“I want something to change.”
That’s Courtney Smith. She’s a victim of alleged domestic violence who chose to speak out publicly about being abused by her husband for seven years. She states she was first abused in 2009 when she was pregnant, and multiple times thereafter until 2015, when she finally decided to leave her husband.
Her ex-husband was Zach Smith, former wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator at Ohio State. Smith was fired on July 23. But this story is bigger than Zach Smith.
Courtney and Zach were married in 2008. Zach was a graduate assistant for the University of Florida football team under head coach Urban Meyer. An ESPN profile of Zach states that he had known Urban Meyer “since he was a kid.” He was a walk-on for Meyer’s Bowling Green football team, then followed him to Florida in 2005 to be a member of his coaching staff.
Zach’s grandfather is Earle Bruce, Ohio State head football coach from 1979-1987. Meyer worked for Bruce as a graduate assistant in 1986 and ’87.
Zach coached with Meyer at Florida until 2010. He spent a year at Marshall working for former Meyer assistant Doc Holliday. He worked at Temple in 2011 under former Meyer assistant Steve Addazio.
In 2012, Meyer hired Smith again, this time at the Ohio State University. So Zach and his wife Courtney moved back to Columbus, where each of them grew up.
“When he was at Marshall and at Temple, I didn’t see him very often,” Courtney says in an interview with Stadium. “He traveled a lot. I was busy taking care of my son, and I would often come home to visit my family because he was busy with work all the time. So I felt like we were just disconnected. When we got here [to Columbus], everything went completely out of control.”
Bradley Koffel, Zach Smith’s attorney, did not respond to a request for comment, but he told the Columbus Dispatch after Smith was fired that “OSU was put in a corner by the unfounded accusations of an ex-wife who weaponized 911 many times over the years.”
But Courtney had already seen signs that she didn’t truly know the man she married.
In 2009, Urban Meyer and his wife, Shelley, hosted an annual party for coaches’ families before their summer break. Courtney, who had been pregnant for more than two months, left early because she didn’t feel well.
According to Courtney and a Gainesville police report, Zach arrived home drunk at 3:00 a.m. with a female coworker and asked if she could stay overnight. Courtney said no and took the coworker home. When she returned home, she tried to get Zach out of bed. She didn’t want him there.
“I was beside myself. I wanted him to sleep on the couch and things just escalated from there. And he literally picked me up by my shirt and threw me up against the wall.”
Courtney was supporting Zach financially while he pursued his dream of becoming a football coach. She considered whether or not to press charges on him, knowing it would be detrimental to his career.
“I was pressured by his [Smith’s] family,” and a man close to Urban Meyer, Courtney tells Kristen Balboni in the interview. “I was basically told, ‘If you don’t drop the charges, he will never coach again. He’s never hit you before, he was drinking, he’s probably never going to do it again. Maybe we should think about giving him a second chance.’ I said I would think about it.
“Then his mom and his grandfather, Earle Bruce, drove down from Ohio all the way to Gainesville and had a long talk with me, and I ultimately, eight days later, decided to drop the charges. I truly believed he would never do it again.”
Smith’s story, initially reported by college football insider Brett McMurphy, was brought to Urban Meyer at Big Ten Media Days. Meyer addressed the incident in 2009, which he acknowledged he was aware of.
“We’re certainly not going to investigate,” Meyer said. “It came back to me that what was reported wasn’t actually what happened. And (my wife) Shelley (Meyer) and I actually both got involved because of our relationship with that family and advised for counseling and wanted to help as we moved forward.”
Courtney remembers that time differently.
“Everything that is stated in the police report is correct,” she says. “That is exactly what happened. I know other people are saying something different.”
So Urban and Shelley Meyer set the Smiths up with a marriage counselor.
Courtney and Zach had to pay for the counseling themselves. The incident began a relationship between Courtney and Shelley Meyer that could be classified as a friendship, but also a mentorship.
“I met with Shelley one-on-one. She had a long talk with me about how tough the industry is — can I handle it? She was very supportive and very sympathetic, but also very adamant about, ‘You need to decide if you can do this or not.’”
Courtney refers to Zach’s “toxic lifestyle,” the details of which she keeps private for the sake of her children. But when Courtney confronted Zach about that lifestyle, she said he became abusive.
“There was an evening when our kids were sleeping,” Courtney remembers, “and there was an argument, and he picked me up and was dangling me from our loft upstairs. He was threatening me that he was going to drop me. It was terrifying.
“We thought the children were sleeping. My son woke up and saw and walked out of his bedroom and said, ‘Daddy, what are you doing to mom?’ He picked me back up and looked at Cam and said, ‘I was just joking, just kidding. I wasn’t going to do anything.’ My son to this day still remembers that.”
“There was another moment where he took me on vacation to the Dominican Republic. It was the first vacation we took since our honeymoon. We went on the trip in March of 2015. And he picked me up by my neck to the point where my feet were off the ground. Threw me down on the floor.”
Courtney left Zach in June 2015. She got her own place and brought the kids with her, but agreed to split parenting nights with Zach. In November, she filed for divorce. But before the divorce was final, another incident occurred that involved the police.
