CHICAGO—Urban Meyer didn’t want to keep talking about Zach Smith on Tuesday, not after nearly every question in his larger press conference veered in the direction of his now-former receivers coach.
He didn’t want to talk about him a few hours later, at a smaller lectern, when the Ohio State coach made it clear that he only wished to discuss football.
He didn’t want to answer when a reporter asked him to clarify his earlier comments, but he complied—and then eventually waved his hands. “This is it, we’re done,” Meyer said.
But Meyer doesn’t get to say when we’re done, not with this conversation. He might control how much the public knows about a stud freshman or a star player’s injury, but in legal matters, he is not the arbiter. That’s not in his contract, and it doesn’t matter that he fired Smith the day news of new allegations against him broke. What matters is he employed the coach for years, knowing full well Smith had a violent past—one there’s no evidence he was punished for.
On Monday, former ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy reported that Smith, who’d served as Ohio State’s receivers coach since 2012 and as its recruiting coordinator, was the subject of a civil protection order filed by his now-ex-wife, Courtney Smith. The order, along with a criminal trespassing charge, were filed last week after Smith dropped his children off at his ex-wife’s home, rather than another agreed-upon public location.
McMurphy also reported two prior domestic abuse incidents on Smith’s record—and these are the rub. Without them, Meyer looks like a coach in the right: He learned a member of his staff had been charged with a crime, and he fired him. But Smith has a legal history that dates back to 2009—and Meyer knew about at least part of it. That year, as a graduate assistant on Meyer’s staff at Florida, Smith was arrested for aggravated battery of his pregnant wife. No charges were filed. Six years later, he was arrested for felonious assault and domestic battery, again directed at his ex-wife, with whom he would split in 2016.
When asked Monday at Big Ten Football Media Days in Chicago about the trail of events that culminated in Smith’s firing, Meyer explained that only the most recent incident figured in his termination. Then he took reporters through his knowledge over the past nine years of allegations against Smith.
In 2009, Meyer said, “what was reported wasn’t actually what happened.” Smith and his wife were a “very young couple”—how this is material, it’s not clear—and Meyer and his wife got involved and advised the Smiths to go to counseling. Simple enough.
When first asked about the 2015 incident, though, Meyer was short. “There was nothing… I don’t know who creates a story like that,” he said. Hours later, he changed his tune, explaining that he’d learned about the 2015 accusation the day before and had his staff call the police department in Powell, Ohio. They’d turned up nothing, he said. On Tuesday afternoon, though, ESPN reported that the police department had indeed turned up two records of domestic complaints against Smith in 2015.
It’d be easy to spend an hour debating the minutiae here: Where were those records Monday night? Why did they suddenly appear almost immediately after Meyer spoke to the media? It doesn’t matter, though. Even if Meyer was in the dark about 2015, he knew about 2009, and on some level, he wasn’t doing his diligence.
Meyer chose to hire Smith at Ohio State. Of course, he has 100 things that might seem more pressing than keeping tabs on a grown man, but to me, making that personnel decision should come coupled with some level of scrutiny. This is a man accused of physically attacking his pregnant wife. The conversation stops there.
Meyer should be given credit for acting swiftly on Monday. “This recent one was you press pause,” Meyer said Tuesday. “It’s something our team lives by, E + R = O, you press pause and get your mind right and step up, press pause and gather information, get your mind right, gather energy, and then step up to do the right thing.”
He should be given credit, but not a free pass on an explanation that was little more than blathering coach-speak. Courtney Smith, at least, deserves better. Her ex-husband’s years-delayed punishment being broken down to a clichéd algebra equation (event + response = outcome, for those who aren’t fluent) is ridiculous. And the common retort—he’s a coach, what do you expect him to say—rings more and more hollow.
Smith has known Meyer since he played for him at Bowling Green. He’s the grandson of former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce. His ties to Ohio State and its coach are deep, and even on paper, it’s easy to see how this was not a coach with a one-strike policy. And really, it’s rare to see anyone in the world of sports held to such standards. There are suspensions and fines, court-mandated service work. We operate in a climate where it’s downright difficult to commit an act so egregious to be banned from football—or any other game. But Smith, without a pause, went on from that first allegation to be Marshall’s wide receivers coach in 2010, spent the next year at Temple, and then joined Meyer’s staff at Ohio State in 2012. Maybe he went to counseling at Meyer’s advice. But counseling isn’t punishment; it’s rehabilitation. In this case, we seem to have skipped a step.
Media days for any conference can be football overload. Coaches are giddy to get the season going, brimming with talking points they’ve had an offseason to marinate. On Monday in Chicago, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh repeatedly touted football as being America’s game, saying it provides numerous benefits to young men. His refrain is common, and he’s one of dozens of coaches who can treat the sport as if it’s sacrosanct, essential, the glue that holds Western society together. And that’s a fine stance to take, as long as it’s constant, as long as there is no hand-waving, no deciding that we’re done when the real world impinges. Which is it, then, this hallowed sport: Something to be handled with the utmost seriousness and care, or a game in which you can reach out to an assistant, tell him to get counseling and keep employing him even as he shows a pattern of abuse that stretches on for almost a decade?