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Back From Suspension, Urban Meyer Fields More Questions About Domestic Violence

Nick Evans
Urban Meyer addresses reporters at his first press conference following the end of his suspension on Monday, Sept. 17.

In a small auditorium Monday, Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer strode to a podium and fielded questions about credibility, domestic violence and former receivers coach Zach Smith.

In the six weeks since Meyer was suspended by the university, the coach has apologized, re-apologized and clarified statements after each of his additions raised new concerns among critics. 

Meyer rejoined the team this week after serving a suspension related to his handling of allegations against Smith. But he’s still missing points in his explanations.

A restraining order filed by against Smith by his ex-wife Courtney Smith led to the assistant’s firing, and a troubling pattern of domestic violence and workplace misconduct emerged as more information came to the surface. Ohio State’s Board of Trustees intervened, forming an independent working group to investigate Meyer.

Based on their findings, university trustees decided to suspend Meyer for failing “to take sufficient management action relating to Zach Smith’s misconduct.”  But that decision didn’t sit well with everyone. One trustee, Jeffrey Wadsworth, chose to resign because he felt the punishment was too lenient.

Upon his return Monday, Meyer gave more mea culpas, but he also went to great lengths establishing extenuating circumstances for why he didn’t act sooner. He explained after hearing about police investigating Smith in 2015, he and Athletic Director Gene Smith monitored developments.

“As I was receiving updates, as it became close to the conclusion, what I was hearing back from law enforcement is that this was not domestic violence,” Meyer said. “That this was a very nasty divorce, child custody issues involved, but it was not domestic violence.”

Meyer reiterated this point over and over again. But the working group’s report found fault with Meyer and Smith’s decision—saying they relied too heavily on law enforcement. Instead, the report says, they should have alerted more university authorities so an internal investigation could commence.

Lead investigator Mary Jo White made that point specifically while announcing Meyer and Smith’s suspensions last month.

“In the domestic violence context especially, there are many cases in which abuse takes place but there is no arrest or criminal prosecution,” White said. “And so simply relying on law enforcement to take action in the face of such allegations is not in our view an adequate response.”     

Throughout his suspension, Meyer insisted he did not turn a blind eye to domestic violence, and he still resists that characterization.

Asked by one reporter if he believed that Courtney Smith was ever a victim of domestic violence, Meyer said, “I can only rely on what information I receive from the experts.”

On Twitter, shortly before Monday’s press conference, Meyer wrote, “I will always be sorry for what Courtney Smith and her family have gone through.” And he added, “I do not – never have and never will – condone domestic abuse.”

Central to the domestic violence claims are text messages. Courtney Smith shared photos of a 2015 incident with Shelley Meyer, and the working group report cast doubt on Urban and Shelley Meyer’s claims they never spoke about the allegations.

Meyer heard about a similar incident between Zach and Courtney Smith in 2009 while he was coaching in Florida. The independent report shows Meyer and his wife Shelley doubted Courtney Smith’s account of what happened.

But the website Eleven Warriors recently published photos from the Gainesville Police Department showing Courtney Smith with an apparent black eye after the episode.

“Character is very important,” Meyer said of his hiring of Zach Smith.

He justified the decision, noting two other schools gave him glowing recommendations. 

“When I was hiring him, I believed I hired the right guy,” Meyer said. “In hindsight now, I look back with all these other issues that took place during that time period, I did not hire the right guy.”

Those other issues, the Ohio State report found, included a trip to a strip club while recruiting, drug abuse, and having a sexual relationship with a secretary on the football staff. Running through a timeline leading to Smith’s firing, Meyer seemed more upset that he first learned of events from the police—rather than Smith himself. 

When Meyer describes where he went wrong, he emphasizes his tendency to give second chances, completely setting aside the matter of domestic violence.

“I saw a guy with work-related issues, that had two children and an ex-wife that he needed to support the way a man’s supposed to support them,” Meyer said. “And I went—you know, I was suspended for the fact that I went too far in trying to help a guy with these work-related issues.”

There’s also the question of Meyer’s text messages. When he turned his phone over to university authorities, it displayed no messages older than a year. Meyer insists he did not delete messages or set his phone to automatically delete them.

But the working group report notes he spoke with administrators about how to alter his phone settings to discard messages a year old or older.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.