Courtney Smith remembers the exact moment her life fell apart. She was alone in her home in Powell, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. She knew that she did not want her kids there or with her ex-husband. She wanted them somewhere safe, so she sent them to stay with her dad. She closed the curtain and the blinds, and turned on the TV. It was July 24, 2018, and she watched Urban Meyer, then the head football coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, give a press conference.
What she wanted and needed was for Meyer to tell the truth about what he knew had happened between her and her ex-husband, Zach Smith. Zach had been Ohio State’s wide receivers coach until he was fired a day earlier, after college football reporter Brett McMurphy published a report about Smith being the subject of a protection order and having been investigated for domestic violence against Courtney in the past. At the time, all that was publicly known about what had happened between Courtney and Zach was the information contained in McMurphy’s 789 words published on Facebook. To many people, especially those who aren’t college football fans, Meyer’s press conference might have meant very little; those who cared to watch it were probably only interested in seeing how gracefully or awkwardly he would handle questions about the report and Smith’s firing.
But for Courtney Smith, the stakes could not have been higher.
Courtney watched Meyer’s press conference, not just as the ex-wife of a football coach, but as one who had been as close as a person could get to being Ohio State royalty. She watched as a woman who had once learned how to orient every aspect of her life around football and her husband’s career. She watched as a woman who had for years documented, both in her diary and with photos and screenshots, the verbal and physical abuse she said she had received from Zach. She would never forget the night in Florida when he threw her after they got into an argument, or the time in Ohio when he put his hands around her throat and only stopped because her father walked in. She watched as a woman who had finally said no, gotten her own home with the kids, filed for divorce, and enrolled in nursing school. She watched as a woman who knew that her life was about to change, because all the things she had tried for so long to keep secret for the sake of her and her family were finally being brought to light, and the last place she wanted to be was at the center of a salacious college football scandal. It was for that reason that she needed Meyer to tell the truth.
“‘Oh my God, please tell the truth,'” she recalled saying as Meyer spoke. “I was on my hands and knees, going, ‘Please tell the truth, Urban, please.'”
Urban Meyer would fail Courtney Smith that day, and he wasn’t alone. Defector’s conversations with Courtney and those who are close to her, as well as the examination of hundreds of pages of records from law enforcement, the courts, and Ohio State, reveal the many ways that people and institutions across Ohio acted to primarily protect themselves rather than Courtney.
Prosecutors did not present a 2015 domestic violence investigation of Zach to a grand jury. Police withheld public records that documented the abuse, all while rabid college football fans called Courtney a liar, bitter, and crazy. Ohio State left her twisting in the wind, even after she helped the school with its own investigation, not releasing the most damning proof about Meyer and his destruction of evidence until well after he had retired, ensconced in a cushy job as a TV football analyst. And then her ex-husband took everything that happened and used it to rebrand himself as a renegade college football expert, the kind who could tell you stories about what it’s like to work with Meyer and complain about how the real victims of “the system” are men like him. This does not seem to bother any of the former Ohio State players who still associate with him.
Zach maintains that he never abused Courtney. When Defector Media contacted him seeking comment on this story and the documentation cited within, he said that there is no evidence he ever abused Courtney because all of the statements that were given to police were just “statements” and not what he considers evidence. He also said that the protection order was issued just as much for his own safety as Courtney’s, and that his own recollection of what Courtney told him over the years does qualify as evidence. Finally, he said that anyone who ever said he did abuse Courtney must have been someone who was never around them much, and that every instance of abuse described by the documents cited in this story is “fabricated.”
“I never abused her. There is no evidence. I never abused her,” Zach told me.
I asked him why anyone should believe him. He told me, “I don’t care if people believe me. I don’t care if you believe me.”
A glance at the football landscape might even convince you that nothing happened. Three years later, Meyer is a head coach again, this time in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ohio State is ranked among the top programs in the country. Football has moved on. But for Courtney, what happened wasn’t just a few bad headlines or unfortunate days that could be easily papered over with well-timed press releases. It was her life. She still lives with the consequences of that day in July, even if the TV cameras are gone, even if Meyer is hundreds of miles away, even if Ohio State would rather stop talking about it.
How do you survive when life as you know it is falling apart? What do you do when it seems like every institution, nearly every person in a state of more than 11 million people, and even a member of your own family doesn’t want to help you? Courtney Smith learned how.
Zach and Courtney met at the University of Kentucky. He was an undergraduate transfer from Bowling Green, where he had walked onto the football team coached by Meyer. She was a freshman from Ohio studying communications. They started dating, fell in love, and then Zach got a job with the football team at the University of Florida, where Meyer was the new head coach. Looking back, Courtney said she felt pressure to marry Zach, especially from her mother. After all, Zach was the grandson of Earle Bruce, the former Ohio State football coach who took over the team from the legendary Woody Hayes and also had served as Meyer’s mentor.
After their engagement party, Courtney said she talked with her future grandmother-in-law, Bruce’s wife, Jean. She gave Courtney a notebook and told her to write down everything that would happen to her. She also warned Courtney that being a coach’s wife wasn’t easy, and told her all about the challenges that she would face.
“She gave it to me and she said, Are you sure this is what you want to do,” Courtney recalled. “I don’t think you realize how hard it will be.”
Courtney would soon learn all the unsaid but important responsibilities that came with being a coach’s wife. There would be recruiting dinners, booster dinners, team dinners, all intertwined with scrambling for childcare, as well as possibly having to bring dessert. There would be away-game travel, bowl-game travel, and the Meyer tradition of the wives bringing candy for players after certain practices. There would be the expectation that at all these events, the coaches would look like good, clean family men, with wives by their sides.
But Courtney was so in love. The young couple married in June 2008, in a church in downtown Columbus, followed by a big reception at a nearby hotel, recalled one friend, who asked to not use her name for fear of retaliation. The wedding colors were silver and pink.
“I’ll always remember Courtney peeking through the door to the reception,” she said with a laugh, “and asking me, ‘Do you think it’s too pink?'”
Her friend told me that she had tried talking to Courtney about Zach in college. She didn’t like how when Courtney started dating Zach, she saw her a lot less and it seemed like Zach was in charge. But when she tried to bring it up, Courtney didn’t want to hear it, and her friend wasn’t too surprised. She really was in love with Zach, and they had a beautiful wedding.
A year after the wedding was the first time Zach hurt her.
It started after a party hosted by Meyer and his wife, Shelley, in June 2009 at their home. The Meyers were the toast of the town; the football team had just won its second national championship in four seasons under Meyer, and Shelley taught in the university’s nursing college. When the party ended, Courtney, who was about three months pregnant with her first child, was ready to go home. But her husband wanted to stay out longer with some other graduate students, she would tell police years later, as part of a separate investigation in Ohio. Courtney left alone and drove herself to their home near campus, according to the Ohio detective’s notes.
Zach came home well after midnight, and he was not alone. With him was a woman who also worked at UF. Courtney heard them come home and peered out the window, where she saw her husband and the woman “all over each other,” according to the Ohio detective’s notes. When they came inside, Zach asked if the woman could sleep at their place, Courtney told police. She said no.
Courtney told police that she drove the woman home herself and then came home, where she and Zach started fighting. Zach, she told police, was drunk. He grabbed her by her T-shirt and threw her against the bedroom wall, she told Gainesville police. Years later, Courtney would tell officers in Ohio that Zach had a look in his eyes that night that she hadn’t seen before. She said the way Zach changed was “like flipping a light switch.”
Courtney called 911 that night because she was scared. The Gainesville police officer who arrived found Courtney crying. Her T-shirt had a stretch mark in it as if it had been pulled, according to the report, and police could see a red mark on Zach’s right bicep. Courtney said it was from when she tried to protect herself after Zach picked her up. Zach told the officer that the mark was from breaking up a fight at a downtown club. Another officer took photos of the scene and of Courtney’s injuries. The photos show her with bruising around one of her eyes. The arresting officer wrote in their report that Zach was the “primary aggressor,” handcuffed him for aggravated battery on a pregnant female, and took him to a local jail, according to the report.
