Ohio State Buckeyes: Gene Smith on the NCAA, football ‘super league,’ what separates college athletics

Credit: Marcus Hartman

Credit: Marcus Hartman

COLUMBUS — Outgoing Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith has never been shy about sharing his opinion.

He was a little more open than usual during an hour-long questions-and-answer session Thursday at the Fawcett Center.

Declaring he is “all-in” on getting the football team back to the top of the Big Ten stole the headlines, but he touched on many topics.

Here are five of the most interesting:

On the impact of the changes in college athletics on his decision to retire now: “I’m not leaving because of the changes. I mean, I’m probably that idiot that embraces it. You know, there’s a little part of me that wishes I was younger. I’d want to embrace that change. Change is inevitable in life, and changes always happen in our industry. Now, there’s never been this aggregate of issues that’s causing these changes — never. But you either embrace change, or you become irrelevant. It’s that simple. And over the years, we’ve embraced change. So I’ve always taken life that way. You know, I struggle with with being in environments where everybody’s sitting around the table, talking about how bad things are. That’s a waste of intellectual capacity and energy. Let’s talk about the solutions.

On the governance model of the NCAA: “I think it worked exceptionally well during my tenure. What it didn’t do was shift. I think there was a period of time where the association was strong, where the governing structure was strong, but everything is about leadership. And I have a lot of respect for (current NCAA president) Charlie Baker, but he’s probably four or five years too late, and he’s trying to recover. The organization didn’t shift with the times or the ecosystem that we served, which is why you have all these interest groups, pressure groups in it right now — lawyers, politicians, everybody. When there’s a leadership void, people will step in.”

On a key aspect he sees still apparent in college athletics: “I hope that whatever model emerges that we never forget really what you said. These are still 17, 18-year-old kids that come to us. And they mature hopefully — all of them do — but hopefully over that four- or five-year period. And so we’re different than the pros that way.”

On schools someday licensing their name to professional teams in place of having student-athletes fill them: “I’d hate it. I mean, I think whatever model exists has to be tethered to education.

“We’ve changed so many people’s lives, many of them them coming to us and they’re very mature, and they’re focused and they get things done. And we’re facilitating their time and helping them develop, but there’s some that come to us at a very immature level. And we do a great job of getting them maturity, and a great job of helping the light bulb come on for them. And I can give you the names of student-athletes where I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, the light bulb came on.’ And it could be academic, it could be athletic, or whatever it is. I just think in higher education, we got to keep it tethered to education. If it’s not a part of that (and they) make it semi-pro and just take it outside the institution and you pay the institution or contract to use the stadium, that model would bother me. Because I would know that those student-athletes who, regardless of the fact that they might be getting some level of money, they’re not being taught how to live the next part of their life.”

On the potential of a realignment of major college football teams under a new “super league” as proposed by some moves and shakers: “I think we got to pay attention to that. We got to listen, we got to learn because maybe that might be the right model. But I know this: I won’t be in this seat, but places like Ohio State if they’re in that model, it can’t be like the NFL model where revenue is shared equally. We don’t draft. We recruit, and we chase championships and make investments to chase championships in football. Everybody else doesn’t do that.”

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