Because Urban Meyer believed Zach Smith never committed domestic violence against his ex-wife, and because investigators ultimately believed that Meyer was sincere in that belief, he’s still the head football coach at Ohio State.
Yet because Meyer employed Smith as Ohio State’s wide receivers coach for more than six years, overlooking a pattern of off-field allegations and transgressions that dated back to before he was even hired at Ohio State, Meyer was suspended for the first three games of the Buckeyes’ upcoming season – and some believe that wasn’t enough.
In a press conference at the Longaberger Alumni House on Wednesday night, shortly after his suspension was announced, Meyer finally acknowledged what many had already believed: that his decision to employ and continue to employ Smith, despite his shortcomings off and even on the field, was – in Meyer’s words – “likely impacted” by his loyalty to Smith’s grandfather, former Ohio State head football coach Earle Bruce, who Meyer revered as a mentor.
“I followed my heart and not my head,” Meyer said. “I fell short in pursuing full information because at each juncture, I gave Zach Smith the benefit of the doubt.”
Meyer said in Wednesday night’s press conference that if he had been aware of all the off-field offenses found by the investigation that Smith had committed or been accused of, he would have taken action against Smith sooner than July 23, when he finally did fire Smith after learning that Smith’s ex-wife, Courtney, filed a domestic violence civil protection order against him.
“I did not know everything about Zach Smith, which was what Zach Smith was doing, and I'm pleased that the report made this very clear,” Meyer said. “I wish I would have known more. If I would have known more, I would have taken action much quicker.”
“I followed my heart and not my head. I fell short in pursuing full information because at each juncture, I gave Zach Smith the benefit of the doubt.”– Urban Meyer
To some extent, the findings of Ohio State’s investigation – released by the university after Wednesday night’s announcement – backed up Meyer’s claim. The investigation found no evidence that Meyer was aware of Smith’s arrest for operating a vehicle while impaired while 2013, or that he was aware of Smith’s May 12 citation for criminal trespassing until it was reported publicly in July. The investigation also found no evidence that Meyer was aware that Smith “engaged in a sexual relationship with a secretary on the football staff who did not report to him,” “took sexually explicit photographs of himself in the OSU football facilities and at other locations,” and “had sex-related toys delivered to him at the OSU athletics facilities,” all allegations that were reported publicly by Stadium’s Brett McMurphy last Friday.
Perhaps most importantly, and why Meyer is still employed, Ohio State’s investigation did not find that Meyer condoned or deliberately covered up domestic violence allegations against Smith, and came to the conclusion “that if he ever came to learn or believe that Zach Smith had physically abused his wife, Coach Meyer would have fired Zach Smith or any other coach on the spot.”
At the same time, the investigation found that Meyer was aware of several transgressions by and accusations made against Smith, starting with his 2009 arrest when he was a graduate assistant at Florida. Meyer failed to inform anyone at Ohio State of that arrest, which he “explained that he did not do so because no charges were filed and because he believed Zach Smith had not engaged in domestic violence in 2009,” before hiring him as his wide receivers coach in December 2011.
The investigation found that Meyer was aware that Smith “ran up a significant bill at a local strip club along with another OSU football coach and one or more high school coaches” during a recruiting trip in Miami in 2014, and warned Smith that he would be fired if it happened again, but did not report the incident to Ohio State compliance.
The investigation found that “during and after his divorce proceedings in 2015 and early 2016, Zach Smith’s job performance suffered, and he was regularly late to practice and workouts,” while he also “failed to appear at scheduled recruiting visits at various high schools, despite reporting internally that he had.” Meyer, once again, warned Smith that he would be fired if that behavior continued, but did not do so even after athletic director Gene Smith suggested that Meyer should consider replacing Zach Smith.
The investigation also found that “based on medical advice and direction from Coach Meyer, Zach Smith was admitted to a drug treatment facility for addiction to a stimulant prescription drug used to treat ADHD,” but that Meyer did not make Gene Smith aware of that.
Any of those offenses could have been grounds for Meyer to fire Zach Smith much sooner than he did – beyond the question of whether he ever should have hired Zach in the first place – but until his termination last month, Zach never faced any real discipline for his off-field actions.
Meyer acknowledged that he was more lenient on Zach than he should have been.
“I should have demanded more from him and recognized red flags. I needed to show more care and concern for the entirety of the situation and the people involved,” Meyer said. “I should have been more demanding of him in the same way I am of my players, other staff members and myself. I should have done more, and I am sorry for that.”
Ultimately, it’s Meyer’s responsibility to oversee the actions of everyone involved with the Ohio State football program – including his assistant coaches – and he acknowledged as much in accepting his suspension on Wednesday.
“I am fully aware that I'm ultimately responsible for the situation that has harmed the university as a whole and our department of athletics and our football program,” Meyer said.
“I should have been more demanding of him in the same way I am of my players, other staff members and myself. I should have done more, and I am sorry for that.”– Urban Meyer
When asked whether he felt he deserved to be suspended, though, Meyer didn’t directly answer the question.
“I trust and support our president,” Meyer said, referring to university president Michael Drake, who made the decision to suspend Meyer in conjunction with Ohio State's Board of Trustees.
He also didn’t give a direct response when asked whether he had any message for Courtney Smith.
“Well, I have a message for everyone involved in this: I'm sorry that we’re in this situation,” Meyer said. “I'm just sorry we are in this situation.”
Those questions, and the way he answered them, will remain part of the conversation in the days and weeks to come as Meyer’s actions, and Ohio State’s chosen course of discipline, will likely continue to draw scrutiny for some time.
While some will continue to believe that Meyer should have been fired, and others will continue to believe that Meyer shouldn’t have been suspended at all, he ultimately should be back on the field and coaching his team in a game in less than a month.
Following the findings of Ohio State’s investigation, though, what can no longer be denied by even Meyer himself is that his decision to employ Zach Smith as long as he did was a mistake.
“There were red flags, and I wish I had known and I wish I did a better job of finding things out,” Meyer said. “I wish I was told more things. Ultimately, that is part of the job you're ultimately responsible to represent this incredible university and, man, I wish I had done more. I wish I'd have known more.”
That mistake was likely driven by misguided loyalty – even the investigation concluded that “Meyer’s cherished relationship with Earle Bruce may also have diminished his ability to clearly process and assess the severity of Zach’s problems or to appropriately discipline him” – but it is a mistake that will likely remain attached to his reputation for the rest of his career.