A 28-23 Rose Bowl win over Washington on New Year’s Day was Urban Meyer’s last game as the head coach at Ohio State.
As it stands now, it was Meyer’s last game ever as a head coach, though his retirement announcement in December doesn’t mean that for sure. He’s previously retired and un-retired twice, and he could get plenty of jobs in the future if he wanted them.
Now, Meyer will shift into a role as an assistant athletic director and teacher of a “character and leadership” class at Ohio State. His offensive coordinator, Ryan Day, will take over as the program’s full-time head coach, a role he’s shifted into already in recent weeks.
Meyer’s departure from the sideline didn’t come from nowhere. If you’re catching up, here’s what we’ve learned the last six months.
The closest thing to an official reason for Meyer’s retirement is his health.
“The decision was a result of cumulative events. And health number one,” he told reporters when he announced his retirement in December, shortly after a Big Ten Championship win. “The fact that we have an elite coach on our staff [in Day]. “The fact that our program is very healthy. We’ve recruited very well. All played a significant role in this.
“And I can’t say, ‘This is the reason, this is the reason.’ But there’s cumulative reasons that we’re at this point.”
Meyer has for years dealt with headaches resulting from an arachnoid cyst in his brain. He has not looked good on the sideline at different points, in ways both typical of big-time coaches and not. He has been public about the toll coaching has taken on his mental health. There wasn’t one cause for his exit, but he’s been most explicit about this one.
Also, Meyer just finished a season that raised more questions than ever about his ability to lead Ohio State. His handling of abuse allegations against a former assistant coach led to a three-game suspension to start the season.
School-commissioned investigators decided he mishandled domestic abuse allegations against his former receivers coach, Zach Smith. But they didn’t think Meyer’s conduct was egregious enough to merit firing one of the most successful coaches in college football history. They didn’t think he intended to mishandle allegations.
That’s a condensed version of that story. The longer version follows.
Zach Smith’s now ex-wife, Courtney Smith, has repeatedly accused him of domestic violence going back to 2009, reporting revealed in July.
In 2009, Zach Smith — then a staffer under Meyer at Florida — went to a party at Meyer’s house. Smith came home with a woman co-worker who had been drinking and planned to have her stay on the Smiths’ couch, according to investigators. They said Courtney Smith “strenuously objected” and drove the woman to her home. That began a disagreement. Courtney called 911 and alleged that Zach picked her up and threw her against a wall. Police arrested Zach for aggravated battery and later dropped the charge.
Meyer says Zach and Courtney met with him at his Florida office and told him Zach’s arrest was based on false information Courtney gave to police. Courtney denies that she attended that meeting, and Zach also recalled to OSU’s investigators that she wasn’t there. To the investigative team, Courtney Smith denied recanting her allegations. She has never walked back any allegations in public interviews, either. Meyer has stuck to this part of his story and maintained he met with both, despite numerous claims to the contrary.
No charges were ultimately filed against Zach for the 2009 incident. When Meyer hired him at Ohio State in 2011, a university background check didn’t turn up an arrest. Meyer didn’t tell anyone else at Ohio State about it, because — he told investigators — charges weren’t filed, and he didn’t think Zach had actually committed domestic violence.
Between October and November 2015, police twice went to Courtney’s home to investigate abuse allegations against Zach.
That year, Courtney texted with Meyer’s wife, Shelley, about Zach. Shelley expressed sympathy and fear for Courtney in her own messages, and Courtney has said Shelley told her she’d inform the head coach about Courtney’s allegations. Both Meyers maintained to OSU’s investigators that Shelley never did inform Urban about her text messages. But Meyer has acknowledged, both in a public statement in early August and to investigators, that he did know of an allegation in 2015.
In December 2017, police gave Zach a trespass warning after Courtney reported neighbors had seen Zach banging on the windows of her home at 1:30 a.m.
The Smiths had been separated since June 2015. They formally divorced in 2016.
Meyer kept Zach Smith on staff until July, after a judge issued a protection order to keep Zach away from Courtney.
On July 20, an Ohio judge granted Courtney’s request for a protection order to keep Zach away from her. In her petition for the order, Courtney described a pattern of harassment and stalking across years. Zach has contested that order.
Ohio State’s investigation found that Zach Smith hadn’t informed Meyer of the trespass warning the previous December. Meyer told investigators that he considered both the protection order and the trespass warning when he decided to fire Smith on July 23.
