COLUMBUS, OHIO – Urban Meyer was suspended by Ohio State on Wednesday for the first three games of the season for mishandling domestic violence accusations, punishing one of the sport’s most prominent leaders for keeping an assistant on staff for several years after that coach’s wife accused him of abuse.
The move followed a two-week investigation into how Meyer reacted to allegations that former Buckeyes assistant Zach Smith abused his ex-wife, Courtney Smith. Zach Smith was fired last month after she asked a judge for a protective order.
Courtney Smith alleged her husband shoved her against a wall and put his hands around her neck in 2015. Zach Smith has never been criminally charged with domestic violence. The university put Meyer on paid leave and began its investigation after Courtney Smith spoke out publicly, sharing text messages and photos she traded in 2015 with Meyer’s wife, Shelley Meyer. Shelley Meyer is a registered nurse and instructor at Ohio State.
“I followed my heart and not my head,” Meyer said, quickly reading a written statement to reporters during a news conference after his punishment was announced. “I should have demanded more from him and recognized red flags.”
Trustees discussed the decision to punish Meyer in a marathon meeting of more than 12 hours Wednesday while Meyer waited in the building. Athletic director Gene Smith — who is not related to Zach or Courtney Smith — was also suspended without pay from Aug. 31 through Sept. 16.
Ohio State’s investigation concluded Meyer and the athletic director mismanaged Zach Smith’s misconduct and kept him even though he was not an appropriate role model for OSU student-athletes. The review found neither Meyer nor Gene Smith condoned or covered up the alleged actions by the wide receivers coach.
Investigators found that Meyer and the athletic director failed to report the claims against the coach and seemed to misunderstand their obligation to tell compliance officials about alleged misconduct.
Both the athletic director and Meyer apologized and said they accepted the punishments, though Meyer said repeatedly that he did not fully know what was happening with the Smiths.
“I should have been aware of it,” Meyer said.
Meyer said he was not aware of the text messages Courtney Smith sent to his wife. When asked if he had a message for Courtney Smith, Meyer said: “I have a message for everyone involved in this: I’m sorry we’re in this situation.”
Meyer will miss Ohio State’s first three games against Oregon State, Rutgers and No. 16 TCU, though he will be allowed to coach practices leading into the Rutgers and TCU games.
Meyer insisted as the investigation began he followed proper protocols after learning of the 2015 accusations. But he also acknowledged lying to reporters a week earlier when he said he hadn’t heard of the incident until shortly before he fired Zach Smith.
Zach Smith’s attorney Brad Koffel said in a statement to USA Today that Meyer, Ohio State and Gene Smith were “collateral damage” for Courtney Smith’s desire to seek revenge her ex-husband.
“Zach Smith married a woman he should not have married,” Koffel said.
Zach Smith is the grandson of late Ohio State coach and Meyer mentor Earle Bruce. He has a charge of criminal trespass pending, and the Smiths are due in court next month for a hearing on a restraining order Courtney Smith was granted July 20.
Meyer said his loyalty to Bruce “likely impacted” how he treated Zach Smith over the years.
“I gave Zach Smith the benefit of the doubt,” Meyer said.
Mary Jo White, the former federal prosecutor, led the investigation. She said more than 40 witnesses were interviewed, some several times, and more than 60,000 electronic documents were reviewed. Investigators reviewed 10,000 text messages of Meyer’s and text messages and photos provided by Courtney Smith.
Meyer is heading into his seventh season at Ohio State, where he is 73-8 with a national title in 2014 and two Big Ten Conference championships.