Inside Urban Meyer's 13-hour Judgment Day
Daybreak is sunny and clear, warm but not hot. Football weather. The Ohio State Buckeyes' season opener is only 10 days away, but it may as well be an eternity. Today is not for sport. Today is a spectacle.
Local media and outlets from around the country have descended on the Longaberger Alumni House on the north side of campus to follow the fate of head football coach Urban Meyer at today's meeting of the OSU Board of Trustees. For a month, the university has been consumed by allegations of domestic violence levied against former assistant coach Zach Smith by ex-wife Courtney Smith and whether Meyer turned a blind eye. Rumors of his punishment—ranging from a light slap to a sharp ax—are swirling.
TV cameras are set up inside the Longaberger House before 9 a.m. on Aug. 22—a whole arsenal of them pointed toward an empty horseshoe of tables at the far end of the Sanders Grand Lounge. OSU president Michael Drake and the trustees file into the room, which is quiet except for the clicking of cameras. Chairman Michael Gasser starts the meeting and offers his gratitude to Mary Jo White and David Sarratt from Debevoise & Plimpton, the New York City-based law firm hired to investigate the actions of Meyer and the OSU athletics department. Gasser then calls the board into executive session, and the trustees file out.
I came to see if the open meeting would provide anything interesting. No such luck. The tripods stay, and I follow the crowd to the lobby. “So now we just wait?” a woman asks a colleague.
Yes. We wait. Everyone hopes for a conclusion to the high-profile saga, but no one is sure when it's coming. The doors to the Grand Lounge are closed, and an OSU police officer stands guard outside, along with cops and security personnel at the building's front and back doors, with a few more patrolling the second floor where the executive session is being held in a closed boardroom. Drake and the trustees mull over the investigative report produced by the law firm, deciding what mistakes, if any, were made. The futures of Meyer and his boss, athletic director Gene Smith, hang in the balance, as do, apparently, the emotions of many Ohio State fans.
At 10:19, a tweet. Eleven Warriors, a Buckeyes fan site, reports that the judgment will come today. About 30 minutes later, more breaking news from Eleven Warriors: Meyer has arrived and is parked near a garbage bin by the loading dock. Thus begins a daylong stakeout at the dumpster behind the Longaberger House.
This is not a football story. It's a story of failure: the failures of an institution, of management, of an employee. It's about society's failure to address the problem of domestic violence, or even to fully understand its nature. But first came the failure of a marriage.
It was a tumultuous eight years for Courtney and Zach Smith. The first allegations of violence occurred in 2009 while Zach was on Meyer's staff at the University of Florida. He was arrested, but she eventually declined to press charges. It was the first of many such claims, though he was never arrested again or charged with a crime.
In 2011, Meyer landed the head coaching job at OSU and hired Zach to coach the wide receivers. Meyer had a soft spot for Zach, he later admitted, because Zach was the grandson of former Buckeyes coach Earle Bruce, who'd mentored Meyer. He never informed his new bosses of Zach's previous arrest, because by then he doubted the veracity of Courtney's claims, according to OSU's investigative report.
On Oct. 25, 2015, she called the police in Powell and made her final allegation of physical abuse against her husband. A few weeks later, she filed for divorce.
Domestic violence cases are notoriously difficult to parse, and this one was made more complex by competing media accounts. On July 23, former ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy broke the news—on Facebook—that on July 20 the Delaware County Domestic Relations Court had issued an ex parte domestic violence civil protection order against Zach, based on Courtney's testimony. He was fired by Meyer within 10 hours of McMurphy's report.
A day later, at Big Ten Media Days, Meyer was asked about the 2015 incident and said he knew nothing about it. From then on, McMurphy's Facebook reportage painted Meyer as a hypocrite and a liar, publishing photos of Courtney's injuries and screenshots of text conversations to show that Meyer's wife, Shelley, had known of the allegations. Sportswriter Jeff Snook posted a counternarrative, also on Facebook, writing that Courtney's own mother, Tina Carano, disputed the abuse claims, stating that her daughter was attempting to get revenge against Zach for alleged infidelity.
In early August, Courtney was interviewed for the sports website Stadium, which subsequently hired McMurphy. She said she believed Meyer knew of the alleged abuse. Two days later, in an ESPN interview, Zach denied all of the domestic violence allegations and said the injuries documented in her photos were the result of his “defensive movements” during disputes. (Courtney and Zach later stopped talking to the media, and their lawyers didn't respond to interview requests for this story.)
The seesaw reporting underscores the public's struggle with domestic violence: credibility. Nancy Neylon, executive director for the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, says it's important to take claims seriously, even if the story is confusing. “Every batterer is going to minimize, every batterer is going to deny, every batterer is going to denigrate the victim and blame the victim and try to deflect the problem.” In her 30-year career, she says she has never come across a case in which a victim falsely claimed abuse.