That night, Courtney called Zach’s family; his mother as well as Earle Bruce hurried down to Florida, she said. The next morning, Hiram deFries, a former oil executive who followed Meyer from football program to football program and has been described as everything from a consultant to a confidante, told her she needed to drop the charges if Zach was ever going to coach again, Courtney recalled. Bruce arrived, she said, and told her he was going to talk to Meyer about what had happened. (Defector Media reached out to deFries for comment, but did not receive a response.)
“I was so distraught. I had not slept. I was pregnant,” Courtney said. “And I have all these people telling me not to press charges and what am I gonna do? How am I gonna provide for my child?”
The only people who asked her how she was doing, she said, were the police officers and the paramedics. The case wasn’t prosecuted, according to court records, due to “insufficient evidence.”
Meyer knew all about this. He would later tell investigators hired by Ohio State that he had met with Courtney and Zach and they told him that the arrest was based on “incorrect information.” Both Courtney and Zach refuted this to university investigators, with both agreeing that Courtney never met with Meyer.
Afterward, police wrote that they gave Courtney a case number, a brochure for victims and witnesses, and a domestic-violence pamphlet. She told herself it was a one-time event. They were young and had a baby on the way. She could make it work. She knew that Zach was under extra stress because the pregnancy hadn’t been planned. Yes, people at the football program knew, but a lot of people still didn’t know what happened, including her little sister, Michaela Carano, back in Ohio.
“When he was coaching in Florida, oh my God, so fun,” Michaela recalled. “He was always making sure I was included in the games, picking me up out of the stands, bringing me out on the field, always super kind … I just remember loving it.
“And then, as I got a little bit older, I started to notice things. I think I was too young at the time to notice the bad stuff.”
In 2010, the couple moved more than 700 miles north to Huntington, West Virginia, after Zach got a job as the wide receivers and special teams coordinator at Marshall University under then-head coach Doc Holliday, himself a former Meyer assistant. The local newspaper did a profile of the new coach, and he gushed about Courtney, telling the reporter, “I’m fortunate to have a great wife.”
One of Courtney’s longtime friends visited her in West Virginia. It wasn’t too long after the couple’s son was born, and the friend remembers being able to tell that Courtney wasn’t happy. She wasn’t quite sure of why, maybe it was the stress of a new baby, or being in a new town, or having so little money. She just could sense that something was wrong.
A year later, the family of three picked up and moved again, this time to Philadelphia, where Zach got a job coaching wide receivers and special teams under another former Meyer man, then-Temple head coach Steve Addazio.
“But when they came to Columbus,” the friend said, “it spiraled immediately.”
They returned to Columbus in 2012 because Meyer had come back to Ohio State, where he got his first coaching job under Bruce, and he wanted Zach Smith, the grandson of his mentor, a man he once told Sports Illustrated was second in his life only to his father, on his staff.
The violence started again in June of 2012, Courtney said. It usually would follow an argument, and the couple fought a lot about how Zach spent their money, Zach’s infidelity, him sexting other women, and Zach’s use of pornographic websites, per Courtney Smith and a Delaware County grand jury packet. Years later, when a Powell police detective would ask her to tell him when the violence began after their move to Columbus, Courtney answered, “There are so many but the first one I remember is when I was nursing my daughter.”
According to police documents, Courtney was nursing her daughter when Zach came home from work. She told him that she would be with him in 15 minutes or so, after she put their daughter to sleep, which she did. With the baby asleep, she went downstairs to check on Zach and they got in a fight. He grabbed her arms, called her names, and pinned her against the wall, she told police in 2015. Then he let her go. Afterward, Courtney recalled to police that they both sat down at their kitchen table and talked about what happened.
Zach apologized to her, she said, and told her that it wouldn’t happen again. Courtney felt like she had played a role in it, too, because she was always so tired and so busy.
It happened again a year later. In August 2013, they got in a fight around 2 a.m. after Courtney saw messages that she thought looked like sexting between her husband and another woman. When Zach woke up and realized what Courtney saw, she would later tell police, he grabbed the phone out of her hand and shoved her against a banister. They later stopped living together for about a month, Courtney told police, then got back together and she and Zach started seeing counselors. It was a counselor who first told Courtney to start documenting the violence.
In November, Courtney caught Zach texting with the same woman again after an iPad update started sending her his text messages, she would later tell police. Courtney chimed in on the text conversation. Zach later came home and confronted her, in front of their kids and Courtney’s mother, she told police. After Courtney’s mother left, the fighting continued. They moved into the bedroom, still yelling, but when Courtney tried to leave, Zach “grabbed her by the throat and pinned her against the wall,” Powell police would later write in a report. Courtney couldn’t recall everything he yelled at her, but one part was, “I’ll destroy you,” she told police. Years later, Detective Ryan Pentz with the Powell Police Department would ask Courtney what she thought those words meant. She said she thought they meant that Zach would kill her.
“Whenever they were together, my heart always, I would go to bed at night, and just think, ‘OK, is she gonna call me in the middle of the night? Are they going to be arguing and fighting?’ It’s been this way for years,” Courtney’s mother, Tina Carano, would later tell Pentz. “And, you know, every time it did happen, she would call me and we would talk. I would even reach out to be, like, Why are you doing this? Leave your hands off of her. You have no right to touch her. Always lying about everything.
“So of course, he would try to deny it, but then he would end up admitting to it at some point, you know? And, I mean, it’s happened in front of the kids numerous times. I know that he doesn’t care.”
Courtney and Zach separated then got back together. She moved in with her father and, when his lease ran out in February of 2014, Zach moved in there, too. It wasn’t long after he moved in that Zach hurt her again, she told police. This time they were in the kitchen at her father’s house and started yelling when Zach put his hands around her throat, she told police. When her father came home, Zach let her go.
“All I know is, when I walked in there, he seemed very, like embarrassed or taken back that I walked in,” her father would later tell Pentz in an interview. “And then he just took off.”
Courtney told police that Zach went to a bar, and she later found him passed out in his car. She took him back home. The next day was their son’s birthday party, and she had to act normal.
At some point during their stay, Courtney’s father talked to his then-son-in-law, he told police. Courtney told police that the talk happened after her father walked in on Zach with his hands around her throat. Her father told police that the conversation happened after an argument between the two that escalated so much it scared him. Both said he talked to Zach and told him to stop hurting Courtney.
“I made him promise me not to ever put his hands on her again, and he promised to do that,” he told police in 2015.
“Did he admit to you that he was putting his hands on her?” Pentz asked.
“Well, he didn’t say no. But when I said, ‘Hey, no.’ I talked about the relationship. And then over a year and a half ago, he agreed that he would not put his hands on her again,” he replied. “So that’s admitting that’s what he did.”
Courtney tried to leave in 2014, but when her temporary job didn’t become a full-time job, she worried that she didn’t have enough money to do it, especially since she couldn’t afford full-time daycare for her preschool-age kids. So she took Zach back, but was determined to come up with a plan to leave. She started saving money.
In September 2014, Courtney told police that Zach slashed new furniture she had bought with a butcher knife. Scared, she grabbed a knife and locked herself in the bedroom, where she called her mom, police would later document in a 2015 report. Two months later, they got in a fight in the upstairs bathroom and then the hallway, where Zach began strangling her, she told police. He threw her down a hallway, leaving her with bruises, police wrote. “[Zach] left after saying, ‘I can’t believe you have turned me into this,’” according to a Delaware County grand jury packet. Courtney took photos of her injuries.