Adding to Meyer’s problems, the day after firing Smith, he appeared to lie about his knowledge of a 2015 abuse allegation.
At Big Ten Media Days in Chicago on July 24, a reporter asked Meyer about a 2015 allegation against the now-former Buckeyes receivers coach. Meyer responded:
2015, I got a text late last night something happened in 2015. And there was nothing. Once again, there’s nothing — once again, I don’t know who creates a story like that.
Though it wasn’t publicly known at the time, Meyer did know about a 2015 allegation, as he’s since said. There wasn’t “nothing.”
Meyer went on administrative leave Aug. 1, following a report that he had known about allegations — contrary to what he’d just told the Big Ten press corps a week earlier. OSU opened an investigation.
Three weeks later, on Aug. 22, an investigative report answered some questions, but the university still decided to suspend the head coach into September.
Investigators found that Meyer didn’t lie when he said there was “nothing” about a 2015 allegation. Drawing on text messages and personal interviews, the investigators concluded that Meyer was referring specifically to a police report (corrected after Meyer’s comments) that formerly indicated Zach Smith had been arrested on felony charges in 2015.
“I made a mistake. I did not lie,” Meyer told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi upon returning from his suspension.
Investigators didn’t fully excuse Meyer’s comments. They wrote that his comments “swept more broadly than the falsely reported arrest,” and that the coach had “falsely slated he lacked knowledge of all relevant events regarding alleged domestic violence in 2015.”
Perhaps more importantly, the investigators found that Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith didn’t follow proper reporting protocols when they learned of allegations in 2015. But the investigators believed that the head coach and AD “did so based upon a good faith belief that they did not have sufficient information to trigger a reporting obligation or initiate a disciplinary action.”
Investigators believed Meyer’s contract required him to report domestic violence allegations to AD Smith. Meyer and Smith both felt the “absence of formal law enforcement or court action” in 2015 meant their reporting requirements weren’t triggered.
Ohio State decided not to fire Meyer, despite a clause in his contract that could have voided a $38 million buyout if Meyer was found to have not met reporting standards.
The report made clear that OSU’s head coach kept Zach Smith on his staff despite years of behavior that would get most people fired.
The investigators Ohio State hired produced a report that detailed — in addition to a handful of abuse allegations — an affair with an office secretary, a history of substance abuse, lackluster job performance and lateness, and a $600 bill at a strip club with Florida high school coaches during a recruiting trip. The investigators depicted a deeply troubled staffer who shouldn’t have had his job.
Meyer had what investigators call a “cherished relationship” with Earle Bruce, a former Ohio State head coach and Zach Smith’s grandfather. The investigators wrote that Meyer’s fondness for Bruce “may also have diminished his ability to clearly process and assess the severity of Zach’s problems or to appropriately discipline him, despite numerous red flags raised by Zach’s behavior over the years.”
This is the primary rationale Meyer has given for his suspension
“I made a commitment to try to help,” Meyer told Rinaldi. “Obviously, I look back now, and went too far in trying to help someone.”
Additively, Ohio State didn’t think all of this was worth firing Meyer. But the university wasn’t willing to justify not giving him any suspension at all.
The coach called his suspension “firm, harsh, tough,” and, when asked specifically by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi, “fair.”
Meyer returned, and Ohio State won a bunch (as usual). But signs mounted that his tenure would come to a close soon.
He’d already been talking to media about his health problems. Ohio State was successful but not as dominant as many thought it would be, with a shockingly mediocre defense. Former blue-chip recruits had failed to develop enough to provide answers at positions where OSU was struggling, and Meyer’s coaching staff was packed with friends who didn’t seem to be performing well. His handling of Smith had already cast doubt on his ability to make difficult staffing decisions, and questions on that front only intensified.
Next to all of that, the timing seemed right for Meyer to leave in two key ways. The first was that he had a successor he liked, Day, already on his staff. The second was that the Rose Bowl provided a chance to leave on a high note.
It’s not the Playoff, where Ohio State would rather be, but a Meyer exit after a Rose Bowl win mirrors Bob Stoops’ retirement from Oklahoma after a Sugar Bowl win following 2016. Given the way the last year unfolded, he’ll surely take it as a way to leave.