By Michael Tillery
Gene Smith, the Athletic Director at Ohio State University, is a difference maker. He oversees one of the most successful athletic programs across the college landscape. He’s one of only eleven Black athletic directors and has paid his dues–serving as athletic director for Arizona State, Eastern Michigan and Iowa State. He’s cultured. He won two championships (one as a player, one as a coach) at Notre Dame but wasn’t satisfied. He aspired to be a ground breaking and social changing administrator who is heart set on taking Ohio State into a new realm of athletic as well as organizational consistency. He recently was named one of the 50 most powerful African Americans in sports by Black Enterprise magazine, has served on the NCAA Management Council, the NCAA Committee on Infractions, the Rose Bowl Committee and the NCAA Football Rules Committee amongst others. With his supremely intelligent and positive character, there will most assuredly be other athletic legislative branches seeking his leadership and organizational skills.
Going into the November 18th mega-stratospheric home showdown with number two ranked and heated rival Michigan, the top ranked OSU football team has the leading Heisman Trophy candidate in QB Troy Smith. His men’s basketball program is ranked in the top five although it won’t have the services until later in the season of freshman phenom Greg Oden—who is the second coming of Patrick Ewing. Simply put, there is a deservedly electric buzz around the Ohio State program and it all starts at the top.
Push on Gene Smith, push on.
Michael Tillery: Initially, what were your business and personal goals when you arrived at Ohio State University?
AD Smith: My business goal first and foremost was go get to know the culture and the people. We have three hundred employees in our department. I wanted to get to know them and find out what their personal and professional goals were. Also to try to get a grasp how things have operated in the past as well as get an understanding of again the culture of the fan base and our student athletes. I wanted to make sure I listened and learned period.
Personally, I wanted to continue to assess how I could make sure I had balance between my life and my job. To find time where I could practice my faith and also stay healthy.
Tillery: Being that this is your first year, what accomplishment are you most pleased with?
AD Smith: The fact that I have made a successful transition into the Buckeye family and have been accepted by the employees. I’ve received positive feedback from our fans about being a part of the Buckeye nation.
I’ve also been invited to participate on the president’s cabinet to help in the policy making process of the university. I’m truly honored in that regard.
Tillery: You oversee the largest Division 1 program with a budget of roughly one hundred million dollars—thirty six sports with over nine hundred student athletes—that is completely self sufficient. Can you comment on what kind of business acumen is needed to manage an organization of this magnitude?
AD Smith: The biggest thing an individual needs to firmly have a grasp of is leadership skills. This is a large organization. Some people would call it a small or medium business. You have to be a very effective leader. You have to understand that people are the heart and soul of what matters. You have to have the ability to bring them together and form a mission consistent with the priority of the institution.
You also have to understand finances. You have to understand operations. You have to be able to relate with people of all walks of life. You also have to have an understanding of higher education and how college athletics relates in the grand scheme of things. There are a lot of other things, but those are the most important.
Tillery: You implemented a departmental reorganization last year. What types of changes were made to increase proficiency?
AD Smith: Basically we created three divisions. Our goal was to put into those divisions people of like duties and responsibilities. We wanted to increase collaboration and communication amongst those people. Also, we wanted to define clear accountability for responsibility. We were able to do that and everything is going extremely well.
Tillery: What have you found to be the most challenging aspect of your job?
AD Smith: The most challenging is recognizing that we are a symbol for thousands and thousands of people around the world—not just in the United States. We have military stationed in Iraq that are Buckeye fans. We are continually receiving communications from them. The responsibility we have is to make our fan base proud. We want all of our sports to strive for excellence and compete at the highest level. That is not always easy. Doing things the right way so we have the opportunity to represent those people is our biggest challenge.
Tillery: Being a former IBM marketing specialist, what business practices have you been able to apply to your position as athletic director?
AD Smith: The things that I learned at IBM really strengthened my communication skills, focus, negotiation skills and sales skills—all the things that I use as an athletic director. I’m in the process of negotiating a new contract with Nike. I’ve been a part of negotiating contracts with coaches. We have a series of companies that we have sponsorships with therefore engaging in continuous negotiations with them. Those aforementioned skills are critical in helping to run a large business. I’m constantly making presentations. At IBM I had to make numerous presentations to various individuals regarding computers that helped me in making presentations concerning Ohio State. IBM helped a lot.
Tillery: Reflect on your time as a student athlete at Notre Dame.
AD Smith: Notre Dame provided me with a great learning environment—not just in the classroom. I had the chance to be in an environment with some fairly competitive students. If I stayed home in Cleveland, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life. It helped me grow. I had continuous conversations with people from California, Canada and Texas. Meeting people from Tokyo, Guam and other parts of the world was a great experience. I learned to have a great perspective on people.
Playing football there allowed me to appreciate competition at its highest level. We won a national championship and always were at the top of the college football world. The pressure that comes with that helped strengthened me. My four years there was an invaluable experience. I learned so much. It would be difficult to stop talking about it. I learned a lot. That’s what I want to help create here at Ohio State. I want to create that atmosphere for all of our athletes and it is happening.
