Gene Smith

Gene Smith took over as athletic director at Ohio State in June after a career that included a corporate stop at IBM as well as athletic director jobs at Iowa State and Arizona State. Smith, a Cleveland native, played football at Notre Dame and was a member of the Irish’s 1973 National Championship team. He recently sat down with the Ohio State Alumni Magazine for an interview. This is the complete transcript of the interview from the November/December issue of Ohio State Alumni Magazine.

OSAM: How has your transition been so far?

SMITH: It’s been great. The job is just what I thought it would be – challenging, yet educational. I’ve been focused primarily on the people, internally and externally. The people have been great. [Former athletics director] Andy [Geiger] did a marvelous job of hiring and so the people I work with on a day-to-day basis are great people. I’m just slowly learning everything about the institution and the culture.

OSAM: You are following an athletics director who accomplished a lot in the time that he was here. What kind of situation did Andy Geiger leave for you?

SMITH: Probably people as history goes on will look at Andy’s tenure and think mostly of the facilities. That’s certainly something they should do. The facilities he built during his tenure are great. They are exactly what we need for our student athletes. He also addressed a lot of the fan amenities – when you look at the ’Shoe – he addressed a number of those things there with that renovation. Obviously the Schott, Bill Davis Stadium, and Jesse [Owens track facility] and so on are great facilities.

But in my view, his greatest asset was his ability to hire great people. There are some great coaches, very good teachers who have the right philosophy and are outstanding to work with. The staff represent the same thing. They are great people with integrity and are highly motivated. People, in my view, are the heart and soul of what matters. You can have all the organizational charts, all the bricks and mortar, but in the end it comes down to people. Andy left things in very good shape.

OSAM: What specific challenges are offered by a school that features as many athletic programs as Ohio State does?

SMITH: Fortunately, another thing that’s pretty solid here are our finances. That is a challenge when you are offering a broad-based athletic program, making sure you have the financial resources to meet your mission. Our mission is to create an environment for our student athletes to be successful. That means three things. One, we want to first help them get their degree. Secondly, we want to help them grow as athletes and help them chase their dreams as athletes. And thirdly, we want them to grow as people from a holistic point of view so they can become solid decision-makers so when they get out into this complex society we live in they can ultimately become leaders. But you have to have the resources to make that happen.

Athletics are the last incubator in higher education where we can really have an individualized and developmental approach to young people. We have 900 [athletes], so our academic services area, our sports psychologists, our coaches, that team is hands-on in developing the individual. Then you have athletic training, strength and conditioning, and obviously the facilities that help you from the whole athletic point of view. So, it takes money to do all that and we want to be the best in the country, academically and athletically. Athletically, we’re there in a number of our sports, not all of them. Academically, we’re not there yet. Our graduation rates are okay, but they’re not where they need to be. Five to seven years from now they will be better. Resources are the biggest challenge, and fortunately we have a good revenue stream; and we’ll have to look at ways to maximize the 21 revenue line-items we have.

OSAM: You have been an athletics director at a few other places. What did you learn in those places that will aid you in this job?

SMITH: Every place I’ve been I’ve learned something different and something new. You continue to grow. I’ve learned things here and gotten better. The biggest thing that I’ll probably be able to bring here is just a different style. I will probably focus a lot more on what we do academically, particularly with those young people whose predictors say they probably shouldn’t have had a chance to matriculate here.

I feel we’ve done a marvelous job overall with our student athletes. Of our 900 [student athletes], 441 of them had a 3.0 GPA or better. But we have a population of anywhere from 40 to 50 young people who need special attention. We’ve already revised our academic plan as to how we’ll deal with those young people. We’ll have an individual plan for each of them. That’s one thing I’ll bring.

Another thing I’ll bring to the table is experience in dealing with marketing. When you look at our men’s basketball program with our average attendance, we have some opportunities there. We have the opportunity to sell out the Schottenstein Center for a lot of different games. So, I’ve created a team that is developing a comprehensive, integrated marketing plan. My experiences at IBM allow me to bring those types of talents and skills to the table. I’ve kind of honed those skills over the years, particularly at a market like Arizona where every pro team exists. You have to be pretty creative in a market like that, because I think they had tiddly-winks as a professional sport down there. So that’s something else I’ll bring to the table.

I’m just a people-oriented person as well, so I think that can be an advantage for me.

OSAM: As a former football player and an Ohioan, you can appreciate the passion Ohio State fans have for their football team. Have you enjoyed being part of the game-day experience here?

SMITH: It’s awesome. It is what it should be for college football. I haven’t been at a place like this since I played and coached [at Notre Dame]. I had that experience as a player and coach and I missed it. The places I’ve been in between there didn’t have that. I’m a football guy and football’s been a big part of my life. Although I love all sports, I do have a special affinity for football.

To be in the environment where people are allowed to demonstrate their loyalty and passion like they do at the games is refreshing. We do have some work to do. We have a small pocket of our fans who need to learn to behave a little bit better. We need to learn to embrace our visitors. I’m from the old school – you treat them well, you open the door for them, you give them a glass of water and then you kick their butt on the field of play and tell them, "Have a nice day, go home now." You know, there’s nothing wrong with that. Expect to win, and treat them them like you’ll beat them. It’s like athletes learn, you score a touchdown, act like you’ve been there before. That’s a little piece we need to work on to make sure that we minimize that behavior so our thousands and thousands of great Buckeye fans don’t get a black eye because of a few.

OSAM: What can the athletics department do to curb some of these instances of fan misbehavior?

SMITH: We have to recognize what we have. Coming to a football game is not a transaction-oriented deal. It’s not quid pro quo. It’s people who are coming to an event where they share their emotions. It’s an emotional thing. You have to understand that that’s what you have coming to the table. Starting from that basis, we need to educate. We need to constantly educate. We’ve started that.

The video board we’ve used and had some of our former and current student athletes talking about sportsmanship and things of that nature. We have more articles in our programs talking about sportsmanship. You’ll see over time different posters going up around our venues talking about sportsmanship, talking about NCAA compliance, and things of that nature.

But the biggest thing that we need actually occurred recently. There was an editorial in the Columbus Dispatch that asked fans to really help those fans who are not behaving. We need our fans and we need the community to step up. When they see inappropriate behavior, they need to seek help and allow our security people to deal with it. The fans see it. We can’t see it all the time. So we’re asking our community and our fans to step up. Let’s curb this behavior so our 105,000 fans don’t get a black eye. You’ll see some more initiatives like that. We’re real thankful that the editorial board of the Columbus Dispatch stepped up and started that initiative.

OSAM: While the football program merits a lot of attention, it’s clear that the basketball program seems to have its arrow pointing up for men and women alike. What are your impressions of Jim Foster and Thad Matta?

SMITH: It’s been great. I’ve watched those guys from afar. I watched Jim Foster at Vanderbilt and saw how well he performed there. I watched Thad [Matta] at Xavier and saw how well he performed there. So when Andy [Geiger] made those hires, I knew he’d made great hires. They’re just great people. They both share the philosophy of focusing on the whole student athlete. They’re not here to just keep them eligible and win basketball games, and I’m definitely not about that. They’re just good people and they do the job the right way. They’re easy to work with. When you have people who are on the same page when you walk in the door, it makes it a whole lot easier. 

–JAY HANSEN