Ohio State on Wednesday night suspended head football coach Urban Meyer three games for mishandling domestic violence accusations, punishing one of the sport’s most prominent leaders for keeping an assistant on staff for several years after the coach’s wife accused him of abuse.
The move followed a two-week investigation into how Meyer reacted to accusations 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. 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 from Aug. 31 through Sept. 16.
Ohio State’s investigation concluded Meyer and the athletic director failed to properly manage 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.
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 were’ in this situation.”
Meyer will miss Ohio State’s first three games against Oregon State, Rutgers and No. 16 TCU. Ryan Day will remain the interim coach.
Meyer insisted as the investigation began that 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 — the grandson of late Ohio State coach and Meyer mentor Earle Bruce — has never been criminally charged or convicted of abuse. 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.
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.
Ohio State’s Title IX sexual misconduct policy includes reporting allegations of domestic violence made against university employees. Violating that policy allows Meyer to be fired with cause, according to provisions placed in his contract when it was extended in April by two years. The deal through 2022 increased Meyer’s salary to $7.6 million in 2018, with annual 6 percent raises. Meyer has about $38 million left on his contract.
In 2009, Zach Smith was accused of aggravated battery on his pregnant wife while he was working a graduate assistant for Meyer at Florida. The charge was dropped because of insufficient evidence.
The Smiths separated in June 2015 and divorced in 2016.
Meyer is one of the most accomplished coaches in college football history, with three national championships and a 177-31 record in 16 seasons at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State, the team he grew up rooting for in Northeast Ohio.
Meyer won national championships with Florida in 2006 and ’08, but his teams also had more than two dozen players get into trouble with the law. He resigned twice at Florida, citing health reasons, first in the 2009 season after the Gators lost the Southeastern Conference championship game while trying to repeat as national champs. He changed his mind soon after and coached another season. The Gators went 8-5 in 2010, and afterward, Meyer stepped down for good.
Meyer was out of coaching for a season but was hired by Ohio State in November 2011. The Buckeyes had fired Jim Tressel, another national championship-winning coach, before that season for lying to the NCAA and university about rules violation committed by some of his players.
Since returning to coaching, Meyer’s program has been one of the most dominant in college football, and his players have mostly stayed out of major trouble.
The investigation cost $500,000 and was conducted by the national law firm Debevoise & Plimpton.
Ohio State began investigating Meyer while also facing three federal lawsuits about its response to allegations of groping, leering and other misconduct by a deceased athletic department doctor who treated wrestlers and other students for two decades. The lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by Dr. Richard Strauss say Ohio State facilitated the abuse by ignoring complaints.
Since Ohio State announced an independent investigation in April, more than 100 former students have come forward with accounts of sexual misconduct by Strauss. The allegations range from 1979 to 1997 and involve male athletes from 14 sports, as well as his work at the student health center and his off-campus medical office.
Ohio State Football Head Coach Urban Meyer will keep his job, but he will be suspended for the first three games of the 2018 season.
Meyer is suspended through September 2 and for the games on September 1, 8 and 15 without pay. Gene Smith is suspended without pay from August 31-September 16.
Ryan Day will remain the interim coach. He’ll coach the Buckeyes against Oregon State, Rutgers and TCU.
The University issued the following statement:
Although neither Urban Meyer nor Gene Smith condoned or covered up the alleged domestic abuse by Zach Smith, they failed to take sufficient management action relating to Zach Smith’s misconduct and retained an Assistant Coach who was not performing as an appropriate role model for OSU student-athletes. Permitting such misconduct to continue is not consistent with the values of the University and reflects poorly on Coach Meyer, Athletic Director Smith, and the University. Their handling of this matter did not exhibit the kind of leadership and high standards that we expect of our Athletic Director, Head Coach, Assistant Coaches and all on the football staff. Urban Meyer is suspended through September 2, 2018, and for the games on September 1, 8 and 15 without pay. Gene Smith is suspended without pay from August 31-September 16
The investigation into the matter was conducted by an outside firm and a six-member university committee.