While Ohio State romped toward its first national championship in more than a decade, Courtney turned inward. She stopped going to a tailgate specifically for the coaches’ wives. On Jan. 12, 2015, Ohio State won the college football championship. It meant Urban Meyer had finally brought college football glory to his home state. That night, confetti fell across the stadium in Arlington, Texas, and players grasped copies of the premade front pages of the Columbus Dispatch with championship headlines. The infamously stern Meyer seemed happy as he hoisted the trophy. “The Ohio State Buckeyes are the first national champions of the playoff era,” ESPN’s John Saunders told the millions of people watching on TV. Even NBA superstar and Ohio native LeBron James was there. After the victory, Zach talked to USA Today‘s Dan Wolken about Meyer. “He’s the best head coach in the country,” Zach said. “His program is based on real. Everything about it is the truth.”
Courtney spent the night crying in their hotel room.
“That trip was when I knew it was over. I couldn’t do it anymore,” Courtney said. “He was getting more money and the more power he got, the more we won, the worse he got and it was horrible. I wasn’t myself at all, and people knew it.”
Two months later, in March of 2015, after a fight while on vacation in the Dominican Republic, Zach choked Courtney, grabbing her, lifting her off the ground, and pinning her to a wall, she told police. Then he let her go and left the hotel room for the night. Courtney was left gasping for air. He would later apologize in a text message, saying, “I’m so so sorry!!!!” after Courtney brought up what happened. Courtney would later tell police that Zach threatened to kill her “all the time” and there was so much violence “she could not even keep track of them all,” according to their report.
Any doubts Courtney had about her plan to leave evaporated the night in June that she found Zach’s other Google account. On this Google Drive she said that she found photos of naked women, as well as text messages between himself and other women, and photos of his erect penis in all sorts of locations, including the hotel where Ohio State stayed before home games (you can tell because not only is the interior of the hotel familiar, but the folder name included the phrase “game day”), inside the Ohio State Woody Hayes Athletic Center (you can tell because, just beyond his erect penis, you can see an image on the wall of a football player in an Ohio State uniform), and inside a White House bathroom during the team’s victory visit to see the president (you can tell because he made sure to put a Seal of the President of the United States next to his penis). He also included videos of himself jerking off in the work shower in a folder called “work shower.”
Courtney confronted Zach about the Google Drive, she said, and they got into an argument. This time, Courtney hit him in the nose, she told police. She eventually left the house, but not before she said Zach grabbed her by the arm and told her, according to a grand jury report, “If you go public with any of this, I’ll fucking kill you.”
The moment any person decides to leave an abusive relationship is extremely dangerous. It’s when the chance of an intimate-partner homicide spikes, because an abuser will lash out at their loss of control over a person. And Courtney wasn’t walking away from anybody—she was leaving an Ohio State football coach.
The couple officially separated in June of 2015. Courtney found a place for her and the children and left; she had faith she would figure out how to make everything work. She would enroll in nursing school. She thought that by physically leaving, the violence would stop. She did not foresee the ways Zach would still bully and harass her, even if they weren’t under the same roof. In October, Courtney would become so tired, so frustrated, so out of options, that she would do what she had promised herself since that night in Gainesville that she would never do again: She called the police.
Courtney went to the Powell police station on Oct. 26, 2015. She had called the day before looking for help when Zach came over to her home and refused to leave, cursed her out, shoved her, and took her son while yelling, “I don’t give a fuck about your neighbors,” according to Courtney’s witness statement to police. He told her to call the cops, she said, because he didn’t care. She was brought into an interview room, where Officer Ben Boruchowitz talked to her, with his body camera on and rolling, and Courtney went over the years of violence she said Zach had inflicted on her. She also was open about why, after what happened in Gainesville, she “was so terrified from calling the police.”
“Urban I feel like will do anything to protect his guy,” she said. “He doesn’t want anything to get out and look bad for his program.”
Boruchowitz told Courtney that he didn’t care who Zach was; he’d even arrested NFL players. If lawyers for Zach showed up, he advised her to not talk to them because “you are in charge here.”
“Do I have enough evidence here, I don’t know,” Courtney asked him, followed by a long pause. The video of the interview has been pixelated, so I can’t see what either of them are doing, but in the silence sits the weight carried by every person who has tried to leave an abusive relationship. It’s a heaviness that comes not from doubt about what has happened, but from the knowledge that speaking up might only turn the world against you. The silence broke when Boruchowitz gave Courtney contact information for a victim advocate.
A few times during the conversation, Boruchowitz left to talk to a local prosecutor and left his camera rolling.
“She’s really petrified. And I really believe her,” Boruchowitz said. “I don’t think it’s one of these women over-exaggerating, I think she’s really afraid that he’s going to kill her.”
“She seems legitimate,” he said during another call. “You know, a lot of these people come in and say, ‘I’m afraid he’s gonna kill me.’ But she actually seems petrified. That he actually is going to cause her harm. She says that he, on numerous occasions, has grabbed her on the neck lifted off the ground, she couldn’t breathe and loses consciousness and then throws her on the bed. And she seems, like, extremely shaky. Like, it doesn’t seem like to me she’s playing it out.”
“The only reason I even called you is I’m trying to think of what we can do to protect her other than a civil protection order. Because if there is a legitimate chance that he’s going to come to Powell and, and murder her obviously, I’d like to be consulting with you about that,” he said later. “We would like to prevent the murder.”
That same day, then-Delaware County Prosecutor Carol O’Brien contacted Deputy Chief Stephen Hrytzik about Courtney’s case, according to one Powell police investigative report. She told Hrytzik that a victim was requesting a protection order, but did not have it yet, and she wanted the police to keep investigating. Hrytzik assigned Detective Ryan Pentz to the case, and he was joined by Detective Darren Smith.
The following day, Courtney went to the courthouse as instructed and met with a victim advocate and a prosecutor, she said, but she decided not to apply for a protective order when they warned her that, if she failed to get one, it could hurt her chances to get custody of her children. A spokesperson for the Delaware County Prosecutor’s Office told Defector Media, “No one with knowledge of the answers to your questions remains in our office, so we cannot answer questions regarding the legal decisions made at that time.”
Over the next few weeks, Pentz would interview Courtney, talk to her father and mother, and review hundreds of text messages sent between Courtney and Zach.
An officer writing a report has a lot of power to craft the narrative of a case; they can make a person look reliable or untrustworthy, give a person credibility or cast doubt. You can tell a lot about how detectives feel about a case by what they put in the reports, and what they leave out. Pentz and Darren Smith, in their writing, believed Courtney. As they wrote in the grand jury packet: “It was noticed during the two sets of interviews that [Courtney Smith’s] story of the years of abuse did not vary much. The second interview was a much more descriptive interview because Detective Pentz gave her more of an opportunity to elaborate on the abuse, but the overall circumstances regarding the abuse stayed consistent.”
Courtney’s father talked to the police and verified her account of the violence that occurred when she and Zach were living with him. Her mother did, too. Years later, when Courtney’s story became public, her mother would tell Jeff Snook, a man who once wrote a book called What It Means to Be a Buckeye: Urban Meyer and Ohio State’s Greatest Players, that her daughter was never “intentionally abused” by Zach. When confronted by McMurphy about this, she admitted to sending text messages that talked about Zach beating Courtney but said they were her “trying to be there as a mother.” She later wrote a Facebook post casting doubt on if she had sent the text messages at all.
When contacted by Defector Media for this story, Tina Carano said there was “no substantiated case of domestic violence,” said Zach was innocent, and blamed the media coverage on the MeToo movement.
But in the privacy of a phone call between her and Pentz, Tina Carano told a different story. She backed up her daughter.
Tina Carano told Pentz that she knew Smith had been abusing her daughter for years, ever since they moved back to Ohio. Carano said she saw Zach speak disrespectfully to her daughter, calling her “crazy” and other “degrading things.” She didn’t see Zach hit her daughter, but he did admit to her that he had been violent and apologized. Carano recalled asking Zach to get help because she wanted the family to stay together. “But in the end, it’s just one lie after another,” she said. Her daughter sent her photos after the abuse, and in person she could see the bruises, she told Pentz.
“When you would approach him about the violence, what would he respond to you?” Pentz asked.
