COLUMBUS, Ohio — In his nearly 12 years as athletic director at Ohio State University, Gene Smith has been through good times and bad.
In 2005 he replaced Andy Geiger, who retired after the Maurice Clarett academic scandal, and in 2011 Smith presided over the suspension, fining and eventual resignation of head coach Jim Tressel, who tried to hide information and then lied to NCAA investigators about tattoos and other benefits players had received in exchange for championship rings, jerseys and other memorabilia.
Smith replaced Tressel with Urban Meyer, who had quit at Florida due to health issues, and Meyer has since brought Smith and the Buckeyes an undefeated season (2012) and a national championship (2014).
Smith, a native of Cleveland, is in the rare club of winning a national championship as a player, as a coach and as an athletic director. He played college football at Notre Dame and was previously athletic director at Arizona State, Iowa State and Eastern Michigan. He also was once out of athletics entirely as a computer salesman.
Since his arrival in Columbus, Smith has overseen a surge in the graduation rate of both Ohio State football players and Buckeye student-athletes at large. He’s also helped turn Ohio State athletics into a mega corporation. The school ranked third nationally in total revenue last fiscal year, according to USA Today, raking in more than $167 million (that ranked behind Texas A&M and Texas). Ohio State ranked fifth the previous year (behind Oregon, Texas, Michigan and Alabama) and second the year before that (behind Texas). That includes a $252 million deal with Nike (but not a 50-year, $483 million lease manage some 35,000 parking spaces across the nation’s third-largest campus of some 58,000 students).
Smith’s teams have won seven national championships since his arrival. In February he became the first sitting athletic director to receive the James J. Corbett Memorial Award, the highest honor in college athletics administration. He previously was named Sports Business Journal’s athletic director of the year, won the Carl Maddox Sports Management Award, and was named by Forbes as one of the most influential minorities in American sports and by Black Enterprise as one of the 50 most powerful African-Americans in sports.
Last week, before the Buckeyes’ 48-3 victory over Tulsa, Smith sat down in the AD’s box at Ohio Stadium for a one-on-one interview with The Franchise’s John E. Hoover to talk about the scope of his job, the genesis of the series with Oklahoma, what Sooner fans can expect next year and why he wants Urban Meyer to take more vacations.
John Hoover: I talk to Joe Castiglione from time to time about the challenges of being in charge of such a massive athletic department at the University of Oklahoma. You’re athletic director at maybe the largest athletic department in the country. Tell me about your job.
Gene Smith: I love it. I have a passion for it. Joe and I are really good friends. I have a few good friends in the industry and Joe’s one of them. He’s at the top of the pyramid. So I’m so anxious to get down there and spend time with him.
But I love it. We have 36 sports here, the most comprehensive in all of FBS. Stanford’s right there behind us. We have a thousand student-athletes, and they’re so much fun. They’re the best. Last week we recognized Kyle Snyder, who won the gold medal in wrestling. When you are able to create an environment for young people to reach those dreams, it’s phenomenal. But it’s a job I love. It is complex.
Hoover: It’s got to be a daunting task. I mean, sports is fun, but $154 million in expenses, $167 million in revenue — how do you stay on top of it all?
Smith: Well, it is a business. You have to keep in mind that you are slightly running a business in higher education. Because all of our revenue is externally derived. We get no tax dollars, no student fees. We’re totally, 100 percent self-sufficient. We transferred this past year a little over $40 million back to the institution for our $20 million in scholarships — we pay for everything — but the rest goes to different things on campus to support college and social work, the library or whatever. So we’re pretty blessed. We have a stadium that we sell out every game, 107,000, men’s basketball we’ll average about 16,000 in a 19,000-seat arena. So we do generate a lot of revenue. We have great partnerships with Nike, IMG and all those deals. So the thing for me is to always have, first and foremost, good people. We have 372 employees, and this is the best staff in my 30-plus years in this industry. Best staff I’ve ever had.
Your head coaches are your key leaders. Your head coaches are the ones, they’re the design-engineers of the lives of the student-athletes. So what you have to do is make sure, in that position, you have the right people. Best group of coaches I’ve ever had in my life. Across the board. So they share our philosophy of developing the total student-athlete. To me, it’s about, first and foremost, getting their degree. Second, winning championships. And then thirdly, we want to help them grow, during that four or five years they’re with us, as people. I’m very passionate about that. I sit in your living room and ask you to allow us to have your son or daughter, we make a promise to you, and I’m committed that we stay to that promise.
