Ohio State University football coach and three-time national championship winner Urban Meyer is on paid leave as the school investigates exactly what he knew about the spousal abuse allegations leveled against his longtime assistant.
Courtney Smith, ex-wife of former Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith, spoke to Stadium sports network, outlining accusations that Zach Smith on various occasions threw her against a wall, picked her up by her neck, took a golf club to her car and broke her windshield after a recruiting dinner.
This came on top of emotional, verbal and psychological abuse, as well as attempts to financially drain her, she told the network. The abuse began in 2009, she said. Through his attorney, Zach Smith has denied the allegations.
Courtney Smith said she made Meyer’s wife, Shelley, aware of the alleged abuse and Shelley Meyer said she would speak to her husband, but Courtney Smith did not follow up to find out whether Urban Meyer had been informed.
“In 2015, I came forward with it. I told Shelley. I sent her some pictures. I spoke to her on the phone,” Courtney Smith told Stadium.
Protection order and ouster
Zach Smith was fired July 23 after he was served with a civil protection order. The order, signed July 20, is effective until 2023 and prohibits him from going within 500 feet of his ex-wife.
Meyer has said the protection order had “a little bit” to do with Zach Smith’s ouster, but that the decision to ax him was a “group effort.”
Ohio State, already embroiled in alleged sex abuse scandals involving a now-deceased athletics doctor and a diving coach, said it is investigating the issue. A later statement said the school’s board of trustees formed an “independent board working group” to direct the investigative team.
Ryan Day, the team’s offensive coordinator, will serve as head football coach during Urban Meyer’s leave.
Ohio State’s football season kicks off September 1 with a home game against Oregon State. The university said Thursday that, until further notice, football practices would be closed to the media, and no coaches or players would be available for interviews.
“We are focused on supporting our players and on getting to the truth as expeditiously as possible,” a university statement said.
Meyer said in a statement that he and athletic director Gene Smith concurred that putting him on leave would expedite the investigation.
“This allows the team to conduct training camp with minimal distraction. I eagerly look forward to the resolution of this matter,” he said.
Allegations in 2009
Meyer has acknowledged knowing about an incident involving the Smiths in 2009, when Meyer and Zach Smith coached at the University of Florida.
In that incident, Courtney Smith told Stadium, Zach Smith came home inebriated with a female co-worker and asked if the co-worker could spend the night. Courtney Smith, pregnant with the couple’s child, said she couldn’t and drove the co-worker home, she told Stadium. When she got back to the house, she found Zach Smith in bed and demanded he sleep on the couch, and an argument ensued, she said.
“He literally picked me up by my shirt and threw me up against the wall,” Courtney Smith said.
She dropped the charges against her then-husband under pressure from his family and an attorney who represented members of the football team, she told Stadium.
“I truly believed he would never do it again,” she said.
Meyer said he and Shelley Meyer “actually both got involved because of our relationship with that family and advised counseling and wanted to help as we moved forward.”
The 2015 allegations
Zach Smith, grandson of the Hall of Fame former Ohio State head coach Earle Bruce, and his wife moved to the Columbus area in 2012, and “everything went out of control,” Courtney Smith told Stadium. She felt the pressure of his job forced him into a toxic lifestyle, and he became abusive when questioned, she said.
Courtney Smith separated from him in 2015 after eight years of marriage, hoping it would end the abuse, but it didn’t, she said. In the 2015 incident, Zach Smith came to her house wanting to take their son, but it wasn’t his parenting night. She told him no, she recalled.
“When I stood up to him, he didn’t like it. He took me and shoved me up against the wall with his hands around my neck – something he did very often. My daughter was clinging to my leg,” she told Stadium.
She called police after he left with their son, but Zach Smith was never charged, she said. “I don’t know what happened,” she added.
At a news conference last week, Meyer said he was unaware of the 2015 allegations.
“I got a text last night that something happened in 2015, and there was nothing,” Meyer told reporters. “I don’t know who creates a story like that.”
Lawyer: Police will back Zach Smith’s story
The abuse allegations became public July 23, when college football reporter Brett McMurphy posted details of the alleged 2009 and 2015 incidents to Facebook.
Attorney Brad Koffel, who is representing Zach Smith, said his client desires to be transparent but that he would not be telling his side of the story to the media.
“It will only be after he and his ex-wife are sworn in to testify. Once he gets his chance to tell his side of events, don’t be surprised when it is corroborated by every police who ever responded to Ms. Smith’s calls,” Koffel said.
Courtney Smith told Stadium she didn’t come forward sooner because her husband threatened her. After abusing her, he would often take her phone and would threaten to hurt her or take the kids if she went to police, she said. His family urged her not to call police, saying he would lose his job and send the family into financial turmoil, she said.
In short, she was too frightened to come forward, she said.
When she did divulge the abuse, one of the people she confided in was Shelley Meyer, she said. Stadium and McMurphy both have reported text exchanges between Courtney Smith and Shelley Meyer in which Courtney Smith details the abuse allegations. McMurphy reports Courtney Smith also told the wives of other Ohio State football coaches and athletic officials.
In her Stadium interview, Courtney Smith said that after she told Shelley Meyer of the abuse in 2015, Meyer said she had to tell her husband. Courtney Smith supported the move, she said, because she was concerned that Zach Smith was in a position of mentoring young men.
Shelley Meyer never told her whether she had informed the Ohio State head coach, Courtney Smith said, but Urban Meyer would ask her questions – How are you doing? Is everything OK? – that led her to believe the coach’s wife had conveyed the allegations.
Asked directly if she felt Urban Meyer knew of his assistant’s alleged behavior, Courtney Smith told Stadium, “I believe he does.”
Meyer has one of the best college football winning percentages of all time, with 188 wins and only 34 losses in 17 years. He coached the Bowling Green Falcons and Utah Utes before winning two national championships with the Florida Gators. He won a third national championship, with Ohio State, in 2015.
Meyer took the helm at Ohio State, one of the country’s top programs, from Luke Fickell, a longtime Ohio State assistant who ascended to the top job for a year after the once-heralded championship coach Jim Tressel resigned. An NCAA investigation found Tressel knew several players, including his star quarterback, had swapped memorabilia for tattoos and other benefits, but failed to report it. The Buckeyes vacated 12 wins from their 2010 season after the episode.
Ohio State athletics came under fire again twice last month. A lawsuit naming the Ohio State University Diving Club accuses former coach William Bohonyi of sexually preying on two divers, one of them a minor. In a separate matter, dozens of former male athletes from 14 Ohio State teams accused former school doctor Richard Strauss of sexual misconduct. Strauss killed himself in 2005.
CNN’s Jill Martin, Madison Park, Sheena Jones and Wayne Sterling contributed to this report.