check his texts with Zach,” the lawyer directed Voltolini, the report states.
None of the staffers Vannatta emailed ever approached Meyer, they told investigators, to ask him for his phone in the days that followed.
On Aug. 1, McMurphy published another report on his Facebook page — an interview with Courtney Smith accusing Meyer of ignoring her claims of abuse, complete with text messages Shelley Meyer exchanged with Courtney Smith in 2015. In some of the messages, Shelley Meyer expressed concern for Courtney Smith’s safety.
That morning, the report stated, Voltolini approached Urban Meyer on the practice field and told him a “bad article” had just been published.
Voltolini — who just days before had been told by an Ohio State lawyer about a records request for Meyer’s text messages from 2015 — then discussed with Meyer how he could change the settings on his phone so it didn’t save any text messages more than a year old, the report states. When the university took Meyer’s phone, it was set to only store text messages for the previous year.
Investigators noted they could not conclusively determine whether Meyer changed his settings after the damaging story.
“It is nonetheless concerning that his first reaction to a negative media piece . . . was to worry about the media getting access to information,” investigators wrote. “Often, although not always, such reactions evidence consciousness of guilt.”