Gene Smith was the athletic director at Arizona State at the start of the century when he met fellow Notre Dame graduate Kevin Warren.
Warren, named Tuesday to succeed Jim Delany as Big Ten commissioner, was then a young attorney who in his spare time helped with Fiesta Bowl preparation. Smith and his wife, Sheila, had several dinners with Warren and his wife, Greta. They became close friends.
Smith’s impressions of Warren then?
“Professional. Extremely bright. High values. Very faith-based,” Smith said. “Just a good human being. Passionate about athletics. I knew one day he would be a significant leader in some space.”
In 2015, Warren became the NFL’s first black chief operating officer when the Minnesota Vikings promoted him to that job. Now he will become the first African-American to become the commissioner of a Power Five conference.
“I’m really happy,” Smith said. “Our conference has led intercollegiate athletics for a long time under Jim Delany’s leadership and our presidents’ leadership in the diversity space. To finally have a person of color in a commissioner’s seat in a Power Five conference says a lot about our conference.
“I’m just so happy for him. I’m happy we have someone who has risen to that position, and I feel confident he’ll do an exceptional job. It’s always hard to follow a legend, but I feel they found a person who has the capacity to do that.”
Warren was not frequently mentioned as a candidate to succeed Delany. Smith said he was part of a group that met in Washington, D.C., in April to discuss the profile and job description for the next commissioner but had no input once candidates were considered.
He said he did not learn that Warren was definitely the choice until Tuesday morning. Warren will start with the Big Ten in September and officially take over Jan. 1.
He will work with Smith for a minimum of two years. A contract extension for Smith, along with the contract of new football coach Ryan Day, was formally approved by the Ohio State’s board of trustees Friday.
Smith’s contract will run until June 2022. He will receive an annual increase of $100,000 from his pay of $1.42 million.
“I’m excited,” Smith said. “There are a number of things we want to do for the university and Buckeye Nation. I want to keep driving hard toward that vision and also help our association.”
Smith was recently named to co-chair an NCAA group that will examine how college athletes can be compensated for their name, image and likeness.
“I think the NCAA has to continue to move forward into the 21st century and beyond and want to be able to provide my diversity and experiences in help our association moving forward and change where appropriate,” Smith said.
“I have some things I want to get done and I’m blessed that the university is willing to let me do that.”