So, fortunately, we have the resources of Buckeye Nation behind us to allow us to do that. So I keep it straight because I have good people. I have accountable people. They have high integrity and they all have that same passion that I have for developing the total student-athlete. That makes it a lot easier when everybody’s aligned. So I have my ups and downs in this job. In 2011 we went through an NCAA investigation that was hard, and it damaged a lot of people, people I love, but you navigate through that and you come out the other side and you still have this platform that you’re blessed to have.
Hoover: I want to ask you about one of those coaches. Urban Meyer retires, cites burnout, significant health issues, and a year later he’s here at Ohio State leading the biggest program in the country. We know what kind of coach he is. How difficult was that for you to want to hire him? What fears did you have?
Smith: It wasn’t hard. I was fortunate because he was at ESPN. Had he been at another institution, I would have had to go through all the protocols dealing with that institution: calling my colleague, asking for permission, they have a contract there I would have to deal with. I didn’t have any of that. I was totally free, totally unencumbered to just talk to him. So it was easy to talk to him.
Hoover: Did you have to convince him — ‘hey, you’re still a coach’ — anything like that?
Smith: Not really. We just talked and he shared with me that he wanted to get back in. We talked over the phone and he shared with me that this is was the type of program that he wanted to get into. So we talked for a long time, on multiple occasions, before we met formally in Atlanta to close the deal. And I knew him. We knew each other over the years and it was very important for us to be aligned as people. He shares my same values and my commitment to the student-athlete development program. All of us wish, you wish, I wish we could take one year off and then go somewhere and be paid to go study the people who do what we do. For a year, he was going around the country, talking to other coaches, seeing how they ran their program, meeting student-athletes, seeing their facilities. That was a tremendous thing for him professionally. And then personally, obviously, he needed a break. And I think he benefited from that.
Hoover: The burnout thing was a real factor. Do you worry about that, him still burning the candle at both ends?
Smith: We talked real hard. I coached for a long time. I coached at the highest levels. I coached at Notre Dame for four years and then I sold computers in the ‘80s for IBM, and I know what kind of pressure it is and how you can burn out. I was an idiot. I burned both ends of the candle, and I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t do that early in my career. So I understood it. Fortunately, as a former coach, I understand what they have to do through their daily hours during a week, during a game week, and I know Thursday night, you don’t have to be there Thursday night. So he implemented his family program, where the families come on Thursday night. They’ll make some calls to recruits, but they’re not intensely coaching. They’re around their families.
Vacation in the summer time. It’s required. My staff knows I’m an idiot around vacation. I always tell ‘em, we do our staff meetings eight times a year, and I always tell ‘em, I’m that guy, if I was a czar, if you have vacation hours at the end of the year, I would take ‘em. In our environment, in most places in higher education, you can carry over your vacation hours and then when you’re done, they pay you for it. I’m that guy that—there’s a reason they call it vacation! Look it up in the Webster’s dictionary. So yeah, I’m a big believer in that.
And then I tell my development team, our fundraisers, we’re not gonna overtax Urban and give him some numbers to call when he’s traveling to Florida or somewhere. I don’t want to have a whole bunch of activities for him to do, all these events. That’s with all my coaches. I’m very committed to making sure they stay true to some level of work-life balance. Which is harder in football. It is. But I know, because I coached, I kind of know, what are you doing here? I kind of know that type of thing. Urban does a great job in letting them have time with their family throughout the season, the off week. He learned from that experience that he had, but I’m also one that helps him stay true to that.
Hoover: The genesis of the contract with Oklahoma between you and Joe, this goes way back. I know Joe sometimes likes to do these things 10 years in advance, if not more. Tell me about that.
Smith: It’s one of those things where we felt it was important to play. We’re huge on having at least one major major on our schedule every single year. We’ve had USC, we’ve had Texas. We had Virginia Tech. We’ve got Notre Dame coming down the line, and Oregon. It’s just natural for two programs like ours to play. So actually, my predecessor did this one. I inherited this deal. So it’s one that, at our level, you just have to play. Fans love it. I’m just glad we got it. It’s just the coolest thing.
Hoover: You’ve been here 12 years …
Smith: I’ve been here 12 years. This was done just before I got here.
Hoover: Did you look at the contract and the schedule and say, ‘Uh oh,’ or was it more, ‘All right, cool. Let’s go.’
