16 questions for Gene Smith
Ohio State’s AD shares insights that come with a decade on the job.
Growing up, who were the leaders and mentors in your life?
I was blessed. I had two beautiful parents. My father [Ted] was an electrical contractor who served in the Navy. Born in Kokomo, Indiana, but raised in Kentucky. My mom [Elizabeth] was a nurse for 33 years and was actually the nurse for the great Dr. [Benjamin] Spock A noted pediatrician, Spock wrote Baby and Child Care in 1946, and it’s still one of the best-selling books of all time, topping 50 million copies sold. Elizabeth Smith was a nurse for Spock from the late 1960s until the early 1980s at University Hospitals in Cleveland. So those were the people I had to look up to.
As I got to be 5, 6 years old, I began to go to work with my dad. He had me cleaning up job sites and things of that nature. The carpenters, the masonry guys, the plumbers — all those people became my mentors. I heard a lot of stories at a young age from guys who lived a very tough life. I learned a lot of my values from listening to those men and the things they had to overcome in their lives.
How did you first get interested and involved with athletics?
I didn’t really participate in organized sports until the 10th grade. My parents took me out of the public school system in Cleveland after the ninth grade and sent me to a private school in Bedford, Ohio, so I bussed from the east side of Cleveland to St. Peter Chanel, an all-boys private school.
I was one of three African Americans at that school out of about 800 students. And they all came up through the Catholic system. So I was really an outsider. My teams — the football team, the basketball team, the track team — those teams became the place where it was appropriate to blow some steam off if something had happened that day, but it also became the place I could go to and find comfort.
AD Gene Smith sits down with Ohio State Alumni magazine to discuss his first decade on the job.
Was the recruiting process the reason you developed an interest in playing football in college?
My aspiration was to go to a two-year school and then go back and work with my dad as an electrician. That was my life plan because I grew up in construction and was wiring homes when I was 13 years old.
Then all of a sudden in my sophomore year I really started getting recruited. I got some letters, and then in my junior year it really blew up. I actually came down here and visited The Ohio State University. John Hicks Hicks was a three-time letter winner for Ohio State, and his teams compiled a 28-3-1 record during the 1970, ’72 and ’73 seasons. He was the first Buckeye player to compete in three Rose Bowls. was my host. We had a pre-existing relationship with John because my sister knew him, so he was my host, and Ohio State was really my second choice to Notre Dame at the time.
What gave Notre Dame the edge?
I had a good friend from Warren, Ohio, named Ross Browner, who actually went on to play professionally with Archie [Griffin] with the Bengals Browner, a defensive end, and Griffin played together for five seasons with the Bengals. “Ross was a great player for us. He was team MVP in his first year in 1978 and that really set the tone for a great career," Griffin said. “His quickness, speed, instincts and knowledge of the game really set him apart from other players.”. Ross and I had become close friends, and we started getting recruited together. When we went to Notre Dame, Ara Parseghian was the coach at the time, and we felt really comfortable in that small environment. It was 8,400 students then, which I believe it still is today. We met some guys we got close with, and it became more about those relationships.
What was it like being a part of a college football program with a national following?
It was unreal. That first year, we won the national championship in 1973. We were undefeated. We had a coach by the name of Greg Blache, who worked with the black athletes there “I would never have gotten through school were it not for Greg Blache,” Smith said. Blache had a 37-year coaching career in college and the NFL. He served as defensive coordinator for NFL franchises in Chicago and Washington.. He told us that we were going to meet people. He said, “They’re going to give you their business cards. When you get their business card, write on the back of the business card where you met them.” So it became a thing where we were just collecting cards and playing games with it. “I got this many cards, how many did you get?” And that helped us quantifiably understand the magnitude of Notre Dame. Over time, you really appreciate that, much like Ohio State, you can go anywhere in the country and find an alumni contact.
As you approached college graduation at Notre Dame, what were your initial career aspirations?