Tillery: Troy Smith has made tremendous strides over the past few years as a student athlete. Talk about his development and his maturity.
AD Smith: Troy is a great, great story. We all know his background and the challenges he’s overcome throughout his career are well documented. He has emerged from those challenges and really matured to be—in my view—the best leader in college football today. He has completed his degree in communications. He’s very articulate and introspective. He understands different people. Besides his talent as a quarterback, he has learned how to interact with the different personalities on the team. He’s help to motivate them by whatever means necessary. Great players have to recognize that they have to implement different leadership styles to respond successfully to different situations. Troy implements different leadership techniques based on the individual need. He’s just an outstanding person and has a great future.
Tillery: He reminds me of Donovan McNabb. It’s going to be nice to see him on the next level.
AD Smith: Oh yeah! Definitely. He’s got a helluva arm. He’s settled in. He’s focused. He does what he has to do to win a football game. I think what he does in a great way is to make sure he maximizes his opportunities on the football field and takes advantage of all his talent. People say Gonzalez is his go to guy. Teddy Ginn Jr. is his go to guy. Our tight ends, running backs as well as receivers have thoroughly been involved in every game. He really stretches the field.
Tillery: The income that student athletes generate on game day for the NCAA runs into the billions. What are your thoughts on providing student athletes with a monthly stipend?
AD Smith: I’m not a proponent of a monthly stipend. I think it drives us deeper into the employee, employer relationship. I think it’s important that people know that we do provide financial support to our student athletes. Students as part of their financial aid package get stipends already. Three our four guys live together in an apartment and share—for example—the eleven hundred dollar rent. They get four hundred dollars a month. So they make a little money. We have money that kids can apply for: One is the Special Assistance fund. That fund is available through the NCAA for any student that is in need of financial assistance. They can get money for clothing. Money for optometry work. Money for dental work. Money for emergency travel home and any other number of things. We have another one that is called the Student Opportunity Fund. We pay for all of the parking for our student athletes. If you have a car and you want to park off-campus you can pay from three hundred to four hundred dollars on an annual basis. We pay for that. We are allowed to pay for medical services that go above and beyond the sports related injury. So if a young lady is pregnant and needs assistance, we can help her with that. We had seven young men from the Louisiana area that needed assistance for their families post Hurricane Katrina. We were able to bring them here and put them up in hotel rooms or apartments for a long period of time and give the young men a per diem so they can help feed their family. One of our athletes wanted to find his mother in Mississippi—we were able to fund that. There is money that is available to our kids and unfortunately, most people don’t know that.
Tillery: What advice would you give student athletes to maximize their performance in the classroom as well as the athletic field?
AD Smith: The important thing is focus and to broaden your goals. A lot of student athletes across the country come to schools like Ohio State with one goal in mind—to go pro. What we need our athletes to understand is that for them to become better people they have to broaden their horizon. That affords them more options than just being a pro athlete and allows them to maximize their earning power. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are great examples. Those guys just didn’t make money being a part of the game. Also they need to understand that they might not go pro. They need too strengthen their other skills and talents so they can become that lawyer, doctor, businessperson or athletic director—whatever they have an interest in. Our biggest challenge is helping them to understand that they need to take advantage of all the resources here to position themselves to live the lifestyle that they dream to live.
Tillery: As a life time Golden Domer, do you envision your Buckeyes playing Notre Dame for the BCS championship?
AD Smith: No we played them last year and beat them. I don’t want to see them again. Laughs. Notre Dame has had a good year. I personally don’t feel they are the number two team in the country, so I would like us to play someone else. I’m not big into rematches.
Tillery: That being said, there is mass speculation that if the game against Michigan is close there could be a rematch.
AD Smith: It could be. That one might be more deserved. Michigan is the number two team in the nation. I believe that the top part of our conference matches up against any conference. I really don’t want to see Michigan again—even though they might deserve to play us again. They have earned it. They are without a doubt the number two team in the country.
Tillery: You played Texas this year. Do games like that and others similar approach the electricity that is being felt from this game?
AD Smith: The game here against Texas under the lights had a national championship like feel. Both teams had a warrior mentality that made the game special. I truly feel that Ohio State vs. Michigan on November 18th will surpass the electricity that the Texas game had. It gets no better than number one vs. number two. It will be the first time in the one hundred three years of the series that both teams will be undefeated as number one and number two.
Tillery: Are you happy with the BCS format?
AD Smith: Yeah at this time I am. The BCS will have to continue to be tweaked. I don’t know if a playoff system is the end with all. If you go to an eight game system, the ninth team out there will thoroughly have a legitimate gripe. You are always going to have one or two teams that are not going to be in the end game. Right now, I’m OK with the BCS. We need to evaluate the BCS every year until we get it right.
Ohio State University Athletic Director Gene Smith, we appreciate the voice.