COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Ohio State University on Wednesday evening suspended head football coach Urban Meyer three games for mishandling domestic violence accusations, punishing one of the sport's most prominent leaders and for keeping an assistant on staff for several years after the coach's wife accused him of abuse.
The move followed a two-week investigation by a special, independent working group, appointed by the Board of Trustees, into how Meyer reacted to accusations that former Buckeyes assistant Zach Smith abused his ex-wife, Courtney Smith.
Zach Smith was fired last month after Courtney Smith asked a judge for a protective order.
Courtney Smith alleged her husband shoved her against a wall and put his hands around her neck in 2015. The university put Meyer on paid leave and began its investigation after Courtney Smith spoke out publicly, sharing text messages and photos she traded in 2015 with Meyer's wife, Shelley Meyer. Shelley Meyer is a registered nurse and instructor at Ohio State.
"I followed my heart and not my head," Meyer said, quickly reading a written statement to reporters during a news conference after his punishment was announced, "I should have demanded more from him and recognized red flags."
Trustees discussed the decision to punish Meyer in a marathon meeting of more than 12 hours Wednesday while Meyer awaited the decision. Athletic director Gene Smith — who is not related to Zach or Courtney Smith — was also suspended from Aug. 31 through Sept. 16.
The university released a statement sharing the key findings from the independent review.
According to the statement, an "overriding concern of assuring that spousal abuse is neither ignored nor condoned, " the investigation found that "Coach Meyer has 'a sincere commitment to the Respect for Women core values that he espouses and tries to instill in his players.'”
They said that Meyer would not hesitate to terminate any coach if there was established spousal abuse. According to the statement the working group said, “We believe [Coach Meyer] as did Zach Smith, that if [Coach Meyer] 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.”
The investigative team determined that Meyer and AD Smith did not violate policy or contractual obligations regarding the alleged domestic abuse claims against Zach Smith. They said in their statement:
"Although Coach Meyer and Athletic Director Smith failed to adhere to the precise requirements of their contracts when they concluded that they needed to await a law enforcement determination to file charges before they reported the otherwise disputed claims of spousal abuse against Zach Smith, they did so based upon a good faith belief that they did not have sufficient information to trigger a reporting obligation or initiate a disciplinary action in the absence of law enforcement action. Other than their misunderstanding of the requirements triggering reporting obligations, neither Coach Meyer nor Athletic Director Smith violated any policy, rules, law or contractual obligation in connection with the alleged domestic abuse claims against Zach Smith."
The working group also stated that numerous other witnesses "had the same understanding as Coach Meyer and Athletic Director Smith as to the events required to trigger University reporting obligations." They say the university will undertake "steps to make its requirements clearer and implement additional training to reinforce them."
**Read the entire statement of investigative findings, below**
The investigation also revealed that "Although Coach Meyer made significant misstatements about his knowledge of the 2015 events relating to Zach Smith and his former wife at the Big Ten Media Days, they were not part of a deliberate cover-up effort to keep Zach Smith on the coaching staff," according to the summary of investigative findings.
The investigation also identified multiple examples of inappropriate behavior conducted by Zach Smith while employed as an assistant football coach. some of which was known by Meyer, AD Smith, and other football staff members. The investigative team stated that "Coach Meyer and Athletic Director Smith’s efforts to help Zach Smith overcome his personal issues went too far in allowing him to remain as an employee in the face of repeated misconduct."
During the press conference Wednesday evening, both AD Smith and Meyer apologized and said they accepted the punishments.
"I should have done more and I am sorry for that," Meyer said, “Ultimately I am responsible for everyone’s behavior in the football department. There was some behavior that was going on that I was unaware of, that I should’ve been aware of and I support our president’s decision.”
Meyer will miss Ohio State's first three games against Oregon State, Rutgers and No. 16 TCU.
“I have huge regret for my inability to be an effective leader in this situation," said AD Smith, “I sincerely apologize to Buckeye Nation and the student athletes for the situation we are in today.”
President Michael V. Drake expressed that based on the investigative findings they believe Urban Meyer did not and does not encourage domestic abuse, he believes that Meyer and AD Smith did not take sufficient action regarding the allegations and did not uphold the university’s standards and procedures regarding these types of allegations.
