Despite his Cleveland roots, Gene Smith didn’t sprout into familiarity with the traditions of The Game.
That’s all changed in his 14 years as athletic director for Ohio State.
During the most intense week in Ohio State’s football season to date, Smith took time to sit down and discuss his feelings about The Game, head coach Ryan Day and Ohio State’s success in the rivalry.
“I really wasn’t tracking on any collegiate team in my early years. Once I got into high school, 10th grade, I began to watch and pay attention,” Smith said. “I really wasn’t a fan, so to speak. I was just a college fan.”
Smith said his first introduction to the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry came during his time attending Notre Dame, where he played defensive line.
“That was one I tried not to miss, even though sometimes we were playing,” Smith said.
After his time playing at Notre Dame concluded in 1977, Smith became an assistant coach for the Fighting Irish before starting his career as an athletic director.
Notre Dame holds major rivalries with both USC and Michigan, and approaching three different rivalries from three separate roles gave Smith an appreciation for the meetings, he said.
“I began to realize the passion that exists around them, the meaning of each contest,” Smith said.
Smith said he sees a parallel between this year’s rendition of The Game and the 1969 clash between the two teams.
In that season, first-year head coach Bo Schembechler led No. 12 Michigan to an upset win against undefeated No. 1 Ohio State, the defending national champions, capturing the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth. The Buckeyes had dismantled the Wolverines 50-14 the year prior.
Day is in his first season coaching at Ohio State, taking a No. 1 Ohio State team on the road to play No. 13 Michigan after a 62-39 win by the Buckeyes in 2018.
“When you think about rivalries, you think about what they mean to people, not just the athletes, but to everybody,” Smith said. “Then you think about the implications of the outcome. And this one is huge.”
While the rivalries Notre Dame has with USC and Michigan are heated, Smith said the passion of the fans and the history of The Game places it in a higher class.
His favorite memory from the showdowns was former head coach Urban Meyer’s final victory this past season.
“To see him go out that way, and do what he did for Buckeye Nation and those players — that was a pretty thorough game,” Smith said.
That rivalry victory was far from the only one Smith has witnessed since becoming athletic director.
The Buckeyes are 13-1 during Smith’s tenure. He said that success is due to Ohio State’s leadership.
“Jim Tressel was an outstanding coach and leader, created a great culture,” Smith said. “Urban is one of the best there ever was. Recruited talent, and Ryan is doing a great job with the talent that he and Urban recruited.”
Smith said he also has resounding faith in Day, despite a lack of original Ohio ties. Two other unnamed coaches emerged in the search when Smith found out Meyer was retiring, the athletic director said, but the New Hampshire native’s football IQ and emotional intelligence set him apart, Smith said.
“His ability to relate to people and engage people is phenomenal,” Smith said. “If you talk to the players, they’re not just playing for each other. They’re playing for him because he’s connected with them. Those things were more important than that Ohio rivalry thing.”
The Lantern reported earlier Wednesday that Smith stepped down from his role within the College Football Playoff committee in part due to Georgia’s ranking above Ohio State at the conclusion of 2018.
In addition, Smith said the move was important to help him assist Day in his first year as head coach.
“I wouldn’t have been back for the press conferences,” Smith said. “I have a chance to be around that, help him whenever he has a question about some issue that might be emerging. The Chase Young situation, I would’ve been gone.”
Junior defensive end Young was suspended for two games by the NCAA after accepting a loan from a family friend in 2018, according to previous Lantern reporting. The loan was later repaid.
Day and the Buckeyes take on the Wolverines under Smith’s watchful eye Saturday at noon in Ann Arbor, Michigan.