Urban Meyer had more wishes than answers on Wednesday night.
In a gray suit and scarlet tie to match the colors of his employer, Meyer, Ohio State’s revered football coach took to the lectern for all of 2 minutes 6 seconds to address what went wrong in the case of Zach Smith, a former assistant coach he kept on staff despite domestic violence allegations, and his handling of the case which has been criticized as belligerent. When it came time for questions from the press, Meyer made a wish.
“The biggest regret is I wish I would have known more,” he said. “If I had known more, I would have taken action much quicker.”
Meyer, winner of three national championships at Ohio State and Florida, wasn’t done wishing. In fact, the man whose program has “TREAT WOMEN WITH RESPECT” as one of its core values painted on at its practice facility had only just begun.
“I wish I had known,” Meyer said.
“I wish I did a better job of finding out things.”
“I wish I was told more things.”
Soon, the most-decorated college football coach of the modern era not named Nick Saban finished his wish list.
“I wish I had done more,” Meyer said. “I wish I had known more.”
After he apologized to “Buckeye nation” — “I followed my heart, not my head” — he was asked about what he would say to Courtney Smith, the ex-wife of Zach Smith who first made the allegations. In his response, he didn’t name her.
“I have a message for everyone involved in this: I’m sorry we’re in this situation,” he said. “I’m just sorry we’re in this situation.”
Meyer’s mishandling of the domestic assault allegations made against Zach Smith, and publicly misrepresenting what he knew about the situation last month, came to a head on Wednesday, with Ohio State announcing the coach will be suspended without pay for the first three games of the upcoming season. The school also announced it had suspended Athletic Director Gene Smith without pay for two-plus weeks.
“Although neither Urban Meyer nor Gene Smith condoned or covered up the alleged domestic abuse by Zach Smith, they failed to take sufficient management action relating to Zach Smith’s misconduct and retained an Assistant Coach who was not performing as an appropriate role model for OSU student-athletes,” the school said in a statement outlining the investigation’s findings. “Permitting such misconduct to continue is not consistent with the values of the University and reflects poorly on Coach Meyer, Athletic Director Smith, and the University. Their handling of this matter did not exhibit the kind of leadership and high standards that we expect of our Athletic Director, Head Coach, Assistant Coaches and all on the football staff.”
The findings of the investigation, which included 40 witness interviews and the review of more than 60,000 emails and 10,000 text messages, concluded that Meyer did not intentionally withhold the truth about what he knew regarding the allegations.
“While those denials were plainly not accurate, Coach Meyer did not, in our view, deliberately lie,” said lead investigator Mary Jo White, former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, in the report. “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.”
The report went on to find: “We believe [Coach Meyer] as did Zach Smith that if [Coach Meyer] ever came to learn or believe that Zach Smith had physically abused his wife, Coach Meyer would have fired Zach Smith or any coach on the spot.”
The findings come weeks after Courtney Smith shared her story, and how she texted photos of the abuse to Meyer’s wife and spoke to her on the phone in 2015.
“I do believe he knew, and instead he chose to help the abuser and enable the abuser and believe whatever story Zach was telling everybody,” she told Stadium on Aug. 1.
Courtney Smith was not far from people’s minds before, during and after the news conference. To some, Meyer’s responses were disingenuous and served as another formidable hit to his credibility.
“Intentional or not, the lasting message of that press conference is Urban Meyer yakking on an easy question by equating his own burden with Courtney Smith’s,” USA Today’s Dan Wolken tweeted. “Unaccepted. Disgraceful.”
The sentiment was echoed by ESPN’s Paul Finebaum on the Worldwide Leader.
“I believe his biggest failing was not personally apologizing to the victim in all of this, Courtney Smith,” Finebaum said on “SportsCenter.” “Instead, he acted like he was the victim, and that is extremely troubling.”
Before Wednesday’s announcement, there was doubt about whether Meyer would survive the investigation with his job. Once the suspension was announced, critics and former athletes voiced their concern with how Meyer, who is set to make $7.6 million this year, was treated — and the seemingly double standard when it comes to punishing athletes, compared with high-profile coaches.
The Meyer case is the latest chapter in a period of negligence at college athletic departments regarding domestic violence, sexual assault and institutional chaos. Schools like Penn State, Florida State and Baylor are still grappling with the fallout from their scandals. The Big Ten Conference, home of the Buckeyes, is no different.
At Michigan State, Larry Nassar, the serial child molester who was the doctor for the USA Gymnastics national team, was convicted of molesting hundreds of young women, including Olympians, as early as 1992. Michigan State settled for $500 million to 332 alleged victims of Nassar — the largest university settlement in a sexual-abuse case. And this month, Maryland placed Coach DJ Durkin on administrative leave as it investigates what role he had in a team workout that resulted in the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and whether Durkin helped develop a toxic culture that led to the tragedy.
The suspension, as well as Ohio State’s handling of Meyer and the investigation, represents a departure from the university’s history of dealing with celebrated coaches under criticism.
In 1978, Woody Hayes, winner of five national championships, saw his team losing in the final minutes of the Gator Bowl to Clemson when his freshman quarterback threw an interception that all but ended the game. When Charlie Bauman, the Clemson nose guard who caused the turnover, got up near the Ohio State sideline, Hayes, then 65, punched him in the throat, setting off a benches-clearing brawl. The next day, Hayes was fired. He would never coach again. Hayes died in 1987.
Then, in 2011, Jim Tressel, the first Ohio State coach to win a national championship since Hayes, found himself in the middle of “Tattoogate,” in which five players were suspended for signing autographs and selling memorabilia in return for tattoos. It was later reported by Sports Illustrated that at least 28 players had done the same thing between 2002 and 2010. Tressel would be suspended for five games before eventually resigning. As with Hayes, it was Tressel’s last time as a coach.
Meyer bucked the Buckeye trend that had scandals ending the careers of the school’s best football coaches. He remains the top man in Columbus — for now — albeit weakened and tainted. At the conclusion of the news conference, Meyer emphasized what he’s taken from a situation that nearly cost him his job.
“This has been a learning experience,” he said. “I’m a different person now than I was in 2009, 2012. My awareness of domestic violence, and how serious whenever you hear that kind of accusation, has grown. I have grown over the years.”
Again, there was no mention of Courtney Smith.
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