On Thursday, Ohio State suspended head football coach Urban Meyer, pending an investigation into how he handled allegations of domestic abuse against former wide receivers coach Zach Smith. A recent change to Meyer’s contract terms could have a significant bearing on whether the Buckeyes end his suspension with a termination or not.
In April, Meyer signed a contract extension with Ohio State.
The university extended his deal by two years, through 2022. It also gave Meyer about a $1.2 million raise, bumping his salary to $7.6 million for 2018.
Meyer’s extension included a clause about reporting allegations of abuse. That might allow Ohio State to fire him and not pay a buyout.
If Ohio State fires Meyer without cause — i.e., for losing games, or for some other reason that has nothing to do with misconduct — it owes him a $38,058,402 buyout.
But Meyer’s new contract requires him to report certain things. Under the terms of the deal, Meyer can be fired for cause, and not collect his buyout, if he does this (bold for emphasis):
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. For purposes of this section ... a “known violation” shall mean a violation or an allegation of a violation of Title IX that Coach is aware of or has reasonable cause to believe is taking place or may have taken place.
What the head coach knew, and when, is still unproven.
Smith spent six seasons as Meyer’s receivers coach at Ohio State. Smith’s ex-wife, Courtney, has accused him of repeated domestic violence, back to at least 2009. Courtney Smith says she spoke with Meyer’s wife, Shelley, about Zach Smith’s abuse in 2015.
Courtney Smith also shared text messages that convinced veteran reporter Brett McMurphy that Shelley Meyer had offered Courtney Smith her sympathy and support. “He scares me,” one text message reads in part.
Urban Meyer has acknowledged knowing of a 2009 allegation against Zach Smith, who then worked under him at Florida. The head coach said experts investigated that case and that he learned “what was reported wasn’t actually what happened.”
Courtney Smith believes Urban Meyer also knew of her 2015 allegations against Zach Smith before they came to public light in July 2018. She made several other complaints to police in 2015, 2016, and 2017, and it’s unclear whether Meyer or Ohio State knew about those.
Whether Ohio State could try to apply that clause in Meyer’s contract is unclear.
Courtney Smith said Zach Smith hasn’t physically abused her since 2015 (though she’s since alleged he was once banging on her door at 1:30 a.m.), well before Meyer signed the 2018 extension that includes this language about reporting violations.
It’s not clear if the contract provision could be retroactive. It’s not known whether Ohio State might consider pre-2018 violations as subject to the extension.
The contract clause leaves some question about whether Meyer’s reporting requirements apply to possible Title IX violations, school policy violations, or both.
The clause requires Meyer to report it when he has “reasonable cause” to think a violation “may have taken place,” not specifying when the event in question happened.
A full copy of Meyer’s new contract is here, via Eleven Warriors.
If Ohio State moved to fire Meyer with cause and save $38 million, it could kick off a legal battle in civil court.
There are a couple of high-profile fights ongoing between fired coaches and schools that have sought to fire them for cause and not pay their buyouts. Louisville is battling with former basketball coach Rick Pitino, who’s already sued, and UConn is doing the same with former basketball coach Kevin Ollie, who’s threatened to sue.
Those schools accuse their former coaches of NCAA violations, and neither’s situation is the same as Meyer’s at Ohio State.
Not all coaches who are fired with cause then sue their former schools. In other cases, parties have reached settlements that have paid out some but not all of the coach’s potential buyout money. After Florida fired football coach Jim McElwain amid 2017 turmoil, the school agreed to pay him $7.5 million of an anticipated $12.9 million.