Smith: No, this is awesome! One year we played Texas and Notre Dame in the same year. We had a little space there. So I just love it. This is what it’s all about.
Hoover: Especially now in the playoff era.
Smith: Yeah, especially now. We went from eight conference games to nine conference games, and we made a decision not to play FCS, which was hard for us. But we also made a commitment for everybody to play that type of matchup, the Oklahoma-Ohio State matchup. Because we think it’s important for the playoff. It’s also important for our television partners, it’s important for our fans, and frankly, it’s important for the game. There’s a reason this is so popular. Look at (Week 1 of this season). Oh my goodness. LSU-Wisconsin. What a game. Notre Dame-Texas. What an unbelievable weekend of games. So I think it’s incumbent on all of us, particularly at this level, to create those types of matchups for all the reasons we know. I think it’s very important.
Hoover: You mentioned fans. Do you get feedback from the Ohio State fans about, ‘Hey, they beat us back in 1977; that kick through the uprights…” Do you still hear that?
Smith: (Laughing) I do. I do. Every time we have one of these, there’s a reminiscing going on about the last time we played, and it’s so cool to listen to our fans get so excited. I’m sure when we play Texas in the future they’ll do that. So yeah, I’ve heard it all as we approach this one. But I kind of like the fact that we’re going there first and then they’re coming to us. For Texas, it was the other way around. These are just great matchups. Awesome matchups.
Hoover: You know what Ohio State fans call the OU kicker, right? His name is Uwe von Schamann. He said they call him von Satan.
Smith (laughing): I’ve never heard that one. That’s funny. … Well, if he comes, we’ll honor him. … Yeah, that might be a fundraiser for us, where we do something.
No, that’s exactly why these are so important. We have young fans here who will be with us for years down the line and who know? We’ll probably play Oklahoma again, and whatever happens this series, people will remember. That’s what this is all about.
Hoover: From an athletic director’s perspective, you may be a little removed from the pregame stuff that’s going on out on the tarmac outside the stadium right now. What can OU fans expect when they come up here next year?
Smith: Well, we do have a huge liaison program with our visiting teams, so actually we have a location about a 10-minute walk from here that we designate for visiting team fans. They can put tents up and order food and we have an ambassador program and we send them over to talk to them about things. We try and take care of ‘em. When they come, it’ll be like their place. I don’t know what they seat now — 85 (thousand)? — OK, it’ll be similar, the tailgating, the atmosphere, things of that nature. Our fans are very hospitable. They’ll have some idiots around them, but going around campus, wearing their Oklahoma stuff, they’ll be very comfortable.
Our fans have really, really, over the years, changed a lot. We had some issues when I first came here, and our students implemented a Best Fans in the Land campaign that you’ll see around campus, their signage. They created a sportsmanship council and they’ve just changed everything. And our ushers do a great job of identifying people who are unruly or disrespectful to our visiting teams. And our fans will get on them. So we’ve changed a whole lot. I’m sure Oklahoma’s the same way. Those are great fans. So they’ll have a good time when they come. Hopefully they’ll have a good time until the end of the game. We don’t want a von Satan deal. But they’ll love it.
And they’re gonna see an iconic facility. This is on the historical society list. It’s iconic. A lot of places have added seats and things of that nature and it doesn’t look aesthetically like it was built that way. This is. The ‘Shoe has been maintained. The things we’ve added, we never touched the integrity of the original design. So they’re gonna have a chance to see an unbelievable historic facility. And that’ll be cool for them. I think they’ll enjoy that.
Hoover: I know today’s special for Tulsa fans.
Smith: Yeah, this Tulsa team, Philip Montgomery’s done a marvelous job with them. They put the ball up a lot. Think they’re gonna get some rain the second half, so that might change the game plan.
Hoover: Tulsa’s bringing 1,000 fans or so, and they’re getting $1.03 million?
Smith: Yeah, that’s right. Derrick Gragg’s a good friend of mine, and my associate that does the scheduling, in these types of games, we try and work with colleagues we have relationships with, so we were able to make this one happen. So Derrick’s gonna walk away with a good paycheck. I just hope he doesn’t walk away with a W.
Hoover: You can appreciate, I would hope, how far a million dollars goes for a school like Tulsa.