I was sitting and watching a highlight reel from the year before in the auditorium in the football offices at Notre Dame, and (then head coach) Dan Devine came and sat next to me. He asked me what I was going to do. And I told him I actually had about seven or eight interviews lined up, including one with Secret Service and FBI in Washington, D.C., that I was kind of looking forward to. Dan said, “Have you ever thought about being a graduate assistant?” I said, “No, what is that?” Ultimately he asked me to stay on as a grad assistant. One of the full-time assistant coaches then left, and Dan promoted me to full-time assistant and head coach of the junior varsity. I got into coaching and did that for four years before going to IBM when (Devine) left.
You’ve talked about your time at IBM being hugely influential in your life. What was so formative about that experience?
It was the coolest experience of all time. My football experience is at the top of the pyramid, but my experiences with IBM are right there with it. This is in the early ’80s, so 1981–83. At that point, no one had computers. No one. They sent us to Atlanta for training where we learned how to program, because we had to understand how computers worked so as a salesman you wouldn’t overpromise.
I really got into it. I learned how they worked, then went back to South Bend. St Joe’s County was my sales area. Because of my name recognition as a coach, I could get in to see the CEOs. Rather than working through the controller or the office manager, I could go straight in to see the CEO and talk to them about the computers. And I learned a lot and became a very effective salesman. I made their Hundred Percent Club in the first year IBM’s Hundred Percent Club was established in 1925 and recognizes salespeople who meet or exceed their annual sales quota..
You were at Arizona State prior to coming to Ohio State. What made you decide to come to Columbus?
It was home. My parents were getting to a point in life where it would be nice to be close to them. It was obviously a great program. At the end of the day, it was The Ohio State University brand. I knew — and I know — the power of The Ohio State University. I’d been married and gotten divorced, and then met [my wife] Sheila when I was at Eastern Michigan. I remember she asked me, “What is your goal?”
I told her, “I want to be at a place where every Saturday morning I wake up and know our football team has a chance to win.”
At Eastern Michigan and Iowa State, that was a challenge. At Arizona State, we had a little bit better chance. But here, I knew I could actually realize that dream. Since Smith took over as athletic director, Ohio State football teams have compiled a 110-21 record and lost more than three games in a season only once..
Alumni have been vocal throughout the years about various changes in football ticket policies and procedures. What would you tell an alumnus who may not like a decision that’s changed his or her access to tickets?
We are inclusive in our decision-making in everything we do. There are very few decisions I make on my own, sitting in that chair over there. As an athletic department, we are totally integrated into the bigger university picture. We’re not one that sits on an island and says, “Let’s get the athletic director and the ticket manager and a marketing guy in a room and we’re going to make the decision on how it is going to go.” We don’t do it that way.
But when you have a product, and there’s supply and demand, you’re going to have issues. You just have to make sure you are operating with integrity and making the best-informed decision you can so that you can ultimately do what’s right.
How do you balance the needs of all the groups that have the option to purchase football tickets?
There is no stadium in the country, not one, that sits the multiple constituencies like we sit. That’s been an established tradition here, and it’s existed for a long time. We have Varsity O, season-ticket holders, donors, faculty and staff, long-term season-ticket holders, corporate sponsors and alums. We have 29,000 students we accommodate, and no one in the country comes close to that number.
What we try to do is work collaboratively with representatives of those constituencies who serve on the [Athletic] Council. This is a broad-based group of people, and working with them forces us to make decisions that aren’t conceived in a vacuum. You are never going to satisfy everyone, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to.
Many universities have been subtracting sports in recent years, but Ohio State has not and still boasts the nation’s largest athletic program. Why has this institution maintained so many sports that other schools have eliminated?
Frankly, because right now we can afford it. Most of those decisions where sports are getting eliminated are about money. We’re fortunate that we have the revenue stream that allows us to continue to support those programs. When you have the chance to create a remarkable experience for a talented young person in a particular sport that has great history and tradition here, then why wouldn’t you continue to do that?
What do you have to say about Ohio State teams winning five national championships in 2014–15?
