COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State closed ranks around the rollout of its football season as the university investigates whether coach Urban Meyer failed to report domestic abuse allegations, a scandal hitting a school already accused of not facing up to sexual misconduct allegations against a sports doctor.
The Buckeyes plan to open their first football practice Friday without Meyer, who was put on administrative leave during the probe and also suspended from an endorsement deal by restaurant chain Bob Evans. It’s not clear how restrictive the paid leave will be for the coach who is expected to earn $7.6 million for the 2018 season after getting a raise earlier this year.
Ohio State officials declined to comment Thursday beyond barring reporters from practices and saying they would decide by Monday when to allow coaches and players to speak to media. Co-offensive coordinator Ryan Day was named acting head coach while Meyer is out.
“Due to the ongoing investigation, football coaches and student-athletes will not be available for interviews until further notice and all practices will be closed,” Ohio State spokesman Jerry Emig said in an email.
Meyer’s future with one of the most storied programs in college football depends on how he managed allegations that Buckeyes assistant and recruiting coordinator Zach Smith abused his ex-wife, Courtney Smith — answering the questions of what Meyer knew and when.
Courtney Smith alleged Wednesday that she told Meyer’s wife, Shelley, about the abuse in text messages and phone conversations in 2015 and that Shelley Meyer indicated she would tell the coach. Courtney Smith’s allegations — including the text messages — were reported by former ESPN reporter Brett McMurphy on his Facebook page and in a video interview with Smith.
“In 2015 I came forward with it,” Courtney Smith said in the interview. “I told Shelley, I sent her some pictures [of her injuries], I spoke to her on the phone.”
Meyer told reporters last week that he didn’t know anything about the 2015 incident. It is not clear what contact Meyer had, if any, with university officials about the situation until Smith was fired last month. Smith has never been criminally charged.
Separately, a court hearing for Zach Smith was postponed Thursday on a domestic protection order sought by his ex-wife. She asked for the order after a July 20 disagreement and the court action resulted in Zach Smith being fired from Ohio State, where he was set to make $340,000 for the 2018 season. The Smiths are scheduled to be in court in September and their lawyers did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Ohio State is 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.
The questions confronting Meyer involve whether he vouched too strongly for a coach he’s considered family. Zach Smith, 34, is the grandson of Meyer’s mentor and former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce. He played for Meyer as a walk-on at Bowling Green, worked for him at Florida and was hired as the wide receivers coach when Meyer came to Ohio State in 2012.
Meyer acknowledged last week that he had been aware of a 2009 domestic-abuse incident in Gainesville. He said he and Shelley counseled the couple and allowed Zach Smith to remain on his staff.
Meyer ended up as the Ohio State coach because of a previous football scandal. Coach Jim Tressel was fired in 2011 for lying to the NCAA and university of about rules violations committed by some of his players.
The Ohio State probe bears similarities to scandals past for other big-time college programs, centering on whether a team’s leader properly reported potential wrongdoing. The similarity prompted the son of late Penn State coach Joe Paterno to weigh in with his opinion about public response criticizing Meyer, comparing Meyer’s situation with the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Jay Paterno, who was an assistant coach to his father and is currently an elected Penn State trustee, said in a blog post that “we should wait for facts” before calling for the Buckeyes coach to be fired.
Joe Paterno’s four-decade career as Penn State coach ended when he was fired amid questions about how much he knew about Sandusky’s past crimes and whether he acted appropriately with allegations he was told of by an assistant coach.
“As Penn Staters, we’ve seen the forces of innuendo, implication and allegation damage the lives and careers of good innocent people,” Jay Paterno wrote, saying Americans should demand more.