In his first press conference since completing his three-game suspension on Monday, Urban Meyer admitted that he made a mistake in hiring Zach Smith, and more specifically, in continuing to employ Smith in 2015 and beyond.
Placed on administrative leave and then suspended from the Ohio State football team for the entire month of August, while also not being allowed to coach in any of the Buckeyes’ first three games, Meyer spent more time than usual reflecting, and he said that was an “educational process” for him.
“I learned a great deal,” Meyer said.
But while Smith was fired in July, after Meyer learned that a civil protection order was filed against Smith by his wife, Courtney, and Meyer was suspended because “failed to take sufficient management action” regarding previous allegations of domestic violence against and other misconduct by Smith, Meyer does not believe he needs to make any other major changes to Ohio State’s football program – because he believes the program’s culture was already strong.
“For six-and-a-half years here, up until July of 2018, since we came back to Ohio State … academic performance has been elite,” Meyer said. “Football performance has been very good. Real Life Wednesdays, which we started, has taken on a world of its own about development of players, getting them ready for life after football. The honesty and integrity of our program has been very good.”
Meyer described his decision to continue to employ Smith in 2015 – when, in addition to Courtney Smith making domestic violence allegations against him, Zach Smith was late for several meetings and his performance at work declined, Meyer said – as “a window of time that I made an error” and “about trying to help a troubled employee with work-related issues.” Meyer said he was told by law enforcement in 2015 that Zach would not be charged with domestic violence, and that both he and athletic director Gene Smith told Zach that he would be “fired immediately” if they found out that he had committed domestic violence.
Still, many people have questioned whether Meyer took the allegations made against Zach seriously, or whether he needs to do more going forward to prove that he does take domestic violence seriously. Meyer was adamant on Monday, though, that he has always taken domestic violence seriously, since treating women with respect has always been one of his core values.
“Ever since I began as a head coach, even in more recent years, I would say every other day (we talk about domestic violence),” Meyer said. “Last night I talked to our team about it. We have ‘Power of the Unit’ messages to our players every Thursday, and I talk about domestic violence, Title IX, respect. When I say the word Title IX, our players respond back to me, ‘Respect.’ That’s how seriously we take this.”
Meyer said that two months ago, before Ohio State’s investigation began, that he and director of player development Ryan Stamper met with Javaune Adams-Gaston, Ohio State’s senior vice president of student life, just to discuss ways in which they could continue to educate their players about the importance of treating women with respect. Meyer said that his wife and Gene Smith’s wife held a workshop with the team last year on healthy relationships, and he has also brought in several other speakers to talk to the team about that issue, including former NFL player Ray Rice, who never played in the league again after a video surfaced of him assaulting his fiancee.
“It’s just always on the forefront. Throughout the facility, we have examples of mistakes made by people that just destroy lives,” Meyer said. “And so, it’s endless, as far as what we’ve done.”
Another one of Meyer’s stated core values is honesty, and that core value has been called into question, too, since he said at Big Ten Media Days that he was not aware of the domestic violence allegations made against Zach Smith in 2015. Meyer was also adamant on Monday, though, that he did not to intend to make misleading comments, but that his focus was on a report that Zach had been arrested for felony assault in 2015 – which Zach was not – and that he misunderstood the questions he was asked as a result.
“I want to be really clear that there was zero intent to mislead,” Meyer said. “I misspoke. And I hope you can understand why, where my focus was on that day. And if someone tells me that it was a felony arrest, that's my focus. There was not one. I don't know why this came up, there was no felony arrest. But what about this? What about this? And I didn't listen closely (to the questions).”
Beyond what transpired over the past two months, though, Meyer said he hopes people will look at all the success stories that have come out of the Ohio State football program over the past six-and-a-half years, both on and off the field – and in some cases, with people who have gotten second or third chances after making mistakes.
“What doesn't get reported are the great stories, the positive results, guys' lives change and they get these opportunities that playing college football and an education will give you,” Meyer said. “Same thing about helping a staff member through a very terrible divorce or when there's young children involved.”
Meyer has expressed on several occasions that he does not like to give up on people – in part because of what he was taught by his mentor, Earle Bruce, who was also Zach Smith’s grandfather – and he reiterated that on Monday.
“I have been accused of helping players too much, giving them too many opportunities. That's an accusation I accept. And I'm very careful about that,” said Meyer, who also reiterated that anyone who is found to commit domestic violence is immediately removed from the program. “But I've been that way my entire life, even outside of football. When I see someone in need, you help the person in need. How far do you go? That's that fine line. I’ve counted at least three staff members over the 17 years (he has been a head coach) that have been in difficult situations that I've tried to help, and never fired anybody. I always take the approach of trying to help them. I'm hoping that comes out.”
“What doesn't get reported are the great stories, the positive results, guys' lives change and they get these opportunities that playing college football and an education will give you.” – Urban Meyer
Meyer said he has learned over the past two months, though, that sticking by someone in the interest of helping them can go too far – though he still feels unsure of where exactly where that cut-off point should be.
“I learned a lesson, and that's ‘How far do you go to try to help someone out?’ And to be honest, to this day right now, I struggle with that. Because I've always gone on trying to go help someone who, especially the people in those difficult situations,” Meyer said. “And that's the way my mind works. When I saw this situation, and once domestic violence was taken out of the equation, my mindset was ‘How do you help stabilize this situation?’ That man has an obligation to raise those kids. He has an obligation to support that family. ‘How can I help, and how can Gene help do that?’
“We made a decision, and for many people out there that think that was a very wrong decision – I look back now with all the other information we gathered, it was the wrong decision. But what I knew at the time, I can tell you I thought we were doing the right thing at the time.”
In the wake of reports that Smith was involved in other inappropriate conduct that Meyer said he was not aware of – including that Smith had a sexual affair with a former Ohio State football staff member – Meyer also said he needs to re-evaluate whether he has created an atmosphere that encourages people to speak up when they are aware of wrongdoing.
“People need to feel comfortable coming to me if there’s any scenario, situations like this. I’ve started that process,” Meyer said. “That’s something that Gene and I have talked about that I need to do. I’ve always thought I had that atmosphere. If someone was aware of somebody’s behaviors and did not bring them to my attention, then obviously I have to work on that, and I am.”
Meyer understands that in the eyes of some people, his reputation has been forever damaged over the past two months, and that there has been damage to the Ohio State football program as a result. But he is also confident that he has the support of the university, including Gene Smith and university president Michael Drake, and says he has had many conversations with his current players, their families and potential recruits in hopes of maintaining their trust in him.
And while there has been speculation about whether the suspension would ultimately lead Meyer to decide to leave Ohio State sooner than planned, Meyer expressed no such sentiment on Monday, saying that his love for Ohio State is as strong as it has ever been.
“This to me has never been a job,” Meyer said. “You know, when I took a year off, I wasn't planning on coming back coaching football. I was asked by Gene and the president (E. Gordon Gee) at the time, Ohio State was going through a hard time. And part of my family didn't want me to coach again. And I came back because of my sincere love for the state.
“I grew up here. I played high school football here. Played college football here. I love this school. I have a master's degree from Ohio State. My love is unwavering for Ohio State. Even moreso now.”