COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State football Coach Urban Meyer will be suspended without pay for the first three games of the upcoming season because of concerns over his handling of domestic violence allegations lodged against a longtime assistant and family friend, the school announced Wednesday night.
A university investigation found that Meyer and Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith failed to inform the school’s compliance department about accusations made against former assistant coach Zach Smith in 2015 and instead awaited the conclusion of a law enforcement investigation that ultimately produced no criminal charges. The university also suspended Gene Smith for two weeks.
The school’s investigation — led by Mary Jo White, a former U.S. attorney and former chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission — also concluded that while Meyer didn’t cover up wrongdoing by his assistant, he didn’t act forcefully enough in the face of repeated signs of misconduct by the former receivers coach, which included a 2014 incident in which he took high school coaches to a strip club in Miami while on a recruiting trip representing the school.
Meyer, reading from a written statement during a news conference late Wednesday, acknowledged his loyalty to former Ohio State coach Earl Bruce — Meyer’s mentor and Zach Smith’s grandfather — likely played a role in how he dealt with Smith, who was also accused by his ex-wife of assaulting her in 2009 and arrested on a charge of driving under the influence in 2013. Meyer fired Zach Smith last month, after Smith’s ex-wife obtained a protective order against him, bringing the previous abuse allegations to light.
“I followed my heart and not my head,” Meyer said. “At each juncture, I gave Zach Smith the benefit of the doubt. . . . I should have demanded more from him and recognized red flags. . . . I should have done more, and I am sorry for that.”
The decision capped a marathon day in Columbus, as Ohio State President Michael V. Drake and university trustees met behind closed doors for more than 10 hours to discuss Meyer’s future at Ohio State. The meeting began just after 9 a.m. and ended just before the news conference after 9 p.m. A crowd of journalists, fans and gawkers gathered near a loading dock behind the Longaberger Alumni House — where the meeting took place — and watched with rapt attention as Urban Meyer, his wife, Shelley Meyer, and Athletic Director Smith quickly entered the building at various points as the day wore on.
Meyer will miss games against Oregon State on Sept. 1, Rutgers on Sept. 8 and TCU on Sept. 15, although he will be permitted to coach the team during the weeks leading up to the games against Rutgers and TCU. He will return to the sidelines on Sept. 22 against Tulane. In his absence, the team will continue to be led by offensive coordinator Ryan Day.
The decision caps weeks of turmoil for one of college football’s most prominent programs and one of the sport’s most successful coaches. Meyer, 54, has won three national championships, two at Florida and the 2014 title at Ohio State, and has led the Buckeyes to a 73-8 record in six seasons. After signing a contract extension earlier this year, Meyer is set to earn $7.6 million this season.
The controversy began in July, when Brett McMurphy — a former ESPN college football reporter — began publishing stories on his Facebook page about domestic abuse allegations made against receivers coach Smith, who had played for Meyers at Bowling Green and also worked under Meyers at Florida.
On July 23, McMurphy reported that Courtney Smith had obtained a protective order against Zach Smith and that, in 2009, police in Gainesville, Fla., arrested Zach Smith on a charge of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman. Courtney Smith declined to pursue the charge, and police closed the case. The same day, Ohio State fired Zach Smith, who had been making $340,000 per year.
Then McMurphy published a story detailing a 2015 investigation in suburban Columbus after Courtney Smith called police and alleged years of abuse by her then-husband. Police in Powell, Ohio, ultimately closed the case without a criminal charge.
At a news conference late last month, Meyer acknowledged awareness of the 2009 arrest and said he had been told the initial allegation by Courtney Smith wasn’t accurate and that he and his wife had helped arrange counseling for the couple. Meyer denied knowledge of the 2015 allegation, however.
“In 2015, there was nothing. I don’t know who creates a story like that,” Meyer said.
The investigators concluded that Meyer’s statements that day were not an attempt to mislead reporters, White said Wednesday, but rather because of confusion caused, in part, by a mistake by McMurphy, who initially incorrectly reported that Zach Smith had been arrested for domestic violence in 2015, which was not the case.
On Aug. 1, McMurphy published a third story, this time featuring an interview with Courtney Smith and text messages and photographs of herself, with bruises on her neck and arm, she said she exchanged with Shelley Meyer in 2015. Ohio State placed Meyer on leave and commissioned the investigation.
During the news conference, a reporter asked Meyer whether he had any message for Courtney Smith, who has accused him of ignoring her pleas for help sent in text messages to his wife in 2015.
“I have a message for everyone involved in this: I’m sorry that we’re in this situation. I’m just sorry,” said Meyer, who then claimed he had been unaware of the texts sent by Courtney Smith to his wife.
During the news conference, Ohio State fans sat among reporters, reading from copies of a three-page summary of the report and videotaping the proceedings with cellphones.
Explaining what had taken so long to come to a decision, Drake, the university president, cited “a very difficult and complicated situation.” He said, “We wanted to be fair. We wanted to be equitable. We wanted to be just. We wanted to be appropriate.”
Once the news conference concluded, the growing crowd of fans who waited outside for Meyer finally got a glimpse. As the coach emerged through the loading dock toward his car, his wife at his side, fans shouted, “We love you, Coach Meyer!”
Hobson reported from Washington.