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Campus & Community

Pride all around as the estimable Gene Smith heads out

While Gene Smith wants to thank Buckeye Nation, we know the leader was a champion for student-athletes and a great staff.

Wearing an Ohio State-colored tropical shirt—that looks perfect for retirement or vacation—Gene Smith grins as he leans on some front-row seats at Ohio Stadium.

(Photo by Logan Wallace)

  • What comes to mind when you reflect on your 19 years at Ohio State?

    I think about what we’ve been fortunate to create here. When I came in ’05, it was a different industry, and there were a lot of challenges here at Ohio State. One of the things that struck me was we had good coaches, but we really weren’t as competitive in the classroom as we needed to be. We changed the culture to where we recruited young people who were obviously athletically talented, but also wanted to be as competitive in the classroom. We’ve come a long way. I have memories of a lot of different student-athletes over the years and how they performed overall as individuals.

  • Explain the importance the Buckeye community places on student-athletes’ academic performance and personal development.

    That’s why you’re here. We have this blessing where parents or guardians give us their child because they have a gift called athleticism. We want to help them develop that gift and be able to perform at the highest level with that gift. But we also want to help them grow as people, help them understand the lessons learned in sport. It’s a great opportunity to take these individuals and teach them life skills that otherwise wouldn’t be taught. Our coaches and all the support staff understand that’s a part of our mission, part of our goals.

  • What are some ways Ohio State helps student-athletes develop holistically?

    We have a number of different structured programs that our student-athletes engage with. We have our student-athlete support services organization where we have academic counselors that work with our student-athletes to determine what degree program they want to be, and then help them get on track. We have our leadership institute, which is a phenomenal experience for student-athletes, and many of them participate in it. There are internships, shadowing programs, presentations that they make. There’s the leadership part of it. It all starts with culture, starts with our head coaches and our assistant coaches and everyone being willing to talk to our student athletes about life beyond your sport. Because those conversations are critical.  

  • Why have you always encouraged student-athletes to participate in community service?

    As Buckeyes, we’re so fortunate in the athletic world because we get all this attention. You have an opportunity to inspire young people to do some things that they may not otherwise do. So we’ve made sure that our student-athletes have a presence in the community to inspire young people and different places. Teaching them the value of giving back is so critical in life. We need to help motivate and inspire others to chase that dream.

  • How have you made certain that Ohio State has remained a leader in providing support for female student-athletes that goes beyond adhering to Title IX?

    Title IX, the federal law, was important because it changed the behavior. It changed people’s perspective. In my opportunity to grow in this industry, I shifted from trying to make sure we meet the letter of the law to actual gender equity — to do what’s right. What we’ve tried to do is have an environment where everybody understands that regardless of gender, regardless of sport, that student-athlete still deserves a quality educational experience. And the lessons learned in individual sports, be it male or female, are the same. The group dynamics in a women’s basketball team versus a men’s basketball team are the same experiences. You have people from all walks of life, different socioeconomic backgrounds, from rural environments, urban environments, international. You have the lessons learned around those group dynamics that all student athletes have. So we just treat them the same.

  • What do you take away from Ohio State’s athletic success and championships?

    When they win and have those celebrations, it’s just a beautiful thing. You have a sense of pride — a sense of ownership — in that performance. And not just me, but it’s all of our support staff, our academic people, our strength coaches, our trainers, our nutritionists. Everyone has a sense of pride.

  • How did you approach making difficult decisions when times were turbulent?

    First and foremost, you must go to your values. You never sacrifice your values. Integrity. Respect. You fall back on those types of things. We try and create an environment of inclusiveness, using all the intellectual knowledge that we all have. We’re the total sum of our experiences in life, and all of us have different experiences. I like to bring all that into a room, throw the issue in the middle of the table and “let’s talk about it.” Someone with other different experiences than mine may have a different view, and that’s helpful.