Marty Anderson, a family law attorney with local firm Sowald, Sowald, Anderson & Hawley, primarily represents victims but has defended the accused on occasion. She scrutinizes those cases closely and asks for corroborating evidence, only taking on defendants she believes are innocent. “Some of it is a sixth sense about interviewing someone and making a determination as to whether he or she is telling you the truth,” she says, “and that's as frail as human nature is frail.”
Inside the Longaberger lobby, the breaking news of the past month has dried up. With the trustees sequestered, information is scarce. That hasn't sated the outside world's appetite for updates.
So, in a day bereft of news, food fills the void. ABC6 reports that the trustees were served boxed lunches from Easy Living Catering, owned by former OSU kicker Vlade Janakievski. A couple of hours later, an OSU staffer is filmed setting out Adriatico's pizza for the journalists, and later she tells a co-worker that more than 7,000 viewers already watched it on Twitter.
Journalists stave off the boredom any way possible—discussing movies, checking retirement plans, tweeting prolifically, nodding off. They also trade stories about covering the demise of previous coaches. Were you here for Tressel? What about Earle?
The dearth of information continues, and every VIP who enters causes a commotion. Shelley arrives around 2:30 in the afternoon and parks her white Mercedes Benz SUV by the dumpster. Gene Smith and his wife breeze through the doors, walk past a makeshift security checkpoint and disappear. Their presence causes speculation—here and online—about what it means for Meyer's fate. Shelley came—that can't be good. Gene is here: Maybe he'll face the firing squad instead. Give the man a cigarette.
At one point, Cleveland.com's Doug Lesmerises follows someone out the front door and onto the sidewalk. A few other reporters trail behind, and eventually a large portion of the press corps is outside. It turns out Lesmerises was following a Papa John's delivery guy. There's desperation for something meaningful. Instead, a biker couple wanders in, looking like they took a wrong turn on the way to Sturgis. They're not interested in an Urban update—they just need to find a bathroom before the Journey and Def Leppard concert.
Early in the evening, a few trustees emerge sporadically from the executive session boardroom and walk to another room on the building's east side. Attorney Alex Shumate makes the walk. So does TV basketball analyst Clark Kellogg. Alex Fischer, CEO of the Columbus Partnership, makes several trips. Drake walks back and forth, back and forth. Are they negotiating terms with Meyer or Gene Smith? Hammering out statements? Performing the world's least creative interpretive dance?
Others begin to notice the movements. “There's dueling rooms,” one cameraman says, looking upward.
“In a day when breadcrumbs are all you eat ... ” says a thin, blue-suited, on-air talent.
Lori Schmidt, reporting for 105.7 The Zone in her trademark fedora, watches the scene nearby. “What's going on at the loading dock?” she wonders. Someone jokes that the decision will be announced by puffs of white smoke, like the naming of a new pope.
Eleven hours in, the crowd near the dumpster has grown by several dozen. There are students, a few people on Bird scooters and a young kid perched on his mom's shoulders. Underneath a tree on the lawn, one man sits alone in a folding chair, blaring the fight song from a portable speaker.
This scandal's developing storyline—the ceaseless stream of new and sometimes contradictory information, the social media tit for tat, the sheer volume of reporting—made it easy for Meyer's supporters and detractors alike to cherry-pick or disregard whatever evidence they pleased. It was a Rorschach test: digital inkblots onto which people could project their preexisting beliefs.
While critics questioned whether OSU's 14-day investigation would be anything other than a pretense for keeping a championship-winning coach at the expense of a battered wife, a contingent of diehard loyalists felt the whole scandal seemed like an attack—by Courtney, ESPN, the #MeToo movement or McMurphy. They felt like the university's investigation was caving to baseless outside pressure. If the police didn't charge Zach Smith, why should Urban Meyer take the fall?
Large public institutions like OSU, with abundant resources and compliance departments, frequently investigate employees' actions, says Fred Gittes, a local employment attorney and principal of The Gittes Law Group. Common sense dictates that OSU investigate, he continues, because people are fired all the time for conduct that doesn't rise to the level of criminal behavior. It's normal for people in positions of authority, like Gene Smith and Urban Meyer, to have stringent reporting requirements beyond law enforcement's decisions.
As for why an arrest wasn't made if Courtney's claims were valid, Anderson says officers are generally more responsive if the alleged abuser is still on the scene and there's fresh evidence. In 2009, when Courtney called the police in Florida, Zach was still in their home, and there were signs of a struggle. He was arrested. In October 2015, Courtney filed a police report at the station and offered her digital and photographic evidence the day after the alleged incident. No arrest was made.
