Texts from August show Ohio State considered an independent football schedule

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State athletic diretor Gene Smith, president Kristina Johnson and Wexner Medical Center CEO Harold Paz listen to Gov. Mike DeWine speak after he toured the COVID-19 mass vaccination facility set up at Ohio State's Schottenstein Center on March 9.

Text messages between Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and then-president-elect Kristina M. Johnson from August show the school examined the possibility of an independent football schedule following the Big Ten’s initial cancellation of a fall season.

Smith wrote to Johnson on Aug. 12 to say that he was reading their contracts to see if it was permissible to play outside of the conference after she had earlier asked about the idea.  

The exchange was included among thousands of pages of emails and text messages released by the university on Wednesday in response to public-records requests filed by The Dispatch and other news outlets.

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“Anyway to go independent?” Johnson wrote.

“Thanks for your comments boss,,,” Smith replied, “just jumped off university call and on the Big Ten call. Your comments are so appreciated…I am trying to understand our contracts and if we can play independent this year.”

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.

Hours after their initial exchange, Smith followed up with Johnson, writing that it was not permissible and that he had discussed the situation with league commissioner Kevin Warren.

“We cannot play this fall,” he said, “spoke with Kevin and he clarified, we are good, working on a spring plan, all good, you chill!!”

"Bummer," Johnson wrote in response. 

Smith did not provide additional details in his series of texts to explain which contract provisions prevented the Buckeyes from forming an independent schedule in 2020.

By the evening of Aug. 12, Smith further shut the door on the idea, tweeting that it would not be "an allowable opportunity" to play games outside of the league.  

Ohio State was not the only school in the Big Ten to explore playing as an independent after the conference’s presidents and chancellors voted on Aug. 11 to not hold a season in the fall because of the coronavirus pandemic. Administrators from Nebraska released a statement on the same afternoon that acknowledged the idea was under consideration.

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But the Buckeyes’ leadership avoided making any public pronouncement about their exploration.

The Big Ten ultimately reversed its decision and resumed a football season in October, allowing Ohio State to play eight games over its season, including reaching the College Football Playoff final.

The school did not favor the initial decision to cancel a fall season and was among three, including Iowa and Nebraska, to vote against it in August. Eleven were in support at the time.

Ohio State University President Dr. Kristina M. Johnson.

In a text to Johnson ahead of the vote by the presidents and chancellors on Aug. 11, Smith told her that he was in favor of delaying a season until Sept. 26 or Oct. 1, mirroring his later public comments. He did not want the season pushed back until the spring.

“Are you ok with postpone to spring,” Johnson asked.

“No, if that is proposal we should vote no… in my view…,” Smith wrote. “Spring may not happen either…In my view it is delay until Sept 26th or Oct 1. Otherwise we should not support is where I am…”

“Yep,” Johnson replied.

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“Thanks,” Smith wrote, adding a prayer emoji.

The Southeastern Conference was then planning to starts its season on Sept. 26, while the Atlantic Coast and Big 12 conferences were beginning earlier in the month.

Smith told The Dispatch after the season had ended in January that he thought the team could have played more games had it started earlier.

Three games were canceled in November and December due to coronavirus outbreaks among teams and none of them were rescheduled.