Records reveal how Ohio State leaders approached Big Ten’s COVID decision

When the 2020 Big Ten fall football season was put on ice last August, Ohio State did consider — at least briefly — playing anyway.

That was confirmed Wednesday when the school released a massive trove of communications records in compliance with open records laws.

“Anyway to go independent?” Ohio State University President Dr. Kristina M. Johnson asked director of athletics Gene Smith in a text message the morning of Aug. 12.

The Big Ten had announced less than 24 hours earlier all fall sports were “postponed” with the possibility of playing in the spring.

Smith responded, “I am trying to understand our contracts and if we can play independent this year.”

He noted Nebraska had already gone public with such an interest, and Johnson later said she had received a call from Nebraska’s chancellor.

By mid-afternoon, however, Smith reported back to his boss that Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren had nixed the idea of the Buckeyes or Cornhuskers going rogue.

“We cannot play this fall,” Smith wrote back to Johnson. “Spoke with Kevin and he clarified.”

He added, “We are good,” and indicated to the president Ohio State had pivoted to working on a plan for the league to play in the spring instead.

“You chill!” Smith added, to which Johnson replied, “Bummer.”

Before any decision by the Big Ten had been made, Johnson had asked Smith if she should vote yes on postponing the season to spring.

He said no.

“Spring may not happen either…” Smith replied. “In my view, it is delay until Sept. 26 or Oct. 1. Otherwise we should not support is where I am.”

Although some of those positions had been released before via carefully crafted public relations statements, the correspondence removes doubt about the thought process of Johnson and Smith as they navigated a situation not faced in more than a century.

It also confirms statements at the time Smith, who has been at Ohio State since 2005, and Johnson, who was still president-elect, were working together and fully aligned.

Those facts — like many things — were in some dispute during a confusing time that featured numerous reports and rumors about what the Big Ten was doing in regards to fall sports.

Other notes from the records:

  • Not surprisingly, multiple fans wrote to Smith about Ohio State leaving the Big Ten after the decision was made, including suggestions the Buckeyes join the SEC. Former football coach Urban Meyer, who was then an OSU administrator but has since become head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, also received such a suggestion.
  • A few hours after the Big Ten announced the season was “postponed,” Smith’s wife, Sheila, emailed him a copy of the Pac 12′s “Health and Well Being Considerations” in regards to playing sports during the pandemic. “Not seeing anything we did not solve or could not have solved…”
  • The records release also confirmed a detailed plan to play in the spring existed. Illinois athletic director Tim Knox shared one with Smith that called for Big Ten teams to play 12 games from Jan. 29-May 1. The early games would have been played in domed stadiums at neutral sites.
  • Other fall season models also existed. The league also considered playing an 11-game season that would have started the day after Thanksgiving and concluded in March as well as a nine-game schedule beginning Dec. 28 and concluding March 6.

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