During the investigation prompted Meyer initially insisted he followed proper protocols after learning of the 2015 accusations. The probe directly centered on the question of what Meyer knew and when. Meyer said in his tweet that he always elevated issues through the proper channels, and did so with the Smith situation in 2015.
That contradicted what he told reporters at Big Ten media day a week earlier: "I was never told about anything and nothing ever came to light. I've never had a conversation about it. I know nothing about it."
Former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and former Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Mary Jo White, Esq., and her firm were retained for this investigation. According to the university, "Ms. White and her firm were selected because of their unquestioned independence and their expertise in prior investigations of this nature."
White said in the press conference that, though Meyer was not completely accurate when he denied knowledge of the 2015 allegations, "Coach Meyer did not deliberately lie."
Speaking after the investigation was announced, Zach Smith said he spoke with Meyer at the time and that Smith also knew about the allegations.
Zach Smith said Meyer told him he would be fired if the head coach found out Smith had hit his wife.
Zach Smith has never been criminally charged or convicted of abuse. He has a charge of criminal trespass pending, and the Smiths are due in court next month for a hearing on a restraining order Courtney Smith was granted July 20.
Meyer is heading into his seventh season at Ohio State, where he is 73-8 with a national title in 2014 and two Big Ten Conference championships. Ohio State's Title IX sexual misconduct policy includes reporting allegations of domestic violence made against university employees.
Violating that policy allows Meyer to be fired with cause, according to provisions placed in his contract when it was extended in April by two years. The deal through 2022, increasing Meyer's salary to $7.6 million in 2018, with annual 6 percent raises. Meyer had about $38 million left on his contract.
Ohio State's season starts Sept. 1 with a game against Oregon State in Columbus.
In 2009, Zach Smith was accused of aggravated battery on his pregnant wife while he was working a graduate assistant for Meyer at Florida. The charge was dropped because of insufficient evidence.
The Smiths separated in June 2015 and divorced in 2016.
Meyer is one of the most accomplished coaches in college football history, with three national championships and a 177-31 record in 16 seasons at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State, the team he grew up rooting for in Northeast Ohio.
Meyer won national championships with Florida in 2006 and '08, but his teams also had more than two dozen players get into trouble with the law. He resigned twice at Florida, citing health reasons, first in the 2009 season after the Gators lost the Southeastern Conference championship game while trying to repeat as national champs. He changed his mind soon after and coached another season. The Gators went 8-5 in 2010, and afterward, Meyer stepped down for good.
Meyer was out of coaching for a season but was hired by Ohio State in November 2011. The Buckeyes had fired Jim Tressel, another national championship-winning coach, before that season for lying to the NCAA and university about rules violation committed by some of his players.
Since returning to coaching, Meyer's program has been one of the most dominant in college football, and his players have mostly stayed out of major trouble.
Meyer faced some criticism in 2013 for allowing running back Carlos Hyde to return to the team after he was charged with striking a woman in a bar. The case was dropped by police when the woman chose not to pursue charges, but Hyde was suspended three games.
The Meyer investigation cost $500,000 and was conducted by the national law firm Debevoise & Plimpton.
Ohio State began investigating Meyer while also facing three federal lawsuits about its response to allegations of groping, leering and other misconduct by a deceased athletic department doctor who treated wrestlers and other students for two decades. The lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by Dr. Richard Strauss say Ohio State facilitated the abuse by ignoring complaints.
Since Ohio State announced an independent investigation in April, more than 100 former students have come forward with accounts of sexual misconduct by Strauss. The allegations range from 1979 to 1997 and involve male athletes from 14 sports, as well as his work at the student health center and his off-campus medical office.
SUMMARY OF INVESTIGATIVE FINDINGS AND UNIVERSITY ACTIONS:
1. The Board of Trustees appointed a Special, Independent Working Group (“Working Group”) to oversee an independent investigation of allegations that Coach Urban Meyer failed to act appropriately regarding alleged abuse by Zach Smith of his former wife and related allegations that he misrepresented his knowledge of the alleged events at the Big Ten Media Days.
