A leader among friends
‘There is no greater network than the Buckeye network,’ says new alumni association president and CEO Jim Smith ’91.
It was 1989, and Jim Smith was looking to get into grad school to study sports management. Three universities had strong programs, including Ohio State, but all three took an initial pass on him. Another year in California in the front office of the Visalia Oaks single-A baseball club, he thought.
But then Beau Rugg of Ohio State’s rec sports department called. Six weeks later, Smith was in Columbus preparing for the fall term and a graduate assistantship with Rugg, who had an unexpected opening. It was the start of a great relationship.
Not only that, it was the start of Smith’s deep appreciation for the people and programs of Ohio State. So deep, in fact, that he has just signed on to head The Ohio State University Alumni Association, which serves more than half a million of his fellow graduates.
Smith’s appointment as president and CEO of the alumni association and senior vice president of alumni relations followed a national search to replace Archie Griffin, who led the association for 11 years. Griffin moved to the role of special advisor with the university last year.
His first connection
“I received a call from Beau Rugg, who asked if I could meet him the next week for an interview. So I met him and Dr. Mary Daniels, who at the time was in charge of the sports management program,” Smith said. “I could not have been happier about the opportunity they provided me. It was the beginning of, really, my life — and a fantastic opportunity.”
When another chance to come to Ohio State appeared on Smith’s radar late last year, one of the first calls he made was to Rugg. He’d placed such calls before a few career moves, including one to the university’s Department of Athletics four years after he’d earned his master’s degree and moved away. Rugg had never steered him wrong.
“I will always remember the opportunity Beau gave me,” Smith said. “It ultimately led to meeting my wife, Polly, which led to three of our four children being born at the Wexner Medical Center. We have so many deep roots that are all tied back to Ohio State. It really is where my adult life started.”
Rugg ’81, ’82 MA, who concluded a 25-year career with Ohio State five years ago, said Smith has kept another return to campus in mind for a while.
“Ohio State does that to you. It’s tough not to be a big fan of The Ohio State University if you’ve been there. It’s something you look at as, ‘Gosh, if I could go back and contribute to that university ...’”
The ‘it’ factor did it
Jim Smith and his wife, Polly Flautt Smith ’91, are excited to be returning to their alma mater.
Smith’s emphasis on relationships such as the one with Rugg — on making and maintaining connections with friends and colleagues — is important to him. And people seem to know him for it.
“Jim and I have known each other since we were grad students,” said Richelle Simonson ’90 MA, ’08 MBA, who also worked with Smith in the Department of Athletics. “His relationship skills are unmatched. It’s one of the differentiators for him. He values people. It doesn’t matter if it is someone who he is working with, someone he is working for or someone he is supervising. He brings the same level of attentiveness and care to all of those discussions.”
That came through in Smith’s interviews for the alumni association job, said Ohio State Board of Trustees member Clark Kellogg ’96, who along with Marchelle Moore ’95, ’98 JD,
co-chaired the search process.
“We had terrific candidates who really fit the profile and were impressive and interviewed well,” Kellogg said. “Jim had all of that plus the ‘it’ factor. Hard to quantify, but you know it when you see it. Confidence blended with humility. Energy and passion. He oozed it.”
Firm family footing
Smith no doubt would be flattered by such praise. But to him, the younger of two kids who grew up in Milford, Connecticut, among a swarm of cousins, relationships are treasure. His dad was a foreman for JCPenney who built store interiors from the East Coast to Ohio, and his mom stayed home with him and his sister, Sue. Their family saw relationships as the foundation from which all good things sprang.
“Throughout my life and my career, the one absolute is the importance of building strong relationships,” Smith said. “I have been very fortunate that being successful at that has led to many good things.”
It’s certainly a nonnegotiable value for someone charged with keeping Ohio State connected to its 527,000-plus living graduates and managing a staff of 55 that plans events, offers career advice, supports alumni clubs and societies, facilitates volunteerism and coordinates other opportunities for alumni and the university.
“Relationships are all about building trust. And if you take that to heart and you bring that out every day, you really have great results,” Smith said. “That, in essence, is what we do at the university — engaging people, nurturing people, to have long, deep relationships with the university.”
Smith isn’t minimizing the challenges, not the least of which is keeping in touch and in tune with alumni across life’s spectrum — from grads in their early 20s to centenarians — and of many different backgrounds, ethnicities and interests. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t exist in quite the same way outside a large university setting, he said, and it’s what he finds most intriguing about this role.
The Smiths take advantage of a photo opp with Brutus in the Ohio Union.
The listening begins
The opportunity to return to Ohio State and move closer to family (Polly’s parents and siblings all live in central Ohio) was enough to pull him away from the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
His first step here, he said, will be to connect with as many graduates as he can.
“I want alumni and the Ohio State community to know that I am coming in to listen from the start. I have ideas, but I have to listen and understand first,” Smith said. “The alumni association is already considered to be one of the best in the country. That is a terrific accomplishment for everyone who has been here in the past. Under Archie’s leadership, it has been incredibly successful.”
Meanwhile, Griffin has plenty of confidence in where Smith will take the association. When both worked in athletics in the 1990s, Griffin saw Smith’s people skills up close.
“There’s an old saying that … alumni relations is about friend-raising. Jim will be very good at developing relationships with people, and that’s key,” Griffin said. “There’s no question in my mind, he is going to do great things in this position.”
And while Smith cherishes his days as a student and staff member here, he clearly believes in today’s Ohio State.
“I want people to know how much passion I have for this university and its mission,” he said. “Education is a critical part of all our success in life. And what Dr. Drake has outlined — making education excellent and affordable — is something we can all relate to. And I want to be a part of that and really help alumni rally around it.”
Jay Hansen contributed to this story.
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