Smith: Oh, it’s huge. Huge. When I was athletic director at Eastern Michigan University — that’s where I started, where Derrick came from to Tulsa — at that point in time, we did the same thing. We played Penn State, we played Arizona, and those were our big paydays. That’s one of the reasons why it was hard for me to support (the Big Ten Conference’s) initiative to not play the FCS schools, because I know for Youngstown State, who we played quite a bit, what those paychecks meant. So yeah, I understand what it means. It’s really nice that we were able to do Tulsa, because we try and look for different names. We had a pattern here of always playing Mid-American Conference schools, which is important for us to do. So our strategy is to always try and play one a year, Mid-American Conference schools, and then find a Tulsa, and hopefully it’s helpful to those programs to get a big paycheck. We just don’t want to lose to them. That would be the worst.
Hoover: Yeah, that would make next week’s game in Norman a little less interesting.
Smith: No doubt. That’s another game from last week: Houston-Oklahoma. Holy smoke. People, I don’t think, respected Tom Herman. I’m telling you, now. I’m telling you. He’s the real deal. And they’ve always had athletes in Houston. Look at Houston, that city. A very progressive city over the years. I think people underestimated the capabilities of that program. I remember Tom and I talked about it before he took that job, I said, “Tom, listen. That’s a diamond in the rough. You can go down there with what you’re capable of, they’ve always had athletes. Bill Yeoman, when he had it going there—it was a different time, so you could do different things—but he had it going with recruiting, but now it’s even better. The place has grown. New stadium. So, I didn’t see that (beating OU) coming, but I knew Houston had a chance because of Tom and his staff. He assembled a very good staff. These types of games, I’m anxious for that game. I’ve never been. In all my years, I’ve never been to that stadium.
Hoover: Well unfortunately, you’re coming as they’re finishing up some construction. And it’s really beautiful. They’ve done a great job. A week ago, you would have said, ‘They can’t have a game here.’ They’re playing Louisiana Monroe today, but I guess they got a really big broom.
Smith: I heard they got a really big video board. … That’ll be good for our people to see.
Hoover: How many do you think will come from Ohio State?
Smith: Well, we took our 4,000 tickets. But there will be a lot more than that.
Hoover: Do you think 20,000?
Smith: I don’t know. It’s so hard to estimate with our fans. I haven’t looked on the different third-party things to see how many Oklahoma tickets were available. But whatever’s available, our fans will buy up or have bought up. It’s gonna be really interesting to see. I just, it’s hard to estimate. I’ve been to games, at Texas, I remember, we had probably 20,000.
It’s interesting, for our games against top opponents, our people don’t sell their tickets. So it’s always had for me to figure out fans at other places, whether they want to be a part of that or make the money. I think our game against Oklahoma right now is either No. 1 or No. 2 on the third party market, like $530-something dollars. And our game against Michigan is either 1 or 2 and Oklahoma’s either 1 or 2. Those are the top games on the third-party market.
Hoover: What’s better, playing a Texas, who’s up there at the top with you in annual revenue, or playing an Oklahoma? Because Texas hasn’t had the championship pedigree lately that Oklahoma has; AP came out this year and said all time, Ohio State was No. 1 and OU was No. 2.
Smith: You know, it doesn’t matter. It’s the pageantry of the big game. No one could have, when we played USC or Texas or Notre Dame, no one could project where they’re gonna be. … It’s just playing the historical, blue-blood programs. Same thing in basketball. Just those historically strong programs, great matchups.
We scheduled TCU, for example, and we really sat down and talked about TCU and Oregon — can they sustain? You’ve got one of the best coaches in the country in Gary Patterson at TCU, which is why they’re where they’re at, but can they sustain it if he leaves? If he stays there and we play ‘em whatever year that is, they’ll be there because I know he’s the real deal. So that’s the stuff you go through.
Hoover: If you think about it, when Ohio State started talks with Oklahoma about this series, Urban Meyer was still coaching at Utah.
Smith: Probably. Yeah. How about that? Isn’t that amazing? Here’s another storyline: two of the best coaches in the country are both from Ohio. Bob Stoops and Urban. How often are they on this stage? That’s a cool storyline from Northeast Ohio. Ashtabula is southeast of Cleveland. They’re probably about 40 minutes apart. That’s the coolest thing.
No, that’s gonna be fun next week. I’m so anxious. We’ve got a lot of people going down on Thursday. Thursday night we have 70 of our top donors, and Joe has about 70 of his, and we’re gonna have a dinner together that night. We’ll do a dinner together, have a little band there, Joe and I have a little panel.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.