“He just said to me, ‘I am so sorry. I know. I’m sorry,’” Carano said.
“He would apologize for his actions?” Pentz asked.
“He apologized a million times, over and over again,” she said. “He said, ‘I’m going to get help. I’m going to make this better. Everything’s going to be OK.'”
When asked by Defector Media why she has changed her story from what she told police, Tina Carano said it was because her daughter wouldn’t let her talk to Zach, which conflicts directly with her telling police she talked to Zach about the abuse as well as Courtney. She also said she was done answering questions.
What’s clear is, in 2015, she unequivocally said her daughter was telling the truth and had been physically and emotionally abused for years.
“She feared for her kids and their future what they would have,” Tina Carano said. “Had it not been for that she would have never taken it.”
Carano told Pentz that she worried about Zach getting a gun. “Because he is that crazy. What’s he have to lose at this point, is how I feel. And he’s gonna be taken down. He’s gonna take down the whole family.”
“I think right now he is, at this point, somewhat stable, because he’s trying to retain his job,” Pentz said in response. “If he loses that job, I agree. I worry about everybody involved. Right? Because, that’s where I think things could really start going bad.”
In both his conversations with Courtney’s parents, Pentz warned them that he did not have final say over what would happen to this case. From the beginning, Pentz knew this case was not a normal one. This was a high-profile case involving a prominent family and a powerful institution. In talking with Tina Carano, Pentz laid out exactly how an investigation works if you are a high-profile person in Delaware County or, really, anywhere in the United States.
“Any time we deal with a high-profile employer, or we deal with a high-profile person or something that’s gonna get media attention, our prosecutor’s office gets involved immediately. So they’ve been involved for a long time already, since she walked in this door pretty much, our prosecutor’s office has been involved in this in some way, shape, or form,” Pentz told her. “I’m a fact finder. I’m collecting facts. That’s what I’m doing. And then I will take all my facts, and we’ll put them together, and I will send him to the Delaware County prosecutor’s office. They make a decision of whether or not goes to the grand jury, OK? The grand jury, which is made up of 12 citizens of Delaware County, will determine if there’s enough evidence to proceed with charges. OK. So we don’t actually make that choice. OK. They want to make that choice for us.”
Police would eventually talk to Zach, along with his lawyer, Dennis Horvath. He claimed that in Gainesville, the injuries were due to him trying to restrain Courtney because she was the one lashing out and she had called 911 to hurt him. He claimed that Courtney had threatened in the past to go public with false allegations to make him look bad. He denied choking her, and said all he ever did was grab her arm. In their grand jury report, police would detail all the ways they believed that Zach Smith wasn’t being fully honest with them.
“Regarding the interview with [Zach], Detective Pentz felt he was being deceitful about some of the interactions,” the grand jury report said. “For example, about the alcohol and drug abuse, [Zach] said neither one of them had a drinking or drug problem, when there is clear evidence that Adderall and alcohol played a major role in their life. Also, when Detective Pentz asked him about the bruise on [Courtney’s] arm and he replied she fell into the banister and down the steps. If [Courtney] did indeed fall down the steps, Detective Pentz believes the injuries would have been even greater. It’s also the belief of Detective Pentz that this injury was not self-inflicted because of the location of the injury.”
Zach Smith told Defector Media that whatever the police wrote in their reports about him was their opinion.
The detectives moved fast. In a few weeks, a 13-page grand jury report was ready. In his grand jury report, Pentz acknowledged that this was not a perfect case. The detectives could not find much physical evidence due to the amount of time that had passed. They had combed through the text messages and found many in which Zach apologized, but he didn’t say for what. Pentz wrote that it did appear that Zach “admits to at least one occasion to picking [Courtney] up by the throat here in Delaware County and once while on vacation.” The report ended with the following: “With the photos that exist and some of the admissions through text messaging and [Zach] admitting to placing his hands on her, it is asked for the case to be reviewed for Felony Domestic Violence and Felonious Assault.”
The results of Pentz’s investigation never made it to a grand jury. When the police documents were finally released, O’Brien told the Dispatch that the case wasn’t presented to a grand jury because “we didn’t find any felony charges that we thought we could prove.” O’Brien did not go into detail about why.
And that was it. Criminal charges were never filed in the case, and a mountain of public records related to the investigation vanished from public view. Hundreds of pages of records, as well as hours of videos and audio recordings, would remain unseen by anyone, even Courtney herself, for years because then-Powell Police Chief Gary Vest insisted he could not release them to anyone. His reasoning? Releasing the records would identify Zach.
The Powell police department wasn’t the only powerful institution that chose Zach’s reputation over transparency.
“I was never told about anything … I never had a conversation about that. I know nothing about that,” is what Urban Meyer had to say on July 24, 2018, when reporters asked him if he had previously known about the 2015 investigation of Zach Smith for domestic violence. It all unfolded while Courtney watched, all alone, from her home.
According to Ohio State’s own investigation, athletic director Gene Smith personally spoke to Meyer about the 2015 case. The final document included in that report detailed the events of a fall day when Zach Smith was called back from a recruiting trip to have a meeting with Gene Smith, Meyer, and others. The document said that during that meeting Zach denied hitting Courtney, and that Meyer warned him that he would be fired if he ever did hit her. Per the report, Meyer “assisted in arranging professional counseling for Zach at this time.”
In fact, monitoring the 2015 case would become a family affair for the Meyers. By the fall of 2015, Courtney had told Shelley Meyer about how much she feared Zach. The two texted back and forth about it, according to Ohio State, with Shelley saying, “I am praying for you!!! I wouldn’t listen to him anyway. He doesn’t talk to anyone about you. I know the truth. Please take care of yourself and let me know what I could [sic] help.” Shelley Meyer also contacted Powell police to try and get information about the case. Powell police told her she would have to wait like everyone else.
Shelley and Urban Meyer have insisted that she never told her husband about what Courtney was telling her. Perhaps. But the Meyers also have been very open in the past about how key Shelley was, according to her own husband, to keeping his college football program’s running. In a glowing Sports Illustrated profile, S.L. Price wrote that Shelley sat in on all of Urban’s negotiations during his hiring at Florida and “quickly became the program’s go-to resource for gray-area discipline problems.”
“It’s not uncommon for me to have a player meet with her, because she believes in counseling and I still don’t know if I believe in it yet,” Urban said of his wife, making sure to point out she was also a clinical nursing instructor. “All the way from learning disabilities to behavioral disabilities to substance issues, she is an absolute proponent of counseling. I’m more, Let’s get ’em up at 5 a.m. and make sure that doesn’t happen again. So there’s a balance there. I trust her.”
So why would Urban Meyer claim not to know anything about what happened in 2015 during that press conference in 2018? He’d been coaching for decades by that point, and surely he must have realized that reporters would be asking questions and digging into this. McMurphy, the longtime college football reporter who now is the Action Network’s college football insider, offered this observation. These coaches are often the highest-paid public employees in their states—Meyer was set to be paid $7.6 million in 2018—and with that much money and that much power, they can start to believe they are bigger than the program.
“He’s a head football coach at a university, and he’s paid several million dollars a year, and those guys think they’re bulletproof. They’re like gods. Everybody worships them in Columbus. They can’t do any wrong,” McMurphy said. “And that’s also kind of how Urban’s personality is. Most coaches have big egos, and that’s why they’re successful as coaches, but it’s also why they fail in other aspects and that’s a big reason.”
There were a lot of other things Meyer and other high-level Ohio State administrators knew about Zach. The university’s investigation revealed that in May 2014, during an out-of-town recruiting trip in South Florida, Smith spent $600 of his personal funds at a local strip club, with another coach and “one or more high school coaches” present, a potential NCAA violation. Brian Voltolini, officially Ohio State’s director of football operations and unofficially Meyer’s right-hand man, knew about this, the university’s report said. Meyer claimed he didn’t know the exact amount that Zach had spent. The university soon afterward added a morality clause to its coaching contracts. (This is the same month, Courtney later told Powell police, that she found out Zach had spent much of the money they had been saving at strip clubs and on escorts.)
