Gene Smith and all Ohio State fans hope the Buckeyes stay on top not just in football but all sports, but they will have to do so in a rapidly changing world. Cost of attendance and scholarship guarantees are here, the first of what could be many changes designed to improve the quality of life of the student-athletes at the center of college athletics and made possible by a new voting structure that gives power to those schools and conferences who make the most money.
Whether those changes are altruistic in nature or brought on by a spate of lawsuits -- such as the Ed O'Bannon case over athletes' rights to profit on their names and image, which the NCAA lost last year -- facing college athletics can be debated, but one thing that can't is that the ground is moving under the feet of NCAA sports.
With that in mind, the Ohio State athletics director sat down with BuckeyeSports.com recently to discuss what will come next not just in college athletics but what his focus will be at OSU over the coming years.
Smith on what's next at Ohio State
“The biggest things now are facility oriented. One is the (new court spots) arena, so our goal is to finish fundraising for that year and get started on construction next year. Then there is the student-athlete development center, which is a weight room, training room, locker rooms and offices for our Olympic coaches. We’d like to finish fundraising on that this year and get started next year. And then the wrestling practice facility. Those three are probably my biggest drivers right now, working with our development team and our fundraising and getting those things done.
"We’ve had a lot of those projects that people would define as smaller, but we’ve added the lights in the stadium, we have the new seats in there. We got the three new fields – the indoor field, the outdoor field and the stadium field. We have a lot of projects upcoming. We have to replace the roof on the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in 2017. We’re going to replace that entire thing. We have the new scoreboards in some of our facilities and the video infrastructure. We have some things done, but the big deals like I was just talking about, we have to get those done. That’s what our team is really focused on. We’re going to do a renovation for the Schott – concourse improvements, concession stand improvements, things of that nature. It’s not sexy, so to speak, but will provide better service for our fans. We’ll do that hopefully next year, too. That will be a longer term project because you have to work around all the events.”
“The other thing is I want to keep our team – our administrators and our support staff and everyone – continuing to grow. Using Urban as an example, he’s making sure that our (football) team doesn’t get complacent. I do the same thing every year. We can’t get complacent. We need to constantly grow and learn and get better. Like the social media world, we need to make sure we stay on top of that and be a leader in that industry, which we are in the collegiate market, so we’re constantly on that. But our biggest priority is those facilities. We have to get those done.”
Smith on the next frontier when it comes to initiatives to promote student-athlete welfare at the NCAA level
Smith: “I think the biggest decision is going to be around time demands and looking at the hours student-athletes put into their sports. I think the academic piece is going to be an issue because at a lot of schools, the gap (between student-athletes and the general population) is getting bigger, and how do we handle the student-athletes who are getting admitted who are underprepared. I think that’s going to be a top issue.
"It’s going to be hard because I think it has to be done in federated way by each sport. Every sport doesn’t have that problem. Urban (Meyer) and I talked about football, and he and I agree that for football the first thing that comes to our mind is that January/early February timeframe, it almost seems there ought to be a shutdown period. You go through your season, and we have a large number of teams going to bowls because there’s so many bowls, so if you just say, ‘Jan. X to Feb. X, it’s shut down.’ Then what you do to start back up and get ready for spring ball is defined within the calendar.
“I don’t worry as much about the summertime. There are probably some different thoughts from people about football, but we have athletes doing internships, taking six credit hours and working out. That’s what you did back in the day. It was just the working out was on your own back in the day, but you still worked (a job), you took six to eight credit hours and you worked out. It really is the same model, so I worry more about that January/early February timeframe. We came back from the national championship game and two weeks later we were working out.
“But for tennis, I have to rely on the tennis industry to tell me what that means because if you’re a tennis athlete, you want to play every day. It’s a different deal. Each sport is going to be different. In the new structure, we’re doing that. There is a committee on student-athlete welfare that will be discussing that in their meetings and coming up with strategy to get feedback and deal with that.”
Smith on schools having to deal with the new economic realities of college athletics, which could include some schools being forced to look at cutting sports in order to balance the books.
"Our model is changing, and it is going to keep changing around student-athlete welfare and other issues. I've said many times I think a lot of schools really have to sit back and evaluate who they are considering the changes that we're getting ready to face and we are facing. If you're a certain school and you have 20-something sports, should you have 20-something sports, fully funded? I just think there's going to be a lot of introspective reviews of what a school's mission is with athletics programs and how they are going to operate as we move forward. Because cost of attendance is a big number, but there's going to be other things that are coming down the pipe that are going to cause financial challenges. I think it's going to cause schools to look at it.
“The problem we've always had in Division I, we're 351 schools and we're so diverse. That's why we have the new structure that we have now for voting, but still you have people chasing the brass ring that probably shouldn't be. They ought to be maybe in a different structure, but I think it's going to cause a lot of people to say, 'OK, Wait a minute, pause, what are we doing here?' We'll see what happens. Everybody is going to look (at the options). That's the hard part. The funding model has always been flawed in athletics, which is why you have such a wide disparity."
Smith on the O'Bannon case, which ruled that schools must put money in a trust to be delivered to football and men's basketball athletes to be delivered upon the end of their time in college sports but is now being appealed by the NCAA.
“The O’Bannon case, we’re in appeal right now. Technically, if it’s not overturned, it gets implemented Aug. 1 of this year. Even if the appeal is lost, which I’d be surprised, we’re going to need direction because the judge’s ruling wasn’t really clear. There are a lot of things that have to be clarified for us on how to implement things. Hopefully it’s overturned. If it’s not, then that’s going to be a huge issue.
“We know that the appeal has a good chance, but if it doesn’t get overturned, we have a long time before they can actually be implemented because there are so many uncertainties in the judge’s ruling. The biggest one is Title IX, so there are a lot of things that we would have to get direction from our conference, the NCAA, the Department of Education for us to even begin to implement something. So I don’t worry about that one much. I’m really more focused on making sure that the new structure engages our coaches and our practitioners in talking about time demands, talking about the academic issues, and I think those are the two this year and we’ll go from there.”