    Every now and then, I have to make a decision on my own. But with the democratic process, it allows people to be a part of the decision-making process, and people support what they build. We all have blind spots, so I need other people to give me advice. In all those situations over my years, my teammates have given great insight in how we should respond. You must empower the people in the environment to be honest and forthright.

    Many times, you see in leadership, when someone hits a crisis, they react and in a lot of cases overreact. First of all, hit pause and settle yourself. Determine what is the real issue, and then ultimately put the team in place to help you deal with that particular issue. Where leadership matters the most is calming the environment and not letting things get out of control. I am a big believer in hitting the pause button using all your intellectual knowledge around you.

  • What have you stressed about leadership to your staff and coaches?

    Everyone is a leader within themselves and where they are. We try to create an environment where everybody understands that. If you’re in an environment where you’re operating on your own, managing a particular task, you want to do that excellently. One of our values is excellence. It’s easier when people are watching us to perform at our best, but when nobody’s watching, are you bringing it?

    At the end of the day, people are the heart and soul of all that matters. I don’t care what organization you run, in the group dynamics that exist within your organization, you need to make sure that people feel respected. It’s an operation of integrity. People strive for excellence.

  • How would you describe where college athletics is now with Name, Image and Likeness, the transfer portal and court battles about compensating student-athletes?

    Editor’s note: Smith answered this question before the settlement in House v. NCAA that paves the way for student-athletes to be paid by their universities. We found his response valuable so decided to include it, even though it’s a not 100% up-to-date.

    There will be a new model for intercollegiate athletics in the near future. We are on the cusp of real serious change, and the model’s going to be significantly different, and we have to get used to it. I’ve always told my teammates, change is always going to happen to us or for us, so we have to embrace that change. If we don’t have a way to control it, we’ve got to embrace it and adjust and create an environment where The Ohio State University’s athletic department stays at the top of the pyramid. We’ve always done that.

    With NIL and the transfer portal, the reality is that at some point, the compensation model for student athletes is going to change the scholarship model of room and board, books, tuition and cost of attendance. There’s going to be something else. I don’t know what they’re going to call it, but there will be a different level of compensation for X number of sports.

  • What advice do you have for Ohio State alumni and Buckeye fans about this transformative era of college sports?

    We all have to change. We have to accept the fact that the ecosystem that we serve has changed. The reality is there’s been a lot of money in collegiate athletics. People are paid high salaries in collegiate athletics. So the argument that the student-athletes should get a piece of that, I don’t disagree with. Media rights. Corporate sponsorships. Ticket sales. We need to look at how it’s done and accept that it’s going to be done.

    I think what’s important for all of us traditionalists is how it’s done. It still has to be tethered to education. First and foremost, these are student-athletes. They are 17 to 21 years old. They’re still struggling. They’re still young people. We have to come up with a system that’s a revenue sharing type of system, and I’m OK with that. But whatever model we have has to be tethered to education and our developmental life skills programming.

  • What have the more than 600,000 living alumni meant to your approach to the job?

    It is a community. We have this unique ability to bring people together, and you want to make sure that when they come together, they have a great experience and they’re inspired. We really focus hard on making sure Buckeye Nation is proud, not just because we win, but proud of our character. We understand that’s a huge, huge opportunity and responsibility.

  • What’s next for you?

    My wife, Sheila, and I are moving to Arizona. Our family’s largely on the West Coast, so we’re going to move out West. I’m going to do whatever my wife tells me to do. Play some golf. Spoil the grandkids. I’m looking forward to it. I’m going to go to a tailgate. I wonder what that’s really like.

    I want to thank all of Buckeye Nation, our coaches, our support staff, our administrative staff. I want to thank all of my colleagues at Ohio State for supporting us along the way and allowing us to grow and develop and represent them. It has been a blessing.

Join in Gene Smith’s vision

Help honor his Ohio State legacy by contributing to the Eugene D. Smith Leadership Institute, which helps student-athletes reach their full potential.

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