If being a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee is the equivalent of gaining certification as a wine sommelier, Gene Smith figures he is fully qualified.
“I get it,” the Ohio State athletic director said.
He eagerly accepted the invitation to become one of three new members among the 13-person group that for the past three years selected the four teams that played in major-college football’s first extended playoff. Smith, who will serve a three-year term, said he will be in a comfortable place.
As a freshman in 1973, he was a member of a Notre Dame team that beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to secure a wire-service national title under coach Ara Parseghian. As a graduate assistant at Notre Dame in 1977, he helped the Fighting Irish to another wire title, under Dan Devine. And since 2005, he has been athletic director at Ohio State, which has played for national titles four times in that span, winning the first College Football Playoff title in 2014.
“I can watch the games, watch the plays, watch the positions, I know what’s happening,” Smith said. “I’ve seen top coaches — Jim Tressel was here, and now Urban Meyer, two of the best at putting together and leading teams. I was coached by Ara Parseghian and I worked for Dan Devine. I’ve seen the top of the pyramid.
“So I get the game, and I feel like I understand it enough where I can sit in a room and talk about the teams from that perspective.”
And if anybody starts pining about the good old days before 1998, when the Bowl Championship Series began, Smith can set them straight.
In the buildup to that 1973 Sugar Bowl, “It was kind of during that time frame when we players started to talk about how we could win it all,” Smith said.
But even after Notre Dame’s classic 24-23 win, the Fighting Irish captured only the Associated Press title. Alabama already had been declared national champion by the United Press International coaches' poll in voting before the bowls.
“We didn’t know that,” Smith said. “We figured if we won, we were national champions. I didn’t really understand that system then, not until I got out of college and became a coach.”
There was no system to match the top two teams until 1998 with the BCS, and it did so with an ever-changing formula involving computer algorithms and polls.
“People can argue with the BCS system, and it was flawed, but it was a major step in the trajectory to continue to improve the way to name a national champion,” Smith said.
Now humans make the call on the final four. Smith, who previously was on the selection committee for the NCAA basketball tournament and served as its chairman, understands the responsibility.
“I am going to be watching teams, but I am not going in with any preconceived notions,” Smith said. “I think right now it would be totally inappropriate to talk about what I am going to use as my criteria. I’ve got a lot to learn from the guys who are in the room.”