2. The Working Group included three Trustees of Ohio State: Janet Porter, Alex Fischer and Alex Shumate. The Working Group also included three prominent non-Trustees: JoAnn Davidson, former Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives; Craig Morford, former Acting Deputy U.S. Attorney General, and Carter Stewart, Esq., former United States Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. The University thanks each of these six individuals for the many hours they have spent reviewing these issues in the last two weeks.
3. The Trustees retained Mary Jo White, Esq., former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and former Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as her law firm, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, to conduct a detailed investigation of the allegations (the “Independent Investigatory Counsel”). Ms. White and her firm were selected because of their unquestioned independence and their expertise in prior investigations of this nature. Ms. White and her partner, David Sarratt, led the investigation.
4. In undertaking their review, the Independent Investigatory Counsel interviewed more than 40 witnesses, some multiple times. They reviewed over 60,000 e-mails and 10,000 text messages, in addition to relevant media reports, police reports, court filings, the employment contracts of Coach Meyer and Athletic Director Smith, and relevant OSU rules and policies, NCAA and Big Ten rules, and applicable state and federal laws.
5. Upon completion of the Independent Investigatory Counsel’s work, the Working Group received their report, found it to be complete, professional and credible, and formally accepted it.
6. Key findings from the independent review:
A. On the University’s overriding concern of assuring that spousal abuse is neither ignored nor condoned, the findings are: Coach Meyer has “a sincere commitment to the Respect for Women core values that he espouses and tries to instill in his players.” The Independent Counsel also concluded that Coach Meyer would not hesitate to terminate any coach if spousal abuse was established:
“We believe [Coach Meyer] as did Zach Smith, that if [Coach Meyer] 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.”
B. Although Coach Meyer and Athletic Director Smith failed to adhere to the precise requirements of their contracts when they concluded that they needed to await a law enforcement determination to file charges before they reported the otherwise disputed claims of spousal abuse against Zach Smith, they did so based upon a good faith belief that they did not have sufficient information to trigger a reporting obligation or initiate a disciplinary action in the absence of law enforcement action. Other than their misunderstanding of the requirements triggering reporting obligations, neither Coach Meyer nor Athletic Director Smith violated any policy, rules, law or contractual obligation in connection with the alleged domestic abuse claims against Zach Smith.
C. A number of the other witnesses who were interviewed had the same understanding as that of Coach Meyer and Athletic Director Smith as to the events required to trigger University reporting obligations. The University therefore will undertake steps to make its requirements clearer and implement additional training to reinforce them.
D. Although Coach Meyer made significant misstatements about his knowledge of the 2015 events relating to Zach Smith and his former wife at the Big Ten Media Days, they were not part of a deliberate cover-up effort to keep Zach Smith on the coaching staff in the face of evidence of domestic violence by him that Athletic Director Smith and Coach Meyer credited.
E. The investigation identified multiple other examples of inappropriate conduct by Zach Smith while employed as an assistant football coach, some known by Coach Meyer and/or Gene Smith and others on the football staff. Coach Meyer and Athletic Director Smith’s efforts to help Zach Smith overcome his personal issues went too far in allowing him to remain as an employee in the face of repeated misconduct.
7. University actions based upon the independent review:
The President and the members of the Board of Trustees of the University have received the Report of the Independent Investigation and find it to be complete, professionally done and credible. The President has consulted with the Board of Trustees and based upon these independent findings, the University accepts the findings of the report and, based on them, takes the following action:
Although neither Urban Meyer nor Gene Smith condoned or covered up the alleged domestic abuse by Zach Smith, they failed to take sufficient management action relating to Zach Smith’s misconduct and retained an Assistant Coach who was not performing as an appropriate role model for OSU student-athletes. Permitting such misconduct to continue is not consistent with the values of the University and reflects poorly on Coach Meyer, Athletic Director Smith, and the University. Their handling of this matter did not exhibit the kind of leadership and high standards that we expect of our Athletic Director, Head Coach, Assistant Coaches and all on the football staff. Urban Meyer is suspended through September 2, 2018, and for the games on September 1, 8 and 15 without pay. Gene Smith is suspended without pay from August 31-September 16.