It is really remarkable. When you consider the history of athletic excellence at Ohio State, I was shocked that this was the first time we’d won five in a year. It was a great accomplishment. When you look at what we’re trying to achieve across the board, those teams and coaches become exemplars for our other programs. I take a great deal of pride in those national championships. Nationally, it has happened before, but certainly not with any regularity. It’s an unbelievable feat.
What role does fan support play in helping your programs achieve success?
We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without great fan support. It is everywhere. In Ohio, around the country, around the world there are Buckeye fans. And when we welcome prospective student-athletes to our campus, they see the fan passion and engagement and excitement. Those elements definitely help us recruit the best student-athletes. And fans really provide us with the resources we need to build winning programs and people. They put the resources in our hands that allow us to get the best athletes and best coaches and teachers and have them compete and practice in the best facilities. We’re blessed in that regard. I’ve been at a lot of places in 30-plus years and our fan passion and commitment are unmatched.
How has the Big Ten Network helped both Ohio State and the conference?
It’s been wildly successful. We’re in 70 million homes nationally and internationally. You know it’s funny, I remind my colleagues when we go to AD meetings that when I go to my wife’s hometown in West Vancouver, B.C., she can get the Big Ten Network there, but not ESPN in their basic cable. And when we have a softball game on and an athlete from California and those parents can see their daughter play, that’s huge for us. Financially, it’s been phenomenal This past year, the Big Ten Network distributed roughly $1 million to each conference school as part of revenue sharing. This was the first year schools received those extra funds.. Some of the shows that have emerged on it are outstanding. “The Journey,” I think, is one of the best shows there is and we do some great features on our institutions. So it’s worked extremely well.
Where do you stand on the subject of paying players in addition to the scholarships they receive to represent Ohio State?
I’m not a big proponent of pay to play, but I’m a huge proponent of providing athletes with the resources they need. This is still an educational system. This is not professional.
Athletes gain an unbelievable amount of educational experiences here. The lessons learned through participation in sports and what we provide them — there’s a dollar tag associated with that. Take one of our student-athletes: That athlete has a nutritionist, a sports psychologist, an athletic trainer, a strength coach, a head coach, a position coach, a sport administrator, an academic advisor. Other students on campus don’t have that. There’s a whole infrastructure that helps student-athletes develop and be the best they can be.
I’ve always been a proponent of finding more ways to provide financial resources for athletes. I’ve been fighting for that for 10 to 12 years. Passing cost of attendance helps with that In January, college athletics’ power-5 conferences (Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, ACC and Pac-10) voted to allow schools to provide student-athletes with the full cost of attendance as part of their scholarships. This covers cost-of-living expenses that previously were not a part of athletic scholarships.. So in-state cost of attendance is $3,000 more than your direct expenses here at Ohio State, it’s 3,400 if you’re out of state. So now students get that extra money. When we say stipends, people aren’t typically on the same page as that. For us, that’s cost of attendance. The athlete gets more money in their pocket. Now it’s a little different if you’re off campus or if you’re on campus, but that’s in place that gets them more money.
The other piece that I think is very important to keep looking at is everything around their meals, travel, loosening up the per diem allotment, all those kinds of things. This past year, they passed meal legislation that says we can feed athletes anything we want at any time. That was huge and addressed a big issue.
What about providing athletes payment for their images or likenesses?
I’m not in favor of that. It changes the collegiate model significantly. If the O’Bannon case, which was approved by a judge in California, is not overturned on appeal, then we’ll be into a mode where we have to pay for student-athletes likenesses O’Bannon v. NCAA is an antitrust class-action lawsuit filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon. He filed suit after his likeness was used in a video game without his receiving compensation. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled in favor of O’Bannon last summer. The NCAA is appealing the decision.. Now it wouldn’t happen right away. There would be a long length of time before we got clarity on what the judge meant specifically in her ruling. But if we get to that, you can pay up to $5,000 per athlete for their likeness. That changes the collegiate model significantly. We’d have a lot of schools that would drop sports.