Gene Smith reflects on tenure at OSU ahead of retirement

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – After 39 years as an NCAA Division-I Athletic Director, with 19 of those spent at Ohio State, Gene Smith has 73 days left on the job before retirement.

“The fact that I am from Ohio and Cleveland, and I was hopeful when I came here that this would be my last job in my career and in the state that I love,” Gene shared at a special event put on by Ohio State where he sat down with journalist Doug Lesmerises.

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The heralded athletic director did share that when the Ohio State job came open in 2005 while he was the athletic director at Arizona State, he didn’t exactly jump at the chance to return to the Midwest.

“When I first got the call from Ohio State it did just come out of the blue. I knew it was open,” he shared. “I actually turned down the interview twice. Yeah, I did.”

“What!?” exclaimed Lesmerises in surprise.

“Let’s be clear, Doug. I mean you know Cleveland,” Gene said to the former Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter. “I was in Arizona living on a golf course, 10th tee box right out the back gate. Pool in the backyard. Mountains in the backyard. I could play nine (holes) with three clubs and two beers. I want to come back to Ohio?” Gene smiled with a chuckle and then added in all seriousness he didn’t feel like at the time he had completed the goals at Arizona State he’d set out to complete.

“I had a hard time taking the interview,” he said.

He did, of course, take the interview with the Buckeyes and in almost two decades in Columbus has taken the athletic department to new heights.

“My mentor said leave healthy, leave it better than you found it, try your best to leave on your own terms,” Gene shared with NBC4 after the event had wrapped up. “I feel like I’ve done that. I feel like Ohio State and Ohio State athletics, I hope the Columbus community – I don’t know that – I hope that our impact here and I saw ours. I mean my wife and I. I hope our impact here has been positive and we left it better than we found it.”

Ohio State has the most sports of any athletic department in the country at 36. Not only has Gene been able to keep all those programs running, especially through and after the COVID-19 pandemic, but he has made key hires for some that have made them the premier program in the country and has experienced multiple national championships – some of those being his greatest memories while on the job.

“I gotta tell ya, the wrestling championship in St. Louis, maybe because I had such a connection with those athletes,” he shared as maybe his favorite memory of his time at Ohio State. “Seeing those athletes on that stage and that environment with their individual championships…I got jacked up around that championship. I was a complete idiot-fan at that one. I didn’t cuss anybody out, but I was close!”

It hasn’t always been about raising trophies and cheering on student-athletes in the arena. Gene has always been known as a pro-student-athlete athletic director with regards to his views on the collegiate sports model and he admits things could have been done differently in the years leading up to where we are today.

“I think (the NCAA) worked exceptionally well during my tenure. What it didn’t do was shift,” Gene said. “Which is why you have all these interest groups, pressure groups, in it right now: lawyers, politicians, everybody. So, when there’s a leadership void then people will step in. I just believe that for a long period of time, as an association, none of us forced a shift in the association and that’s caused some of the problems we have today.”

So NBC4 had to ask: does Gene think in 10 or 20 years the NCAA will still exist?

“I think you’re going to have an organization, whether it’s branded as the NCAA I don’t know,” he said. “I think there will be an organization and I’m one of those believers that NCAA should rebrand itself because right now it’s not a good brand. But I believe there will be some governance body in some form or fashion.”

With the uncertainty of where college sports is headed some may wonder if that is why he chose this time to step away; but in fact, he said he wishes this era had happened years ago when he was younger so he could help tackle it.

“Can it work for athletic departments to directly pay athletes or at least some athletes and what are the trade-offs that may be made with that when it comes to filling the other 35 sports?” Lesmerises asked during the conversation on stage.

“I think will it work? Yeah it’ll work. You just have to figure out how. I just don’t know what the revenue-share model is going to be,” he said.

He then started sharing his vision, by laying out student-athletes expenses: room, board, books and tuition, cost of attendance and then he hopes a monetary number that’s NIL rights coming from the revenue-share.

“For us, not knowing what the court case is going to be — if it’s just 85 scholarships or 125 football players – but you’ve got 125 football players, you’ve got 13 basketball players, you’re at 138, so for us, at least, you’ve got to find 138 women on the other side,” he said. “So you’ve got 276 student-athletes you’ve got to figure out what that model is. What is that other number? I call it NIL rights. Then you create a licensing program for all your student-athletes. You bring NIL in-house like Virginia is doing. And you allow the University and you allow the athletic department to do NIL deals for those student-athletes.”

Still, Gene made it very clear that the first word of student-athlete is student. He said many times players are not drafted, they’re recruited.

“I think whatever model exists has to be tethered to education. All the blessings that I’ve had, thinking back not just football players but athletes over the years, we’ve changed so many people’s lives,” he said. “I’m just passionate about giving these young people the opportunity to be educated.”

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