In early 2016, Zach’s spending habits grew so bad that assistant business manager Jennifer Bulla sent an email to Voltolini and Gene Smith about his blatant irresponsibility. In her email, Bulla wrote that the bank wouldn’t explain to her why Zach’s cards kept getting declined, and that Zach always had a different reason. “Things I recall are … lost his wallet and got all new accounts, the bank had his wrong mailing address so declined since data didn’t match, the bank put his account on security hold due to suspected fraud and didn’t alert him, etc. Unfortunately, when Zach is scheduled to travel with UM [Urban Meyer] and he needs a car we (Mark and I) know it’s likely he will be declined.”
By 2015 and early 2016, according to Ohio State, Zach Smith was regularly late to practice and workouts, missing scheduled recruiting visits but saying he had made them, having a sexual relationship with a football staff secretary who did not report to him, having sex toys delivered to Ohio State’s athletic facilities, and taking sexually explicit photos of himself at various Ohio State facilities.
In June 2016, with the help of Meyer, Zach went to a drug treatment facility. An anonymous email, which was included with the Ohio State report, told investigators that Zach did not take it seriously and left early.
None of this was reported in Zach’s personnel file. His 2015 file is all about getting better at recruiting. His 2016 file has a goal of “I should be the best asst. cch in America.” His 2017 goals were to be the best in America at recruiting, leading the wide receivers unit, and being a staff member, in that order. Even if a reporter had heard rumors of Zach’s conduct and put in a public records request, they wouldn’t have found an ounce of evidence in these files. In the files, there is no trace of anger from Meyer, no suggestion of the athletic director wanting him fired, no evidence of concerns about job performance or his inability to pay for a cell phone, and no mention of him blowing money at a strip club. It’s all positive feedback with room for improvement. The only hint of a problem is 2017, when under areas for improvement his evaluation mentions “personal matters.”
That did not stop Ohio State from giving Zach Smith a raise of $73,400 that year, increasing his salary to $300,000 a year.
On Dec. 5, 2017, Meyer texted recruiting chief Mark Pantoni, saying, “Just checkin on zach smith. Make sure he is working.” Pantoni wrote back, “I ripped his ass yesterday morning so he knows I’m all over him.
Twelve days later on Dec. 17, 2017, Courtney called Powell police, saying she had heard from a neighbor that they had seen Zach peering into her windows at 1:30 a.m. Zach was given a trespass warning over the phone by Pentz, the same detective who had investigated him in 2015. In a later police report, Pentz wrote that another violation could lead to a charge of criminal trespass for Zach.
A day before Christmas, Meyer sent a text message to someone—the recipient’s name was redacted by Ohio State—saying, “Keep an eye on zach. He is not here. Need to make sure his guys play well. I will say something as well.”
On Jan. 3, 2018, Zach called the cops, saying his children were being taken over state lines by Courtney when he was supposed to have them, which police closed out almost immediately, according to a Powell police report, possibly because Zach became belligerent when a dispatcher suggested he come to the station to file a report about this after he was done eating. That same day, hours earlier, Tim Kight, Ohio State’s football’s “leadership coach,” sent a text to Meyer asking him to call when he got a chance about “something serious.” Meyer wrote back, “Volt and I will meet with Zach next Wed.” Two days later, Kight wanted to know if Meyer could talk. “Yes,” Meyer wrote back. The thread went silent until Jan. 14, when Kight wrote, “Incredible, isn’t it?”
Around this time, reigning college football powerhouse Alabama approached Zach about a possible coaching job. Despite everything, Meyer decided he needed to keep Zach on his staff. On Jan. 18, 2018, he sent Zach a text message: “After much thought, I want u to stay. I have personally invested far too much in u to get u in position to take next step. U need to step away from other situation and let’s go in it all…. again.”
Eight minutes later, he texted Zach again: “We got u thru the shit–now go b a difference maker in the staff room.”
“Yes sir I agree,” Zach replied. “They offered me the job and I wanted to sleep on it before deciding but it doesn’t feel right. I love this place, my players and am loyal to you for everything you’ve done. I just want to grow and keep my career on track but I’m confident that’s here. I’m ready to be a difference maker and ready to win it all again. I appreciate everything coach.”
Meyer wrote back: “From this point forward… All grown ass man conversation, never again childish shit… use ur gifts and knowledge. Cell phone away-full engagement and become a coordinator. U have the ability.”
“Yes sir. I will.”
Meyer texted a redacted recipient three days later: “Zach smith was offered wr/passing game Coord at Alabama. Went there to talk to Saban. At first thought maybe he should go but then decided all that effort I’ve put (in) to him and it’s Alabama. I told him to stay and he turned it down. Every f—- day it’s something.”
In late January, Meyer included Zach Smith in a list of assistants he texted to then-university president Michael Drake, saying he needed help retaining them because they were being recruited by other programs.
It’s possible that millions of college football fans would still to this day not know who Courtney Smith is if it had not been for the events of Dec. 17, 2017, the day she called the police and Zach Smith received a trespass warning.
On May 12, 2018, Zach violated that warning given to him by Pentz and trespassed on his ex-wife’s property. It would not be, in the long history of violence documented by Courtney and Powell police, the worst thing Zach did. It would be, however, the action that gave police and prosecutors enough evidence to feel that they could charge him with a crime. That charging document became a public record, and generated a case on the online court docket that anyone could see. And suddenly everything Courtney Smith had been fighting for all this time—making sure Zach kept his job, keeping her personal horror out of the public eye, ensuring everything at Ohio State football under Meyer’s reign looked like a family friendly bastion of morality—was set to collapse. It only took a few weeks.
Word quickly got around about Zach’s case. A friend of Courtney’s told me that the first she heard about something happening with Zach wasn’t from Courtney, but from other friends who follow websites for Buckeyes superfans. A tip came in to McMurphy, who had been laid off about a year earlier from ESPN as part of a company-wide staff reduction. Even though he didn’t have an outlet, he started working the tip, eventually finding the records in Gainesville. And he called Courtney.
McMurphy was not the only person calling Courtney. She estimated she started getting calls and emails from seemingly every reporter who cared about Ohio State football, or just college football in general. She ignored them because that’s what everyone around her was telling her to do, including her then-attorney—just stay quiet and focus on the court case. But that advice didn’t seem to apply to Zach’s supporters.
In the weeks and months that followed McMurphy’s original report and Meyer’s press conference, radio airwaves and the internet would be flooded with people desperate to defend Zach. A representative example is Kyle Lamb, whose only relevant experience as a COVID-19 data guy for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was, in the words of the Miami Herald, “spreading harmful conspiracy theories about COVID-19 on the internet.” He described the reporting about Zach as “irresponsible,” vaguely gestured to concerns about “credibility,” harped about changing details in the early stories while reporters were still trying to figure out what was going on, bemoaned that Zach couldn’t win a libel lawsuit, and admonished fans who “shouldn’t be judging him for what he says on Twitter,” considering what Zach had been through.
The news of Zach Smith’s misdemeanor charge first became public on July 18, 2018, when Ohio State writers started reporting on a court hearing scheduled that day in Zach’s case. The court hearing got canceled after the news broke, but that didn’t stop Zach’s lawyer, Brad Koffel, from hopping on local radio station WTVN, where he’s also a legal analyst with his own show, and defending his client.
The entire interview wasn’t even 10 minutes long, but Koffel and the host managed to pack in just about every defense of Zach imaginable. The host, who goes by Woody, asked questions like, “Then why did she file trespassing charges other than to make him look bad?” and leapt to conclusions like, “Almost sounds like it was a setup.”
“I’ve never been divorced. Thankfully. I’ve had friends and I’m sure there are many listeners that have ex-wives and ex-husbands,” Koffel said in response to Woody’s question about the trespassing charges. “And I think the motivations probably speak for themselves.”