Heading the firm’s investigation is Mary Jo White, the firm’s Senior Chair, and former chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and U.S. Attorney for Southern District of New York.
According to a release from Ohio State, “the Independent Investigatory Counsel interviewed more than 40 witnesses, some multiple times. They reviewed over 60,000 e-mails and 10,000 text messages, in addition to relevant media reports, police reports, court filings, the employment contracts of Coach Meyer and Athletic Director Smith, and relevant OSU rules and policies, NCAA and Big Ten rules, and applicable state and federal laws.”
Investigators heard testimony from both Zach Smith and his ex-wife, Courtney Smith.
Zach Smith has never been criminally charged or convicted.
Meyer initially told reporters at Big Ten Media Days on July 25 that he didn’t know anything about abuse allegations made by Courtney Smith in October 2015. In a statement released via Twitter , Meyer admitted that he knew about the 2015 incidents and insisted he followed proper protocol. He also admitted lying to reporters about it.
What Meyer knew and when he knew it became a question after college football writer Brett McMurphy reported that Courtney Smith had told Meyer’s wife Shelley about the 2015 incidents and shared pictures of injuries through text messages that she shared with McMurphy.
Smith denied assaulting his wife and said any physical injuries she might have suffered were the result of him defending himself. He said he discussed the 2015 allegations at the time with Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith.
Ohio State’s policy on sexual misconduct says anyone who supervises faculty, staff, students or volunteers has a duty to report “when they receive a disclosure of sexual misconduct or become aware of information that would lead a reasonable person to believe that sexual misconduct may have occurred involving anyone covered under this policy.”
A clause in Meyer’s new contract, which raised his salary to $7.6 million this year and runs through 2022, also requires him to “report to Ohio State’s Title IX athletics any known violations” of the sexual misconduct policy involving students, faculty or staff at the risk of being fired with cause.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Ohio State trustees on Wednesday began discussing the future of football coach Urban Meyer with Meyer and later Meyer’s wife seen entering the building where the meeting was underway.
Board Chairman Michael Gasser briefly called a meeting to order before the board went behind closed doors to consider whether Meyer should be punished for his handling of domestic abuse allegations against a former assistant coach.
The investigation centers on what Meyer knew and did about allegations of abuse against former wide receivers coach Zach Smith, who was fired July 23 after his ex-wife sought a protective order. Courtney Smith alleged her husband shoved her against a wall and put his hands around her neck in 2015, one of several alleged domestic incidents involving the couple. The Smiths separated in June 2015 and divorced in 2016 and Zach Smith has never been charged criminally for abuse.
“Countless hours have gone into conducting and supporting this comprehensive review,” Gasser said as the meeting opened.
Meyer arrived at Longaberger Alumni House on the school’s campus Wednesday morning, where the meeting was being held, about an hour after it started. His wife, Shelley, entered the building about five hours later, shortly before 3 p.m.
Dozens of reporters camped out ahead of time before trustees moved into execution session.
No timetable has been given for final resolution of the saga that has overshadowed the team’s preparation for its 2018 season, which begins Sept. 1.
Ohio State President Michael V. Drake will have the final say on whether Meyer is fired or faces other consequences.
Factfinders briefed the board on Monday. The trustees hired an outside law firm for $500,000 to do the investigation, which took two weeks.
Meyer has said he handled accusations properly when he found out about them, but acknowledged he lied to reporters at first when he said he hadn’t heard of the 2015 incident. Ohio State put Meyer under investigation after Courtney Smith went public, giving a reporter text messages and pictures she traded with Shelley Meyer in 2015.
Ohio State is also dealing with a scandal involving alleged sexual misconduct by an athletic doctor in the 1980s and 1990s, and allegations that a former diving coach sexually abused young divers several years ago.
On Tuesday, the university announced the creation of a new center to handle and respond to complaints by students, faculty and staff involving sexual harassment and domestic violence.