Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith has had a lot on his plate lately. A little more than a year ago, he hired Ryan Day to succeed the retiring Urban Meyer, and Day led the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff.
Smith stepped down from the playoff selection committee before last season, but he was one of the leaders of an NCAA working group dealing with name, image and likeness issues that likely will transform college athletics.
Smith, 63, has also presided over major construction projects, including the Covelli Center and Schumaker training complex. In this Q&A, which has been edited for brevity and clarity, he addresses these and other topics, including his future:
>> The full interview can be heard as a podcast at BuckeyeXtra.com.
Q: What are your thoughts on the proposal from the Big Ten that would allow athletes in football, basketball, hockey and baseball to transfer once without sitting out a year? I understand you’re in favor of it.
A: I think we’re in a day and time when you have a different kid. It’s always been my philosophy that if a young person gets to a point where they want to transfer, the majority of time (the reason is) playing time. That’s easy. Let them go. If it’s for reasons that we truly don’t understand, we need to look at ourselves: Did we not meet a promise we made? Is our culture such that the young person didn’t have a quality experience? What didn’t we do? Don’t look at the kid; look at us.
So I’ve been of the opinion, and my coaches know, when we get to that point a young kid is ready to leave, let them go. I don’t know how you continue to justify that student-athletes in these sports don’t have the same opportunity that athletes in swimming (and other sports) get.
Q: You often use the word "holistic" in your approach to student-athletes. That’s particularly relevant in the situation with men’s basketball player D.J. Carton, who has stepped away to deal with mental health issues. How important is that approach?
A: I’ve always felt you have to develop the whole person and be sensitive to the human being. You send your son or daughter to us. We sit in your living room, and we tell you we’re going to help them be a great player and we’re going to help them get their degree, but we’re (also) going to be an extension of you and help them grow as a person. You’ve instilled values in them, and that’s what I want to stay true to. All my coaches know that. How do we help them get through the challenges that they’re going to face in three, four or five years in college?
Q: Let’s move on to football and Day’s first year as head coach. Beyond the record, how would you evaluate it?
A: It went better than I thought, on many levels. Obviously, the wins and how we performed was phenomenal. But look at how he created his culture and how he administered his team. People tend to forget about the personnel management part of this. He just doesn’t have his assistant coaches, he’s got all those other people. So that personnel management is a significant responsibility, and he did a masterful job with that. And then, you know, shifting the culture a little bit to his style versus Urban’s style.
Q: What are your thoughts on potential College Football Playoff expansion?
A: I think it’s going to happen. I’m concerned, first and foremost, how they do the schedule because of health and wellness (considerations). When you look at our schedule last year, we played Penn State, the team up north and Wisconsin (in consecutive weeks). That’s a brutal schedule. Our guys were in the cold tubs forever. So I’m concerned. You’ve got finals week in there. I’m kind of old school; I think there ought to be a window around Christmas. I think (expansion) is going to happen. I don’t know structurally what it will look like, but probably eight (teams).
Q: You were head of one of the committees studying the name, image and likeness issue, which is now in the forefront. How much of that is occupying your time right now?
A: Not as much as people think. It was from May to November of last year. We submitted our report in October to the board. And we had to do some work after that.
Q: Do you have a sense of how it will be resolved?
A: I think it won’t be resolved until 2021. We need federal assistance to come up with something as standard across the country. You can’t have all these states having different laws. Otherwise, this thing falls apart.
We have to do something with NIL, and the more I got into it, the more I realized there are things we can do that can be regulated. There are things that will require minimum legislation. There are things that are going to require major regulation.
Q: You’ve just opened the Covelli Center and have other projects in various stages of completion. How have they turned out?
A: Great. The Covelli has really impacted all the sports there: men’s and women’s gymnastics, wrestling. Oh my goodness, wrestling’s unbelievable, it’s just the craziest thing to see. For the two volleyball programs, it’s an intimate environment. It’s the most advanced building technologically that we have — the video boards, the lighting system. Everything’s phenomenal.
The Schumaker (training facility), if you interview any student-athlete, they will tell you, hands down, that’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. We’re building a tennis facility now. We’re raising money for a lacrosse stadium. We’re looking at other things that we’ll ultimately do. We (also) have our programs (like our) leadership institute. Ninety-one percent of our kids last year had jobs or were going to grad school or going pro. This year, we’re already sitting at 42% of our kids who graduate in May already have jobs or are in grad school or going pro. So metrics-wise, we’re ahead of where we were last year.
Q: Your contract expires in June 2022. What are your thoughts about your future?
A: I’ve said that as long as I’m healthy and as long as I’m still passionate, which I am, as long as they want me, I’m here, I’m not going anywhere. I don’t live by the contract. I live by: Am I healthy? Am I still passionate? And do they want me? They might not want me and I still might be passionate and healthy. But I’ve got a lot of things I want to accomplish, not just for football but for our other sports.