Gene Smith knew that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany’s retirement was coming.
Ohio State’s athletic director has been close with the commissioner for decades and is one of Delany’s staunchest supporters.
“I’ve known for a couple months now,” Smith told The Dispatch on Monday after the Big Ten announced that Delany would retire June 30, 2020, when his current contract expires. “He and I chatted about where he is in his life.
“I’m just so happy for him. He’s obviously a leader in higher education and has significantly impacted so many people’s lives, including mine. It’s a major loss for us in all of higher education and obviously athletics.”
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As for speculation that Smith might succeed Delany as the conference’s commissioner, Smith said he is happy where he is.
“I’m blessed to be here at Ohio State,” he said. “There are things I need to complete here. There’s only one place I left where I didn’t get everything done when I started, and that was Arizona State. I have things that I want to get done.
“I have the best group of coaches I’ve ever been blessed to work with. I want to help them continue to be successful. We’re enjoying pretty wild success right now, but I want to solidify that for the long haul.”
But Smith wouldn’t completely close the door on the possibility.
“There’s never a ‘No,’ ” he said. “You can’t say that. All I can say is I have things I want to get done.
“I want to get those things done. My wife and I are committed to Columbus, Ohio.”
Delany, 71, has been commissioner since 1989 and established himself as one of the biggest movers and shakers in U.S. sports. He oversaw three expansions to increase Big Ten membership from 10 to 14 schools, and conference revenues increased dramatically under his watch.
"It's been an amazing opportunity to serve and lead these preeminent institutions, presidents, administrators, coaches and students," Delany said Monday in a statement. "It is incredibly fulfilling to support the hundreds of thousands of young men and women who have been afforded an opportunity to obtain best-in-class educations as a result of the invaluable, one-of-a-kind lessons learned through the unique combination of athletic and classroom competition."
The Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors has started a search for a new commissioner led by Northwestern president Morton Schapiro and the executive committee. The Los Angeles-based executive search firm Korn Ferry will assist.
Potential candidates could include former Big Ten network president and current Fox Sports executive Mark Silverman; Big Ten senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner; Big Ten deputy commissioner Diane Dietz; and Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips.
Smith said Delany has helped him since he was athletic director at Eastern Michigan in the 1980s.
“At every move, he’s someone I talked to about that move and got his advice and encouragement,” he said. “When I was at Eastern Michigan, I shared with him that my goal was to be in the Big Ten.”Join the conversation at Facebook.com/groups/BuckeyeXtraFans and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
He continued to seek Delany’s counsel as OSU’s athletic director. After he decided to part ways with men’s basketball coach Thad Matta in 2017, Smith talked to Delany, a former North Carolina basketball player, while hiring a successor.
“(He was) wanting to make sure that we hired somebody clean,” Smith recalled. “We were in the midst of the FBI stuff (investigating cheating at numerous college basketball programs) and all that. He was a huge confidant in that process.”
Smith said Delany also was supportive in the successful push he led to provide players with stipends to meet the true cost of attendance.
Delany’s signature achievements as commissioner included the formation of the Big Ten Network, which has been a financial boon to the schools, and expansion. Penn State started play in 1993, Nebraska started in 2011, and Maryland and Rutgers began play in 2014.
The last two additions, particularly Rutgers, have been criticized because of their lack of success in football. Smith took umbrage at that.
“You look at a person’s 30-year career in the Big Ten and look at the total sum of his impact, which is significantly positive, and people want to pick on something they perceive as negative. It’s disheartening. To me, why is there even a conversation on anything negative?
“Sure, Rutgers hasn’t performed competitively like they or any of us would want. But when we go play Rutgers on the East Coast, look at the viewership. Look at the value that brought to the Big Ten Network. At the end of the day, that wasn’t just about Rutgers’ competitiveness. That was about us having a presence on the East Coast and expanding the value of the Big Ten Conference. That’s sometimes lost.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.