The segment ended with Woody saying, “Brad, thank you so much. I mean, this kind of thing happens all the time. But when you have a high-profile position, and the headline is out there—you know, that’s why we’re having this conversation. And at least we know he picked a good lawyer.”
This is, perhaps, one of the biggest advantages Zach had. It wasn’t just that he was the grandson of an Ohio State football coach, or that Meyer was mentored by that coach, or that he worked for one of the most powerful institutions in the state. It was that so many men could look at Zach and relate, because Zach peddled a narrative that catered to them: that the real problem wasn’t himself or his actions or the countless chances he had been given. The problem was an evil woman had come around, weaponized his children, and ruined his life. It would later turn out to be a very popular message.
Courtney got a protective order two days after the canceled court hearing. In her application, she wrote about what had happened between 2015 and 2018 that still caused her fear. She wrote that she once found a webcam under her couch that she believed Zach had used to watch her. She wrote that Zach had hacked her email, WiFi, and remotely accessed her laptop.
“The stalking and harassing never stopped,” she wrote. “Zach contacted any male he thought I was dating, sending them threatening messages through social media accounts. He never followed the shared parenting plan and would tell me he didn’t have to because he knew I couldn’t afford to pay for an attorney.”
The stalking and harassing got worse, she wrote, when she started dating someone seriously for the first time. She wrote that she once saw Zach standing in her boyfriend’s backyard, watching them all eat dinner. He threatened to get her boyfriend fired from his job.
“He constantly harasses me and threatens through text messages and phone calls when he does not get what he wants,” she wrote. “It’s Zach’s way or no way.”
Meanwhile, Meyer was scrambling to make sure the revelation of Zach’s misdemeanor charge wouldn’t affect his recruiting class. On July 20, in a group chat with offensive coordinator Ryan Day and Zach, Meyer wrote, “[Redacted] texted me about Zach and the legal issue. Asked if he was ok. Says he hasn’t heard from him in awhile. We need to keep recruiting [name redacted] as if he is not committed. Need to stay on this!”
“Yeah I haven’t hit him up since Monday – was letting this shit blow over for a couple days. But I got you. Just hit him now,” Zach wrote back.
“I also reached out to his mom and dad just now,” Meyer responded. “We can’t let people use this against us.”
Zach texted again, saying he’d reached out to most of the parents and kids today and so far so good. Meyer sent the group a response from someone expressing sympathy for Zach. The message said, “Were it not OSU this is not news.”
“He is a good man — our guy. He can reach out if he chooses but we are good. Just hopeful for better days. Pass to him our regards,” the anonymous person wrote. “Hope you are well.”
“These are elite people, my guy!” Zach exclaimed.
Day had a conversation with someone whose name is redacted and reported back, “He is great. No need for Zach to reach out to him for an explanation.”
Three days later on July 23, McMurphy’s report on Facebook about the arrest in Gainesville, Courtney’s protective order and the more recent trespassing charge was out in the world. It quickly went viral.
That same day, Gene Smith sent a Facebook link to Meyer. Meyer responded, “Wow. Will discuss.” Smith wrote back some suggestions for how to handle it; maybe they should send Zach to an employee assistance program, and Meyer responded that he was “not sure how to do this.” Gene Smith told him that he would handle it with the help of someone from human resources, Voltolini, and public relations. The PR team whipped up a statement that read, “We are not going to comment at this time on the situation regarding Zach Smith. This is a personnel matter and we don’t typically discuss such matters publicly. We are continuing to monitor.”
The scrambling over Zach continued. Minutes later, in a group chat with Meyer and Voltolini, Gene Smith said that he had spoken with Zach about using the employee assistance program to help him “develop a management plan for his ex-wife and managing his children.” Voltolini said he would meet Zach that day. Later, someone texted Gene Smith and Meyer saying they had confirmed that Zach would not be alone that night, and would be with his family. Gene Smith wrote back, “Thank you.”
At some point, Meyer got a text from Kight, the leadership guru, with a quote about how “the Christian faith is for competitors. It is for warriors and fighters.”
Later, Meyer got a text from Shelley: “2 things … u can always use Gene as part of reason for not giving the receiver position too. And … I am worried about Zach’s response. He drinks a lot and I am just not sure how stable he will be. Afraid he will do something dangerous. It’s obvious he has anger/rage issues already.”
Near the end of the day, Urban sent a message to his staff: “All-I made a decision to release Zach from staff. Core value violation and cumulative issues. ‘Win the Moment’-most important thing is team and players at this time. Zero conversation about Zach’s past issues. We need to help him as he moves frwd. Team and players!! Thx. Will discuss plan when I return Wednesday.”
What stands out the most from that day, from all those text messages, is how nobody talked about Courtney. She was always the ex-wife, or an unnamed problem that needed managing. Nobody in the text messages from that day asked how she was doing, or if anyone was checking in on her. In more than 200 pages of text messages covering a period of years, I only found her name used once.
After Meyer spoke to the press on July 24 and insisted that he had no prior knowledge of the 2015 incidents, he got back to texting with his confidantes. At one point he got a message from defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, which provided an update on how Zach was doing, followed by “WIN THE MOMENT!!!!”
Meyer wrote to Kight, asking for his thoughts on the “info that is in media.”
“A thought,” Meyer wrote. “All legal issues with Zach will b dropped. So I will have to answer why we released him. We know answer. Yet I won’t share all the other issues. Thoughts?”
Kight wrote back with a suggested statement, which reiterated how often domestic disputes are “he said/she said,” and called Zach’s violation of the protective order a “bad judgement.” Meyer wrote back saying he heard, incorrectly, that there was no protective order, forcing Kight to correct him based on what he had read about the case. Meyer said that someone from his staff had checked with the police and there was nothing in 2015, and the problem was Courtney’s lawyer was releasing stuff, which, even if that were true, ignored how much Zach’s lawyer talked to the media from the day the story broke.
“Scary,” Meyer wrote to Kight, never indicating what he actually had to be afraid of.
“Faith and courage,” Kight responded. “Remember Elijah and Jezebel?”
“Absolutely,” Meyer wrote back. “Fatigue, doubt, fear overcame by Faith.”
“Life changed the next day, everything went crazy,” Courtney said when recalling what happened after Meyer’s press conference. “I had to prepare to move. I didn’t know how I was going to finish nursing school. I had the Today Show, Good Morning [America], everybody calling me.”
She took that advice from Jean Bruce and started writing everything down. She felt like she had to. So one day she picked up one of her daughter’s unused notebooks, light blue, spiral bound, adorned with purple-maned unicorns, clouds, and shooting stars. In the weeks and months to follow, she kept writing down notes. She wrote down a note to get hospital records of her panic attacks, notes about seeing former Ohio State players trashing her online, her thoughts on what Ohio State’s investigation was missing, lists of people she needed to talk to for court, followed by a reminder to buy ink for her printer, and the ingredients she needed to make meatloaf one night. She grabbed a sticky note every time she remembered something about what Zach had done to her. One day she put a pen to a sticky note and wrote just one word: “Lies!”
Her lawyer at the time told her not to talk to anybody, she said, though she now regrets not speaking out sooner, because nothing was stopping Zach, his lawyer, and his defenders from speaking out. Things got so bad that her lawyer told her she needed to leave town because she wasn’t safe, Courtney said, so she took her kids for a weekend trip to stay with a friend out of state.
“The reporters were beating on my doors. I know the reporters were beating on his doors, but I didn’t want the kids exposed to that,” she said. “We just bolted. We left.”
