Presser Bullets: Gene Smith Discusses Decision to Retire, Thoughts on Changes in College Sports

By Dan Hope on August 9, 2023 at 10:31 am

Five days after the Big Ten announced the additions of Oregon and Washington as its newest members, Gene Smith announced some big news of his own.

Ohio State’s athletic director called a press conference Wednesday to announce that he will retire on June 30, 2024 – just before USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington will join the conference.

In addition to explaining his decision to retire, Smith also gave insight into why the Big Ten is expanding now and what changes he thinks must continue to be made in college sports.

Here’s a quick bullet-point rundown of Smith’s most notable comments from Wednesday’s press conference (with video and more coverage to come):

  • Smith said he spoke with his wife and decided after 39 years that it would be time for him to retire as Ohio State’s athletic director next year.
  • Smith said the changes in college sports are not why he decided to step away. “Everything that’s happening, I’ve seen all of this before.” He says he’s always been told “You will know when it’s time,” and he felt that this summer.
  • Smith said he thinks the new athletic director will “need to be patient.” He thinks it will be important for the new athletic director to place an emphasis on not only team success but also developing high-character athletes.
  • He said he thinks there needs to be a new structure for governing college football. He isn’t sure whether that means the FBS breaking away from the NCAA as he had suggested in the past.
  • Smith said the search for his successor will start when Ohio State’s new president is hired. “That’s that person’s hire.”
  • Smith said the Big Ten’s revenue distribution for current schools was not diluted by the additions of Oregon and Washington. “Fox brought new money to the table,” Smith said.
  • Smith named the Ohio State football team’s 2014 national championship, Ohio State wrestling’s 2015 national championship and the men’s volleyball team winning three national championships as some of the Ohio State accomplishments under his tenure he’s most proud of.
  • “2011 was hell,” Smith said, referencing the “Tattoo-Gate” scandal, when asked about his biggest challenge as Ohio State’s athletic director. Smith said the situation Ohio State went through with Urban Meyer in 2018 was hard, but not as hard as 2011.
  • Smith said he feels “comfortable” stepping away now because he believes the culture is set up well for a new athletic director to come in “without too many bumps.”
  • “I don't think college athletics is ever going to go in the tank. It's going to be different. ... How do you embrace that change? How do you make the best of it? That's the attitude you have to have.”
  • “I always want to leave a place better than I found it. But I also want to leave a place that gives the next person a chance to transition in as smoothly as possible.”
  • Smith said he never gave much thought to his skin color while doing his job, but that it is an honor to be considered one of college athletics’ most influential Black athletic directors ever, knowing there were people that didn’t want him to be in that position of power.
  • Smith said the Big Ten studied Oregon and Washington at the same time they added USC and UCLA, so there wasn’t much of a learning curve when the conference considered adding them this time around. He thinks they are “great institutions” and that the positives of adding them will outweigh the negatives.
  • “I do not believe that student-athletes should be employees. That’s a whole new relationship.” Smith said he supports giving more money to athletes, but he thinks that money should be tethered to education rather than giving athletes a paycheck.
  • Smith said he is very proud that Ohio State has been able to maintain 36 varsity sports. He acknowledged that the new athletic director will have to make “a business decision” about whether it’s still feasible to manage that many sports.
  • “I’ve always believed that if there’s a way you can provide additional resources to student-athletes, you should do that.” Asked specifically about the possibility of giving bonuses to players for participating in the College Football Playoff, he said he doesn’t know what that model should look like.
  • Smith said he is proud that he has been able to help a diverse group of his former assistants become athletic directors elsewhere including Martin Jarmond (UCLA), Pat Chun (Washington State), Heather Lyke (Pittsburgh) and Diana Sabau (Utah State).
  • “College athletics is in a great place,” Smith said. He said all that really matters is making sure the athletes are having a great experience, and he thinks that’s the case at Ohio State. “All the other stuff is minutiae to me.”
  • Asked if he would like to be the commissioner of college football, Gene Smith pointed to his wife, Sheila. Her response: “Hell no.”
  • On Ryan Day: “I’m going to miss him when it’s all said and done. He’s the real deal.”
  • Smith said he plans on taking a vacation to Colorado after his retirement. “My plan is to move on,” though he jokes he may come back for a press conference once in awhile.
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