“Obviously, We Would Have Preferred to Play”: Gene Smith, Ohio State Wanted to Delay Fall Season, But Stand with Big Ten's Decision to Postpone to Spring

By Dan Hope on August 11, 2020 at 8:50 pm
Gene Smith

If Gene Smith, Ryan Day and Kristina Johnson had their way, Ohio State would still have a chance to play football in 2020.

During an interview with Big Ten Network shortly after the conference’s decision to shut down its fall sports, Smith said Ohio State’s preference was to delay the start of the season to the final week of September or the first week of October, which would have allowed the conference more time to try to find a way to make a fall sports season work.

He also said he ultimately understood, though, why the Big Ten felt it was necessary to make the decision that it did on Tuesday.

“Obviously, we would have preferred to play. We’re very aligned in our position that we felt that we could make it happen,” Smith said. “But we knew that the possibility to postpone or cancel was a real possibility. Happened a little earlier than we would have liked, but the medical experts who provide us great advice helped us understand that we needed to do what we needed to do today. The health and safety of our student-athletes is first and foremost.

“We’re disappointed, we really are. We felt that we have put in place outstanding protocols here as our student-athletes shared. So we felt that it was a possibility. Wish we could have had a little bit more time to evaluate, but we certainly understand that this was the time that we had to pull the plug.”

While there had been some speculation that Ohio State could look to play in another conference that has not yet canceled its 2020 season – a possibility Nebraska says it is exploring, as the ACC, Big 12 and SEC are all still working toward trying to play this fall as of Tuesday night – Smith said the Buckeyes will not consider that option

Instead, he expressed optimism that Ohio State will be able to find a way to play this spring – as Ryan Day also did in his address to the team following the Big Ten’s announcement – and said he plans to start as soon as Wednesday on working toward helping the Buckeyes make that possible.

“I know there’s a lot of challenges around that, there’s a lot of issues around that, but as I told our team today, I’m gonna wake up tomorrow with a new vigor and a new passion to try and think out of the box, and think about the spring, to give them an opportunity to compete and play the game they love,” Smith said. “So they have their scholarship, they have the ability to get their education, and they have access to our facilities and services. So I’m gonna try my best to figure out, ‘How can we help this possibly be done in the spring?’”

Smith said it was “extremely challenging” to deliver the news to the football team and Ohio State’s other fall sports teams that their seasons had been postponed, and he felt like he let them down. But he also encouraged them to keep their heads up and to try not to dwell on what they’ve lost.

“We really were really, really sad and disappointed we couldn’t provide them the opportunity, and that’s what I told them,” Smith said. “I told them I failed them. And I feel I did. Because we weren’t able to create the ultimate protocols for the game itself, where we could feel comfortable playing it. I apologized to them.

“We’re going to continue to provide them their services relative to medical attention and strength and conditioning, if they want to take advantage of those, and to get a chance to get their education on scholarship. So they have a lot of things to be thankful for. So spend a night to go through your depression, but wake up tomorrow with a new passion and a new focus on how you’re gonna attack the day and attack the future. Because that’s life. That’s what you have to do.”

Ultimately, Smith said, the data the Big Ten received over the past week – he didn’t specify what data, but The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach reported that at least 10 players in the conference have had cases of myocarditis, a heart condition that has been linked to COVID-19 – made the conference decide that it would be unsafe to play this fall, so he stands with the league’s decision.

“We would have preferred to play like everybody else, with the passion that our student-athletes have, but at the end of the day, the medical advice and the science overruled where we were today,” Smith said. “We would have ultimately preferred to go to Sept. 26 or Oct. 1 with the start of the season. But the science came to us so fast. So we just had to move.”

“We really were really, really sad and disappointed we couldn’t provide them the opportunity, and that’s what I told them. I told them I failed them. And I feel I did. Because we weren’t able to create the ultimate protocols for the game itself, where we could feel comfortable playing it. I apologized to them.”– Gene Smith

Although Ohio State didn’t get the outcome it had been pushing for, Smith said he “couldn’t be more proud” of Johnson – who hasn’t technically started her tenure as Ohio State’s president yet, but represented OSU in the calls between Big Ten presidents and chancellors – and her efforts to push for the conference to continue working toward playing this fall.

“Our president was phenomenal,” Smith said. “She challenged everything, to try and look at whether a delay was the right thing to do or whether a cancellation and postponement was the right thing to do.”

Smith also offered an apology to Ohio State fans, but said he hopes they will understand that the conference made the decision it thought was best for the health and safety of its athletes.

“I know all of our fans are disappointed, and I’m sorry,” Smith said. “But our health and safety of our kids are so important, and I hope that for every college campus and every student-athlete, you continue to embrace them and support them and whatever model we come up with for the spring, I would ask that you be patient with us and ultimately embrace that as well.”

Although former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and many others have expressed doubt that playing this spring will actually be feasible, Smith said he has already talked to Day and Ohio State’s other coaches about working toward making that happen. In an interview with several reporters outside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Tuesday evening, however, Smith also issued a warning: If playing in the spring is going to be a possibility, the nation is going to have to get a better handle on the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This pandemic is a freaking beast, and if you don’t respect it, you end up exactly where we are,” Smith said. “We need to begin to respect it.”

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