The day after Big Ten Media Days, on July 25, Ohio State received two public records requests from the student newspaper, the Lantern. According to Ohio State’s investigation, the request asked for “emails and text messages, as well as any call history, between Urban Meyer and Zach Smith from July 18, 2018 through July 24, 2018 and between Oct. 25, 2015 and Dec. 1, 2015, and the same communications between AD Gene Smith and Coach Meyer for the same dates for any materials ‘pertaining to Zach Smith.” The requests went to an Ohio State lawyer who then emailed Gene Smith and senior associate athletic director Diana Sabau, telling them to get the appropriate text messages and emails. A day later, the same lawyer, senior associate general counsel Julie Vannatta, asked two people on Meyer’s staff—longtime Meyer loyalists Amy Nicol, who was director of internal operations for football, and Voltolini— to “go get [Coach Meyer’s] phone and check his text with Zach.”
No one checked the head football coach’s phone.
Courtney kept talking to McMurphy. On Aug. 1, McMurphy published his second Facebook post about the story. It answered the question everyone in college football was asking in its opening sentence: “Text messages I have obtained, an exclusive interview with the victim and other information I have learned shows Ohio State coach Urban Meyer knew in 2015 of domestic abuse allegations against a member of his coaching staff.” In the report, McMurphy quoted the text message between Courtney and Shelley Meyer, including more recent ones about Courtney’s protective order (the one Urban Meyer thought she didn’t have).
“Do you have a restraining order? He scares me,” Shelley wrote to Courtney.
“Restraining orders don’t do anything in Ohio-I tried to get protection order which is what started this whole investigation. And that should go through soon finally. It’s hard bc you have to prove immediate danger. Legal system is tough. Basically you have to prove he will kill u to get protective order,” Courtney wrote back.
“Geesh! Even w the pics?” Shelley asked. “Didn’t law enforcement come to your place ever??”
That same day, Stadium, which would later hire McMurphy, published a 19-minute interview with Courtney. She did the interview because she felt like people were only getting Zach and Meyer’s version of events, she said, and she was afraid of losing her kids. She wanted her viewpoint out there too.
McMurphy’s second report dropped while Meyer and Voltolini were at the practice field. Voltolini saw it, called it “a bad article” according to Ohio State’s investigation, and then talked with Meyer about whether the media could get his phone. They specifically talked about, according to Ohio State’s investigation, “how to adjust the settings on Meyer’s phone so that text messages older than one year would be deleted.”
That day, Ohio State placed Meyer on administrative leave. He also spent the day texting with his then-agent, Trace Armstrong, A day later, on Aug. 2, he got a text from Armstrong asking, “U up? Laura and Colleen would like to be at your place at 11. They anticipate that they will need 4 hours with your phone. As well as some time with you and Shelley.” Meyer wrote back, “All good. Available all day.”
On Aug. 3, Zach sat for interviews with ESPN and a Columbus radio station. In the interviews he insisted that any injuries to his ex-wife happened because he was making defensive movements to remove himself from the situation. When asked how trying to remove himself could have led to bruises, Zach replied, “Well, I mean, I guess you’d have to be there.” Zach said multiple times that never hit his ex-wife.
McMurphy heard the interviews, and he reached out to Courtney, asking if he could tweet out a screenshot of a text she had shared with him in which Zach apologized after she confronted him about strangling her. Courtney said yes. So McMurphy sent the tweet.
The harassment started almost immediately for Courtney and McMurphy. Courtney left town and came back, but she didn’t feel safe when she came home. She withdrew. She felt afraid. It was impossible to open any of her social media accounts without getting barraged with threats from angry Buckeye fans, and she started to worry. What if one of those angry fans recognized her? Would they do something to her, or tell Zach what she was doing? Would they try to twist her words or take an embarrassing photo of her? There already were pro-Meyer protests happening following his three-game suspension by the university, attended by fans clad in scarlet and gray, holding homemade signs all in support of their coach. She withdrew from nursing school. She stopped socializing. She stopped going to restaurants. She even stopped going to the grocery store, instead using online ordering or having her sister get the groceries for her.
“My sister, she was too scared to go to Kroger, to go get groceries, so she would have me go,” Michaela Carano said. “She was scared to leave her house, she thought people were looking at her. … She was just scared to go anywhere. It was so sad.”
She was even afraid to buy alcohol. Both Courtney and her sister told me this: At one point, she was afraid to buy a bottle of wine because she was certain it would be used against her, proof she drank too much or was a bad mom.
“Every time I go to the grocery store and pick up a bottle of wine I’m, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t even buy a bottle of wine. People are going to think I’m a drunk,'” Courtney said. “Do you know what I mean? You get so worried and paranoid. I am never going to be the same again. It’s destroyed me.”
McMurphy didn’t live in Ohio, but that didn’t stop rabid Buckeye fans from threatening him and his family as well. He got more than 2,000 messages on Facebook from Ohio State fans in 2018 after his reporting, he told me. The messages warned him to never enter the state of Ohio, brought up his daughter’s name, and mentioned that they knew where he lived.
“I’ve been at ESPN, CBS, I was a beat writer, so you deal with rabid fans. I vote in the AP Top 25 poll so I’m used to the, ‘You’re an idiot writer because you didn’t rank my team high enough.’ You’re used to that. But this, this stuff was a whole ‘nother level,” McMurphy said. “This was people threatening my life. This was people putting my home address on one of the Ohio State fan websites saying, ‘Go get him.’ This was people calling my wife’s cell phone number and threatening her. This was people posting stuff on my wife’s Facebook page threatening her.”
I asked McMurphy why this story, and why this fanbase. The answer: Because Meyer won a lot, and winning makes people happy.
“Look, Urban is a great college coach. You can’t take that away. And he won national championships and that’s what the fans care about,” McMurphy said. “If Urban Meyer was coming off a 4-8 season with a career .500 record, one, he would have been fired instead of just a three-game suspension. And I probably wouldn’t have gotten all the hatred and feedback that I received.”
This did not stop McMurphy’s reporting. On Aug. 17, he published another story, this time not on Facebook but on Stadium’s website. It said that Zach had ordered more than $2,200 in sex toys, male apparel, and photography equipment and had all the packages delivered to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. It also reported on Zach taking photos of his penis while at the White House and Zach having sex with an Ohio State staffer at the office, and photographing it.
Weeks later, and nearly a month after Meyer had been placed on administrative leave, Ohio State published the results of an investigation done by outside counsel, which cost the university $1 million. The results, to anyone who followed McMurphy’s reporting and what Courtney had been saying, weren’t terribly shocking. It confirmed the 2015 investigation by Powell police. It confirmed the 2018 trespassing charge. It confirmed the protection order. It confirmed Zach’s bad spending. It confirmed his penis photos, which it called “sexually explicit photographs.” It confirmed the sex toys, and that he had been having sex with a football staffer.
But this was not received as vindication. From the outset, the investigative report itself admitted it was flawed. A review of Meyer’s phone, when Ohio State eventually got it on Aug. 2, would reveal that the phone was set to only retain messages for one year—as he had discussed with Voltolini. Investigators also were unable to get text messages from Gene Smith, Voltolini, and Zach Smith. The investigators also did not have access to the Powell police records—because Powell’s police chief refused to release them, claiming he could not because of privacy. In one interview, the chief went so far as to invoke Marsy’s Law, a law intended to keep crime victims informed of what is happening in their cases, as the reason he could not release any records.
The Dispatch sued for the police records and won, but they would not be released until December. By then, the national media had moved on. The investigation by Ohio State had been done. The university also did not release the hard copies of Meyer’s text messages, the ones quoted in this story, until a year later, after Meyer had served a three-game suspension, retired, and landed a cushy TV analyst job with Fox. Defector Media reached out to both Powell police and Ohio State for comment on their decisions to delay the release of these records. This story will be updated accordingly if significant comment is received. (After publication, an Ohio State spokesperson told Defector Media in an email that “all public records were posted online as they became available.”)
When Meyer announced his retirement, his wife sat down for an interview with ABC 6 in Columbus. She thanked Buckeye fans for their unwavering support of her and her husband through what she only referred to as “September.”
“To Buckeye Nation—this program is our home. And the support we’ve gotten through all of August and all of September,” Shelley Meyer said through tears. “It never wavered.”
