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Q&A: Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith talks football, pandemic and finances

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, left, consoles quarterback Justin Fields after the Buckeyes' loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game on Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Gene Smith has led Ohio State’s athletic department since 2005. But no year was filled with as many challenges as 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted the fall football season and created a nine-figure hole in the department’s annual operating budget.

Despite a late start in October, canceled games and other challenges brought on by the pandemic, the Buckeyes continued their success on the field and reached the College Football Playoff championship game but fell short of a national title in a 52-24 loss to Alabama.

The Dispatch spoke with the 65-year-old Smith last week to look back on the bumpy season and ahead to the obstacles that await in 2021. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Question: What was it like to be on the field and see Ohio State play for a national championship when it wasn't long ago there was so much uncertainty about a fall season?

Answer: It was a little bit emotional, to be quite honest. The same experience occurred for me with the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis, the Sugar Bowl against Clemson and of course in Miami. You just have this sense of accomplishment. One of the reasons we fought so hard was to give the kids a chance to play, but you felt like you had a team that had a chance to be there. Everything you went through — the sacrifices, the pain, the pace, everything was worth it, because you gave those kids a chance. In all three of those contests, I looked at the kids and just said to myself, “This is great, this is what they want to do.”

Q: You had always been in support of moving ahead and playing a season. Looking back on everything, do you feel that was the right call? Or do you have second thoughts?

A: I think it was still the right thing to do. We were not able to play as many games as I would have hoped, and I still think we could have been able to play more had we started earlier, but what we did end up with was a good experience for our players. And their sacrifices every day, and their dealing with the adversity, and them coming through it, validated that. We didn't have guys opting out and quitting because it was just too hard to do. They wanted it.

Q: You mentioned the sacrifices players made. Obviously it was different than a normal season. What was the most challenging part of getting through it?

A: For them, it’s a number of things. You’re not seeing your families, you're not seeing your loved ones. And then I can't express enough with people, unless you went through it, being tested every day. It's an anxiety going up to getting tested, then there's an anxiety for 15 or 20 minutes while you wait for the results. So think about that for a whole season, six days a week, and while you may get used to it, you still have that anxiety because you think you've done everything to not catch the virus, but we've had kids that just don't know how the hell they got it.

And then the times I had to stand before them and tell them a game was canceled. For me, that was hard. For the Illinois contest, we literally took them out of the hotel. And I might not have this 100% accurate, but they were in the hotel for no more than 30 minutes in their rooms. So there were moments that were just nightmare moments. That was hard.

It was just so many different things along the way that were really challenging. Every day I got a call on the positivity rate. Who was positive? Who was negative? Those were anxious calls for me. You're sitting there, you call your colleagues during the week and you say this is what happened to us today. If this happens, then we might not be able to be there this weekend. And I'd get calls like that. So those calls were challenging.

Q: Did you ever reach a point in which you were concerned about being able to finish the season?

A: I never really thought that way. I just don't operate that way. It's just more about the day and the week. I shifted to that a long time ago. Especially in times of crisis, I just kind of look at what's in my immediate future, what can I handle now, and make sure that we are doing it safely. So I never really thought about if we're going to be able to make it through the season. That particular week, all I was thinking about was Illinois. And then once the Illinois decision was made, I shifted to the next week.  

Q: Can you provide a snapshot of how healthy and safe the team was able to be throughout the season?

A: Pretty good. We didn’t have any major problems until (the Illinois game). We had positives, but nothing major. So that game, we had a spike. And you saw on the field in the games after that who was missing. That game was our biggest challenge. But we were able to get it back to some normalcy. Using the word normal is not a good one because nothing was normal, but we got it back to a manageable way to handle things. That game, that week, was the one that was most problematic.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, right, greets Alabama coach Nick Saban before the national championship game.

Q: How much of the roster was ultimately impacted by the virus?

A: I can’t get into that.

Q: How would you evaluate the job Ryan Day did leading the program?