There are also persistent misconceptions about domestic violence. It isn't just physical violence, Neylon says; it's also emotional and psychological abuse, financial control, threats, intimidation and stalking—all of which Courtney claims she's experienced.
“I have said over and over again, I don't think the people at Ohio State understand what domestic violence is,” Neylon says. “I don't think they understand the power and control.”
Minutes before 9 p.m., a dozen hours after the day began, a crush of fans pushes toward the closed doors of Longaberger's Grand Lounge. The university just announced a press conference to discuss the verdict, and the people gathered by the loading dock rushed inside to witness the end of this strange day and the month-long saga.
It feels more like a rally than a media event. Someone yells out Jeff Snook's name. Another person calls out “O-H!” He gets an “I-O” in response, but it's tense rather than celebratory. One fan holds up a tablet with “Free Urban” scrawled on it.
Inside the lounge, OSU communications staffers scramble to hand out summary documents announcing the decision: Urban Meyer is suspended for three games and will forgo six weeks' pay; Gene Smith is suspended without pay for just over two weeks. The press conference begins, and the room is hushed except for the unwavering voice of lead investigator Mary Jo White. Students and fans remain quiet throughout. For the first time during a day of boredom and absurdity, the heaviness of the moment settles on the room.
White outlines the findings, which point to several failings by Meyer and Gene Smith. Ultimately, though, investigators determined that Meyer didn't “deliberately lie” or cover up the alleged domestic abuse. Still, White says, more should have been done. “In the domestic violence context especially, there are many cases in which abuse takes place but there is no arrest or criminal prosecution, and so simply relying on law enforcement to take action in the face of such allegations is not, in our view, an adequate response,” she says.
Drake, Gene Smith and Meyer answer questions from the dais. Marc Tracy from The New York Times raises the specter of a university in crisis when he asks about this controversy against the backdrop of other ongoing abuse scandals, like that of former OSU physician Dr. Richard Strauss. Several times, Gene Smith and Meyer directly address and apologize to so-called Buckeye Nation, but they never mention Courtney Smith. Near the end, an ESPN reporter asks Meyer what message he has for her. He mulls his answer but seems unsure what to say to someone whose credibility he has privately questioned. He apologizes to everyone else instead.
The press conference concludes. I walk outside into the darkness and wait on the steps. Trustee Alex Fischer leaves, and a camera crew rushes up to get a comment. The decision was unanimous, he tells them. Days later, Tracy reports that trustee Jeff Wadsworth stepped down within an hour of the announcement, believing the punishment was too light. Wadsworth didn't return calls for this story, but he told Tracy he was the lone voice of dissent.
Many hoped the day would provide definitive answers and closure. Instead, over the ensuing weeks, the investigation, the report and the statements of those involved were rehashed, dissected, debated and maligned.
Meyer released a mea culpa for his shaky press conference performance and apologized to Courtney. That sent Zach into a spiral of angry tweets, while his mother, Lynn Bruce, vilified the university on Facebook. Meyer issued another statement taking the media to task for what he felt was inaccurate reporting about the investigation's conclusions. Several online petitions from Meyer loyalists called for Drake's ouster.
The controversy roiled in part because OSU didn't release the full investigative report until after the press conference, and it included new revelations that merited questioning. It revealed that Meyer had memory problems, sometimes caused by medication, and investigators didn't believe all of his statements. They weren't able to retrieve his texts that were more than a year old, and they discovered he had a conversation with chief of football operations Brian Voltolini about erasing older messages after McMurphy's story broke. No texts from Voltolini, Gene Smith or Zach Smith were retrievable.
Those concerns remain, and new answers are scarce. OSU didn't make Drake or Meyer available for this story, and trustees contacted didn't return calls or emails. In late August, Cleveland.com reported that, according to anonymous sources, Meyer didn't negotiate his suspension with the board but was “periodically kept in the loop throughout the day,” which may explain the movements back and forth between rooms on the second floor of the Longaberger House that evening.
In early October, Courtney and Zach are scheduled to have a full evidentiary hearing in Delaware County regarding the civil protection order, which Zach is contesting. He also has filed a motion for contempt against Courtney in their divorce case. Maybe those cases will yield some clarity, or maybe just more speculation and debate.
The day at Longaberger didn't provide a full resolution, but it may have offered a preview of things to come. Ohio State football has always been a crucible, and even the school's coaching legends have met ignominious ends. The last man to walk away on his own terms and improve his career was Paul Brown in 1945—and that required a world war and a stint in the Navy.
Urban Meyer will continue coaching the Buckeyes this season. But for the first time in seven years, it's not so hard to imagine Ohio State without him.