On Sunday, Meyer made his NFL debut in Jacksonville’s loss to the Houston Texans. Defector Media reached out to the team to see if Meyer had any comment on this story, and will update if we receive significant comments.
How do you survive your life falling apart? You survive by having no other choice. After all the cameras left, after the reporters moved on to other stories, after Ohio State got a new coach, after Meyer triumphantly opened a restaurant six miles from where Courtney lives and got a new job in the NFL, Courtney still lived in central Ohio. She still had to finish nursing school. Her divorce was finalized in 2016 but, after Zach was fired from Ohio State, he asked the court for a reallocation of parents rights and responsibilities because he was traveling a lot less as well as modification of his child and spousal support. That wasn’t wrapped up until late 2020, when Courtney became legal custodian of the children, according to court documents. (As of Sept. 7, she is owed more than $129,000 in child support. When asked about this, Zach blamed his lack of payments on Courtney.)
But she just kept going. One of Courtney’s longtime friends said she cried when she heard Courtney had gotten her nursing license. She had no idea how Courtney did it.
“With everything you’ve been through, you’ve done this amazing thing,” her friend recalls telling her. “Now you can provide for your family for the rest of your life. She’s an amazing woman.”
Firing Zach might have stopped him from being a legal problem to Ohio State, but it did not end his growing familiarity with the criminal justice system. He was able to plead down the criminal trespass charge, the one that tipped off all those reporters, to disorderly conduct, in return for Courtney having her protective order for three years, according to a memorandum of understanding. Then he got charged again. On May 9, 2019, Courtney got a call from her children’s school saying Zach was trying to pick up their kids. Zach wasn’t supposed to have the kids at that time, according to their parenting plan, so Courtney said she would come and get them. Courtney arrived, then Zach. The school’s principal put Courtney in one room and Zach in another, she told the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office in a witness statement.
“I asked him to come into the office to clarify the parenting agreement. Zach started to raise his voice, saying he was allowed to take his kids and I could not stop him. I brought him to my office, keeping the door open. I showed him the parenting agreement, stating he did not have custody of the kids until 6:45 p.m. on Thursday,” principal Melany Ondrus wrote. “He continued to raise his voice, saying that was not my job and he would slap us with a civil suit. He said if he needed to call the cops he would, and I replied that would be my next step as well.”
The ensuing investigation found that by being at the school, Zach had violated the protection order. He would be charged with one count of violating a protection order.
The same month, Zach launched his own podcast. It’s best described as hours of talk about the extreme minutiae of Ohio State football as well as college football, from a guy who has some stories about Urban Meyer, all served with a heaping side of men’s rights rhetoric, some of it directed at Courtney herself.
Lamb promoted the podcast’s launch, and the show currently has 1,600 reviews on iTunes. He’s leveraged his relationships with former Ohio State athletes for credibility, and hosted a tailgate on Saturday with former Ohio State wideout Braxton Miller. The show is widely heard in enough of the Columbus area that Courtney’s sister had a friend who listened to it for a while. She said her friend stopped once she explained who Zach was, but the experience reminded her how little people still knew about what her sister had been through, because almost everything that was written or reported was about Zach.
“It was never from my sister’s point of view, it was never from how she feels, like, about anything. I feel like it was all about him because he was the public figure. He was the one that people cared about because he’s a coach. Everyone loves him. He’s in this community,” Michaela Carano said. “I feel like people didn’t care about my sister because she’s a nobody, she was nobody other than being his wife.”
For Courtney, the show has meant she’s changed her behavior. She tries to be careful about whom she befriends. She never knows if another parent is a fan of the show and what that means they’ve heard about her. She told me, “It has changed my way of living.”
On Dec. 19, 2019, Zach was convicted of one count of violating a protection order. It was his second trial on the charge, after the first one ended in a mistrial. Courtney couldn’t make it to the courthouse that day because she ended up with a nursing clinical that she couldn’t reschedule. But she was allowed to submit a victim impact statement to the court, which the prosecutor read aloud for her. In her statement, Courtney described everything it took for her to walk away from her abusive marriage, the difficult years she went through, and the current social media taunting she still endured from Zach, who still spends time online telling just about anyone that he never physically hurt his wife, and any information to the contrary is just a pile of lies cooked up by Courtney in order to ruin him. (Courtney is not alone. He also spends plenty of time calling anyone he doesn’t like, man or woman, a bitch.)
“I could stand here for hours giving everyone in this courtroom examples of the kind of abuse he, his friends, his family, and his network have inflicted on me before and after the CPO was implemented. But one only needs to see his public social media accounts for a glimpse—and that word is underlined to be emphasized—of the intimidation and harassment that occurs on a daily basis,” the prosecutor said, reading the statement for the judge. “I am still very aware of what he is capable of. And he has made every effort possible to keep my fear of him alive. I’ve come to accept that nothing will change unless the people he surrounds himself with will stop enabling him and he takes accountability and responsibility for the pain he has inflicted upon me and many others.”
Judge Marianne Hemmeter sentenced Zach to 20 days in jail, with credit for one day he already spent, as well as an anger management class and three years of community control.
“Nobody, not you, not the president, nobody is above the law,” she said at sentencing, later remarking, “I do take into consideration that a fine only would be very demeaning to the seriousness of the offense. Not only because there’s a victim involved that I do find was afraid of you, but because it’s demeaning to the system as a whole. Again, what point is a protection order if it’s not enforced? What point is the criminal justice system? If somebody who violates a protection order isn’t called to task?”
Zach served his 19 days in jail. He turned the entire case into a four-part series for subscribers only on his podcast, in which he called out various people—his lawyer, the prosecutor, the judge, and of course Courtney—as the reasons why he ended up in jail.
This is what still frustrates Courtney. There is no protective order to stop your ex-husband from calling you a crazy liar online, to his thousands of Twitter followers. “It does more damage,” she said, “than anyone would ever know.”
I reached out to Courtney back in January with no objective. I just wanted to tell her that I was thinking about her. It was when the Jacksonville Jaguars announced Urban Meyer as their new head coach. She wrote back and told me that she was thinking of telling her whole story. In the course of talking to her, as well as her friends and family, over the course of months, I asked her several times if she was OK with doing this story. There’s no ignoring what might happen with the Ohio State fans who still believe she was an evil woman out to destroy good men like Zach and Meyer, or even what Zach himself might say.
In every conversation we had, she came back to the same reason for going forward: She wants other women in abusive relationships, especially with coaches, to know they are not alone. She wants people to know victims of abuse don’t come forward so they can get lots of money, but because they’re afraid. She wants people to at least somewhat understand the hell that women go through and the power dynamics at play. She wants to talk about online bullying and the way it is used to hurt people. There is so much she wishes she had known before leaving her ex-husband, and maybe now this will help someone.
What gets her through every day is the same thing that has always gotten her through each day: her kids. They’re growing up, already more quickly than she’d like. They are the reason why she left, because she couldn’t imagine them growing up in a violent home. They are why she went to nursing school, because she hated the idea of not being able to care for them on her own. On the darkest days, she wakes up, drags herself out of bed, and gets through the day for them. Talk to Courtney for even one minute about her children and she will light up, because she is truly amazed at how great her children are.
They don’t have a perfect life, but it’s a good one, with a nice home, a dog, and signs with quotes that make Courtney smile scattered around. Her kids go to good schools, play sports, and have plenty of friends. Her daughter especially loves it when her aunt Michaela comes around. Despite everything, Courtney Smith still has her close group of girlfriends, the kind she can sit around the pool with in the afternoon and tell jokes. All the fears that so many people tried to implant in her brain—that she couldn’t leave her husband, that she needed to stay quiet, that she would be destroyed—are beaten back.
Courtney will tell you, like she told me, she has no idea how she got through it, but she doesn’t have to know how. What matters is she did.
If you or someone you know needs help, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available at 1-800-799-7233 or online at thehotline.org.