Gene Smith Confident Big Ten's Future is in Good Hands with New Commissioner Kevin Warren

By Dan Hope on June 6, 2019 at 10:35 am
Gene Smith

The Big Ten has named its next commissioner, and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith believes the conference made the right choice.

Smith has known Kevin Warren since he was the athletic director at Arizona State (2000-05) – where Warren earned his master’s degree from – and Smith is confident that Warren will prove to be a great fit for the job.

“Kevin and his wife Greta, they’re just great human beings,” Smith told Eleven Warriors on Wednesday. “He really has some great experiences in his background, loves athletics. So I think he’s going to do a good job for us. Holds the same values we hold in the Big Ten, and we’re faced with a lot of things coming at us. But he’s a really smart guy.”

While the search process for the new commissioner was led by the Big Ten’s university presidents, including Ohio State’s Michael Drake, Smith was invited to Washington, D.C. in April along with representatives from each of the Big Ten’s other 13 schools – including athletic director, faculty representatives and senior woman administrators – to help the presidents define what they should be looking for in the league’s sixth commissioner.

From there, the university presidents ultimately decided that Warren – who has spent the last 14 years working with the Minnesota Vikings and has been their chief operating officer since 2015 – was the candidate who best fit the profile they were looking for.

In the months between Jim Delany announcing he would retire in 2020 and Tuesday’s announcement that Warren would succeed him, much of the speculation around who would be the Big Ten’s next commissioner centered on candidates with conference ties or with backgrounds in television.

Some people even speculated that Smith could be a candidate for the job, but he quickly dismissed that notion on Wednesday.

“Oh God no,” said Smith, who had a contract extension through 2022 approved by the Board of Trustees last week. “I got some things I want to do (at Ohio State). I got a few things I need to complete. And there’s a vision that I created a long time ago. We’re far along, accomplished a lot, but I don’t want to leave this one undone. Arizona State, I thought I left undone. Iowa State, I felt good about. Eastern Michigan, I felt good about. But I don’t want to leave this undone relative to the vision that I have.”

Among the tasks that Smith still wants to accomplish before he leaves Ohio State: Continuing to improve the rate of student-athletes who either have a job, grad school or an opportunity to play professional sports lined up when they leave Ohio State – that rate was at 87 percent this past year, but he believes it can reach as high as 93 to 95 percent – and more facility upgrades, including the recently approved Ty Tucker Tennis Center.

As for the commissioner’s job, Smith believes it could be beneficial for the Big Ten to bring in someone who has not been in the conference and has an outside perspective, especially after having the same commissioner for the last three decades.

“When you can bring in your nontraditional candidate that has a background like Kevin’s, particularly when you’re following a legend, you got to find someone that’s got those unique skill set that helps them transcend that a little bit,” Smith said. “He played college basketball, and he has a son that’s playing college football, so he’s got kind of that perspective as well, but bringing that perspective from the NFL will help, and his business background.”

Smith isn’t the only one at Ohio State who feels confident that the Big Ten made a strong choice in hiring Warren; both Ohio State football coach Ryan Day and basketball coach Chris Holtmann said Wednesday that they are excited about working with him after getting the opportunity to learn more about his background.

“I don’t know much at all about him, but everything I’ve heard has been super impressive,” Holtmann said. “So I really am excited about the hire.”

Warren is also set to be the first African-American commissioner in a Power 5 conference (and just the second African-American commissioner in any Football Bowl Subdivision conference), and Smith is proud to see the Big Ten make that happen.

“The Big Ten has been a leader, with Jim’s leadership and the presidents’ leadership, in diversity hires for a long time. But obviously this is at a different level,” Smith said. “To have a chance to see it happen while I’m still in the business, and to see someone that I know and respect and love to a great degree, it’s personally just so rewarding. I go back to my days when I think about these things and my struggles early on to get to where I am and some of the challenges I had to face, and I’m sure Kevin’s got those and can tell you those, but to finally see someone in that seat is just personally rewarding as an African-American.”

“There’s a vision that I created a long time ago. We’re far along, accomplished a lot, but I don’t want to leave this one undone.”– Gene Smith on why he wasn't interested in becoming the new Big Ten commissioner

Smith believes the Big Ten is already “on solid footing,” so he doesn’t think Warren needs to come in and make any big changes right away. He said he will give Warren advice – though he’s confident the university presidents have already done so – about things that could be coming up that he’ll need to be prepared to deal with, including the Big Ten’s next television contract and lawsuits against the NCAA.

Another major topic of conversation in the college sports landscape that Warren will now play a major role in is the debate over whether student-athletes should be compensated, particularly in regards to whether they should be allowed to profit off their name, image and likeness. Smith is set to play a major role in that conversation, as he is the co-chair of a working group recently appointed by the NCAA to examine the NCAA’s policies on those benefits and potentially propose modifications.

Smith, who said the working group was set to hold its first meeting via a conference call on Thursday, said he had agreed not to talk publicly at this time about his current stance on name, image and likeness benefits and what changes he believes could ultimately be made, but said he is keeping an open mind and looking forward to being a part of the conversation with the rest of the working group.

“I’m going into it curious, eyes wide open, interested to learn,” Smith said. “I’m going to follow the charge, listen to my colleagues – great group, diverse group – and what we have to keep in mind is it’s Division I, II and III, so it’s 3,000-plus colleges, so we got to, that diversity, we really have to think through. So I’m just anxious to get into it.”

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