Zach went to Courtney’s home. He wanted to take their son for the night, but it was Courtney’s parenting night, so she refused.
“When I stood up to him, he didn’t like it,” Courtney says. “He took me and shoved me up against the wall with his hands around my neck, something he did very often. My daughter was clinging to my leg. It registered with him what he was doing so he took my son and left, and I called the police.”
That call prompted an investigation of domestic assault and felonious assault allegations reported by Courtney. The investigation spanned a year, and did not result in an arrest or charges being brought against Zach. Courtney calls it one of the worst things she ever had to deal with.
Courtney had considered leaving Zach many times before she finally did in 2015.
“It’s scary,” she says. “People who are being abused just don’t pick up and leave right away. It takes a long time and a lot of courage. They manipulate you, the abuser. They make it like it’s your fault. The demean you and put you down to the point where you have no self-esteem and you’re scared.”
“You really do think you can change them. You think, ‘Well if I do something different, he’ll change.’ And it’s not the case. They don’t change.”
Her belief that Zach could change wasn’t the only thing keeping her from leaving. She was still feeling pressure to keep quiet about the abuse.
“I was told, ‘Don’t call the police. If you call the police, he’s going to get arrested. It’s going to go to the media, He’s going to lose his job. What are you and the kids going to do?’ I had been a stay-at-home mom for a while, so it was very scary.”
Courtney had supported Zach financially as he pursued his dream of being a coach. But she hadn’t worked in years, and had no means without the six-figure salary she helped Zach achieve.
She continued to think about her two children and how to best provide for them. But before long, it was clear that the example being set for her kids far outweighed the financial stability.
“There’s specific incidences where I literally thought to myself, ‘I have to get out of this or my son is going to be just like him,’” Courtney remembers.
“[Zach] picked me up by the neck and threw me down on the ground in our bathroom and screamed at me, ‘Look what you turned me into.’ When it gets to that point, you realize your life is at stake and I had never, ever imagined it would it would get to that point.
“It was time. It was time to go.”
Even after her divorce with Zach was finalized on September 1, 2016, Courtney says the abuse continued in the form of threats, stalking, and verbal abuse.
She found a webcam in her home. She found a GoPhone underneath the driver’s seat of her car. She said she believes Zach was responsible for both. She says Zach would demand that their kids take their iPads with them everywhere they went, and she later discovered that’s how Zach kept track of her whereabouts.
She says Zach threatened people she dated after the divorce, and that he tried to break into her home in the middle of the night. He would watch her from outside her home, she says, and send other people to do the same.
After the couple separated, Courtney spoke to Shelley Meyer about being abused by Zach. Courtney had taken pictures of cuts, bumps, and bruises she says were caused by Zach.
“’Why didn’t you do something about this before?’ was [Shelley’s] first question,” Courtney says.
“Shelley said she was going to have to tell Urban. And I said, ‘That’s fine. You should tell Urban.’”
Courtney says that Shelley never confirmed that she had told Urban that Zach was consistently being violent with Courtney. But Courtney believes Urban knows about the abuse.
“I do believe he knew,” Courtney says. “And instead, he chose to help the abuser — enable the abuser — and believe whatever story Zach was telling everybody.”
“No one from the university came to me and asked me my side of the story. They knew there was an investigation going on, and not once did anyone call me and ask me what happened. That’s a problem. It needs to change.”
“And I hope that, in the future, he [Urban] never, ever, ever turns his head away again.”
“I know Shelley did everything she could. I know she did. I firmly believe that, at least. I can say she was very supportive and she never made me feel uncomfortable. She never made me feel like I was a threat to her or Urban by telling her these things.”
A representative of the University did not respond to a request for comment.
This story is bigger than Zach Smith. It’s bigger than Urban Meyer, too.
At a university that is already under investigation for turning a blind eye to abuse, in a conference that has seen scandal after scandal related to domestic and sexual abuse, the story of Zach and Courtney Smith is yet another piece of evidence that the culture of abuse in sports is out of control and must be addressed.
“There is so much abuse — domestic violence — going on all over,” Courtney says. “Everyone is being affected by it. However, in the sports industry, I believe that there needs to be a change. When somebody is crying out for help, I believe the coach, along with the coach’s wife, has a duty. They have a duty to do something to help. Instead of worrying about winning games, or instead of worrying about who his mentor is and who his family is and trying to protect that. Somebody’s safety and the safety of their children and the environment that they’re in needs to be more important.”
Courtney says Ohio State did nothing to support her during Zach’s investigation. She says she knows why nothing was done about the alleged domestic violence: “Everybody was out to protect themselves,” she said.
“I believe that the people that knew should have helped me — they should have done something. Instead, they chose to enable an abuser. He was in a powerful position he was making great money.
“When you put somebody that’s an abuser — it can be physical abuse, mental abuse, verbal abuse, any type of abuser — in a position of power and money, it never changes. If anything, they push and they push to see how much they can get away with. And that’s exactly what happened. It gets worse.”
Courtney was a communications major at Kentucky, but she hasn’t worked since 2010. She’s currently enrolled in nursing school and plans to earn her degree next year.
“When I finish that,” she says, “I’d like to help other people and create a safe environment for me and my children.”