Gene Smith is a rarity, a Black man in charge of sports in a position that is nearly 90 percent held by Whites. He has been a Division I college athletic director for over three decades.
Forbes Magazine once called Smith one of college sport’s most powerful persons. Ohio State hired him in 2005 and he oversees 36 men’s and women’s sports and over 1,000 student-athletes at that state’s largest university and Power 5 School. Smith held previous positions at Arizona State, Iowa State and Eastern Michigan.
Smith is only one of 14 Black ADs at a big-time Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) school. He is in the middle of a three-year term as a member of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.
Ohio State is as big-time as it gets, and Buckeye sports is big business in Columbus, which annually deals with very high expectations from zealous students, fans, alumni and boosters. “As long as we are winning, I am good,” Smith said matter-of-factly.
During a busy March Madness weekend last month, Smith jetted here and there and watched his men’s and women’s basketball teams, and women’s hockey club compete in NCAA tournament play.
He briefly talked to the MSR during one intermission at the Ohio State-Clarkston women’s hockey national semifinals at U-M’s Ridder Arena. “It’s challenging and fun,” he admitted. “I’m blessed to have the best group of coaches I’ve ever worked with.”
Given the time constraints, Smith spoke on several subjects in a quick round of questions:
Transfers are a growing concern, especially in men’s and women’s hoops: “Young people [are transferring] before they get to us,” the AD stated. “They transfer from high school… or AAU team. It’s normal behavior now — the grass is greener over there.”
He reiterated that adults in charge must do more to help these young people make better-informed decisions in choosing college. “It’s better to stick it out as opposed to making a quick decision, and listen to somebody else — some coach, some parent telling them they got to get out of there,” Smith advised. “We are seeing that now from eighth [grade] to 12th grade.”
The disparity in men’s and women’s sports media coverage: “Our challenge is we are trying to put on women’s sports the same expectation as the men’s,” Smith offered. “A large part of our population likes college football. We pack 108,000 [for each home game]; I would really love our women’s hockey [games] to be packed. I’ve been doing this for 35 years. This has always been the case.”
The latest college sports scandal: “I don’t think we will ever be able to eliminate [them] but we must find a way [to deal with it],” Smith said. “Bad actors are bad actors.”
Smith is part of a 14-member committee formed last fall and chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to examine the current issues in college sports. “We had hearings over all issues,” he reported. “Some of the things we recommend will bring some changes. We will have our report [released on April 24].”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org