A: I can't begin to really articulate the job he did with the starts and stops and all the things he had to do outside of football just to help these kids move through. You have guys who can't be with their families, you have them tested every day, you get some guys positive, you got teams canceling.

I'm a communicator, so I would always tell him, 'Hey, look, this is happening at this school, there's a chance this game might get canceled.' So every day he's going into it and he's got to coach his team. When the Michigan game was canceled, we were talking every day that this is a possibility and it might get canceled, and we find out that it's canceled and we only got like 15 minutes to tell our team before it breaks.

There's just so many things that he did outside of football, X's and O's, that were phenomenal. Keeping the kids together, we never splintered. I was really proud of how he held things together.

Q: How much did this season affect the financial outlook for the athletic department? In September, there was a projected deficit of $110 million for the 2021 fiscal year. But that was before factoring in media rights revenues. Sitting here in January, how do things look compared to September?

A: Through the expenditure reductions and cost containment things we put in place, along with still waiting on our finals from the television media rights deals, we’re going to be south of $70 million (short). I’m hopeful it’ll be south of $60 million as far as our deficit is concerned. We still have all of this winter, spring to mitigate expenses. So significantly different than what we started out with.

Q: When do you expect to get a better ballpark figure for TV payouts?

A: We probably won't know until basketball is over because all of that is together. You have to take and consider whatever postponements occur in basketball. Fortunately most of our teams in the league have played a majority of their games. I know Nebraska is sitting right now, but there haven’t been many cancellations yet. Knock on wood.

Q: Do you have a most optimistic scenario? Are you hoping to get 80% of normal revenues?

A: I don't even do that anymore because you get your hopes up.

Q: Do you see next season looking normal?

A: God, I hope so. You listen to all the medical stuff, and you pray that somewhere in the summertime we have significant vaccinations, and you come up with a strategy to hopefully have people back in the stands. My assumption is you'll still probably have to have some protocols in place. I just don't know. It's hard to project that. You just hope based upon all the different vaccinations that are beginning to go. We just have to wait.

Q: The Michigan game was supposed to be at home, and wasn't played at all. Will it be in Ann Arbor this year? Or are there any thoughts about tweaking the home-away setup?

A: Right now, we're staying with our current schedule with Michigan. So we'll go up there this year.

Q: Will the team be able to go through winter conditioning and spring ball on time?

A: We're optimistic that we'll do our winter workouts just like we normally would, except we'll do them in small groups. So the same process we implemented in June and July. Then the spring, we'll just have to wait and see. We still have testing capability, so if we wanted to re-engage testing so they can have spring practice, we can do that.

Q: Your contract is up at the end of the next academic year, in June 2022. How long do you want to be at Ohio State and how do you see retirement eventually?

A: Until somebody mentions it, I never think about it. I'm just trying to do the job (university president Kristina M. Johnson) wants me to do. And as long as I'm healthy, and as long as she wants me, I'll work for her. As long as I feel I can give her what she needs, I'm gonna do it. My passion hasn’t changed. I love the people I work with. I love Ohio State. I love the student-athletes I serve. So I don’t think about ’22. I’m just trying to get through ’21. That’s how I am. I've never thought about how I'm going to retire on X date. I've been blessed. I’m healthy. So I’m just going to continue to work, and if the boss wants to make a change, then I’ll respond to that.

(Note: The Dispatch spoke with Smith on Wednesday, before he was mentioned as a candidate for Pac-12 commissioner to replace Larry Scott, who reached a mutual separation agreement with the conference. Smith later said in a text message that reports linking him to the opening were "pure speculation.")

Q: What has new President Kristina Johnson been like to work with?

A: Oh my goodness she’s great. We were very fortunate because she was an athlete. Her spouse was an athlete. So that understanding of why we do what we do is just naturally there. But from a leadership point of view, she's amazing. She's just phenomenal. Great vision. Just unbelievable ability to connect with people. She's had such a great background because she's an academician, but she's got the entrepreneurial side. So it’s really a joy to work with her.

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman