Meyer put on leave
Thirty-two years ago, Earle Bruce gave Urban Meyer his start in college football as a graduate assistant coach at Ohio State.
Now, Meyer’s handling of domestic abuse allegations involving Bruce’s grandson has put his stellar career in peril.
Ohio State placed Meyer on paid administrative leave as head football coach on Wednesday after reports surfaced that appeared to contradict his contention he did not know in 2015 that receivers coach Zach Smith — Bruce’s grandson — had been accused by his now ex-wife of abuse.
“The university is conducting an investigation into these allegations,” Ohio State said in a statement released early Wednesday evening. “We are focused on supporting our players and on getting the truth as expeditiously as possible.”
Ohio State has appointed offensive coordinator Ryan Day to serve as acting coach during the investigation; the team’s fall camp begins Friday.
“(Athletic director) Gene (Smith) and I agree that being on leave during this inquiry will facilitate its completion,” Meyer said in the OSU statement. “This allows the team to conduct training camp with minimal distraction. I eagerly look forward to the resolution of this matter.”
Meyer, 54, has a 73-8 record at Ohio State, including the inaugural 2014 College Football Playoff championship. He has not had more than two losses in any season.
Meyer’s overall record as head coach, which also includes stops at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, is 177-31, including two national titles at Florida. His winning percentage of .851 ranks behind only Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy among Division I coaches who coached for at least 10 years.
When Bruce was Ohio State's coach, he hired Meyer in 1986 as a graduate assistant. Meyer later served under him as wide receivers coach at Colorado State. Meyer revered Bruce, who died in April, as a second father, and he watched Zach Smith grow up.
Smith played for Meyer as a walk-on at Bowling Green and began his coaching career as an intern at Florida. He was the last remaining assistant coach from Meyer’s original 2012 Ohio State staff.
But Meyer fired Smith on July 23, three days after Smith’s ex-wife, Courtney Smith, filed a civil protection order against him. Smith had been charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing in May.
EXCLUSIVE: Longtime Urban Meyer assistant Zach Smith's ex-wife, Courtney Smith, opens up about reported domestic violence and what she believes Meyer knew. pic.twitter.com/dNWA9x2F4y— Stadium (@WatchStadium) August 1, 2018
Meyer said at the Big Ten football media gathering last week in Chicago that he was aware of a 2009 incident when both were at Florida in which Zach Smith was charged with aggravated domestic battery. Meyer said last week that he and his wife, Shelley, worked with the couple and encouraged counseling.
Meyer added, however, that he had no knowledge of an October 2015 incident in which Powell police were called to Courtney Smith’s home one day after an alleged assault by Zach Smith. No charges were filed, and two weeks later Courtney Smith filed for divorce, which was finalized in 2016.
“I can’t say it didn’t happen because I wasn’t there,” Meyer said on July 24 of the 2015 incident. “I was never told about anything. Never anything came to light. I never had a conversation about it. So I know nothing about that. The first I heard about it was last night. I asked people back at the office to call and see what happened, and they came back and said they know nothing about it.”
But in a video posted Wednesday to the sports website Stadium, Courtney Smith said she sent pictures of her injuries via text message to Shelley Meyer and discussed her troubled relationship with her ex-husband on the phone with her.
“Shelley said she was going to have to tell Urban,” Courtney Smith told the website in a taped interview. “I said, ‘That’s fine. You should tell Urban. We can’t have somebody like this coaching young men.’”
Courtney Smith said Shelley Meyer later asked how she was doing and offered her help, but she did not know for sure whether Shelley told her husband about her alleged abuse.
“I do believe he knew and instead he chose to believe the abuser and enable the abuser,” Courtney Smith said.
Courtney Smith could not be reached to comment. Her attorney, Jessica Mager, declined to comment when approached by The Dispatch at Mager's home.
Whether Shelley Meyer did tell her husband, and what he did if she did, is likely to be key to whether Urban Meyer is reinstated.
Asked last week about his relationship with Shelley, Meyer said that “she’s always weighed in” on important matters.
“That’s my best friend and soul mate,” Meyer said. “She’s been right there with everything — not necessarily who’s going to carry the ball on third down. ... We chat about people. She’s got a great spirit and a great love of people. Her heart is always in the right place. She’s phenomenal. Absolutely, I rely on her.”
Court documents unsealed on Wednesday after a request was filed by The Dispatch provide some details about the Smiths’ marriage and divorce. In her affidavit filed Dec. 18, 2015, Courtney Smith alleges a tumultuous marriage in which “Zach has made threats toward me and has become physically violent.” She added that he threatened to withhold a portion of his employment bonus from her unless she withdrew her domestic violence protection order filed five months earlier.
According to documents, the divorce file was sealed “to protect certain personal interests which, if published, may negatively affect (Zach Smith’s) occupation, the parties’ financial circumstances and the children’s well-being.”
“The stalking and harassment never stopped,” Courtney Smith said in court documents. “He never followed the shared parenting plan and would tell me he didn’t have to because he knew I couldn’t afford to pay for an attorney. He would corner me in my laundry while groping me and pulling his pants down and begging for sex.”
She described hidden cameras she found in her home, which she said were used by Zach Smith to watch her, their two children and her boyfriend.
National college football reporter Brett McMurphy, formerly of ESPN, reported in a Facebook post Wednesday that Courtney Smith had told him that several wives of OSU football personnel knew about the alleged abuse.
“All the (coaches) wives knew,” Smith told McMurphy. “They all did. Every single one.”
The Columbus attorney who represented Zach Smith in the 2015 matter said he did not share details of the allegation with Urban Meyer or other OSU officials. Larry James said it would have been a breach of attorney-client privilege to do so.
“Do I have any reason to believe that the university or coach would have known of that situation? The answer is no,” James said.
Bradley Koffel, Zach Smith’s current attorney, said his client kept Meyer in the dark about his legal brushes. Koffel said the May criminal trespass charge came after Smith dropped off the couple’s son at Courtney’s home instead of at a different site when he couldn’t reach his ex-wife.
A Powell police officer told Zach Smith five months earlier that he could no longer go to Courtney’s home to drop off their children, but the Smiths’ shared parenting plan allowed for him to do so.
“I can tell you as a matter of fact,” Koffel texted to The Dispatch on Wednesday, “that Zach never told Coach Meyer about the 2018 criminal trespass even after I told Zach, ‘Urban shouldn’t have to hear about this in the news someday.’
“I now understand why Zach compartmentalized the info — to protect Urban. You cannot impute every family argument involving an employee and his wife to the CEO of a company or the head coach of a large football program.
“Also, when the police show up and walk away after investigating the accusations, that also factors into what action, if any, an employer should take against their employee.”
Dispatch reporters Tim May and Dean Narciso contributed to this story.