Gene Smith, Ohio State's athletic director, is highly regarded in the NCAA and has brought millions in revenue to Ohio State's athletic coffers. But that might not mean much if he is found to have been negligent in handling allegations of domestic abuse against former assistant football coach Zach Smith. Head coach Urban Meyer, who fired Zach Smith on July 23, also is under investigation.
Gene Smith has overseen impressive success since his hiring as Ohio State University’s athletic director in 2005.
The Buckeyes have excelled in football and basketball and have elite teams in many other programs. OSU ranks third nationally in athletic revenue, growing from a reported $88.8 million in the 2004-05 school year to more than $170 million now.
Nationally, Smith is so highly regarded that he has served on some of the NCAA’s top committees, previously for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection and now for the College Football Playoff.
But the 62-year-old also has had to navigate some OSU scandals. He has survived those, most notably the tattoo-and-memorabilia saga that cost football coach Jim Tressel his job in 2011.
Now, Smith is involved in another controversy, one that has put another iconic coach, Urban Meyer, in jeopardy. Developments last week also could put Smith in the crosshairs as well.
On Friday, fired OSU assistant coach Zach Smith said that it was Gene Smith, not Meyer, who first talked to him about the domestic abuse allegations involving Zach Smith’s now ex-wife, Courtney.
Zach Smith told The Dispatch that he was on a recruiting trip in October 2015 when Gene Smith called him after being notified of the allegations. The AD told the coach to return immediately to Columbus to deal with the issue, Zach Smith said.
It is unclear what Gene Smith did beyond that.
“He didn’t really have much involvement with me,” other than telling him to return home, Zach Smith said. “I think I talked to him one other time a little bit later about it, just to update him. Outside of those two conversations, I had a couple conversations with Urban and that was about it. They were letting the police do their job before they had any reaction.”
Gene Smith has declined to comment to The Dispatch in recent days, saying he wants to allow the six-member committee heading Ohio State’s investigation to do its work.
On Friday, Meyer released a statement acknowledging that he “failed on many fronts” in his answers about his knowledge of the Zach Smith allegations. He added, though, that he had followed “proper reporting protocols and procedures.” That would presumably include informing his athletic director of anything he knew.
It is unknown what Gene Smith knew about the credibility and seriousness of Courtney Smith’s accusations. The Powell police department said it did not inform OSU of the allegations. But Zach Smith remained on the staff until July 23, when, he said, Gene Smith and Meyer fired him in a phone call from Chicago.
>> Read more | Complete coverage of the Urban Meyer investigation
That prompts two questions: One, if the 2015 accusations against Zach Smith were credible, why did Gene Smith and Meyer allow him to remain on the staff? And two, if the accusations against the receivers coach weren’t credible, why fire him at all, other than for public-relations reasons?
The current charge Zach Smith faces, misdemeanor criminal trespass, apparently stems from a dispute over where he dropped off the couple’s son, not a physical or verbal altercation.
Nathaniel Grow, a professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business with expertise in sports law, said he has followed the OSU case, though he has no details beyond what’s known to the public.
But he examined the contract Gene Smith signed in 2014 and believes the AD could face some peril depending on what the OSU investigatory committee learns about his response to the Zach Smith allegations.
Gene Smith had his contract amended in early 2015 to eliminate bonuses based on athletic performance. His contract expires in June 2020 and calls for him to earn a base salary of $959,263.
“There are definitely several provisions in here that could trip him up,” Grow told The Dispatch. “The big question is: What did he do with that information once he became aware of it?”
Smith’s contract requires him to “personally comport himself at all times in a manner consistent with the high moral, ethical and academic standards of OSU and the athletic department.”
Grow cited a section in Smith’s contract that requires him to immediately report to the university and athletic department’s compliance departments if he has reasonable cause to believe that a person “has violated or is likely to violate or may potentially have violated” laws or OSU policies, rules or regulations.
Grow outlined several scenarios of how this might unfold. If Smith failed to go up the chain of command, he probably would be in breach of his contract, he said. If Smith did report it to the proper people and they left the decision to retain Zach Smith to him, Grow said, it could still be deemed a violation of that ethical and moral standards clause.
Even if Smith did everything right, Grow believes there’s a small chance that the fallout from this controversy would cause OSU to want to part ways with him.
Grow also allowed for the possibility that Smith could defend taking no action based on the fact that Powell police didn’t press charges against Zach Smith.
“If I’m his defense attorney, I’m saying, ‘Well, if the police decided they’re not pressing charges, then they are the ones who determine whether the law has been violated,’ ” Grow said. “And if the police don’t think it’s been violated, then he hasn’t messed up there. There was no legal violation so there’s nothing to report.”
Those who’ve worked with Gene Smith said he has always handled difficult situations properly and expect that he did so in the Zach Smith case.
“His integrity is impeccable,” said Boston College AD Martin Jarmond, the former No. 2 under Smith at OSU. “He’s the best leader I’ve ever been around.”
Pat Chun is now athletic director at Washington State after serving under Smith.
“Within the AD community, he has been for quite some time considered among the best, period,” he said. “His track record speaks for itself. Being someone who worked for him, a lot of it is just how he treats and invests in and mentors and guides people.”
Several OSU coaches came forward, unsolicited, to praise Smith.
“Gene is a man of high character, high moral value, and it’s difficult to see him be portrayed in a light that is not in an alignment with what I see every day,” said Carey Fagan, a longtime OSU gymnastics coach who’s now an associate AD.
She said that with a new school year to start soon, those in the athletic department are trying to keep a business-as-usual approach. But the uncertainty about Meyer and potentially Gene Smith hovers.
“People are on edge,” Fagan said, “because like the rest of the community, we’re looking for answers.”