Senior VP and Athletic Director for The Ohio State University, Gene Smith, talked with host Michael Redd about his passion for helping student-athletes thrive, his journey from Eastern Michigan to Ohio State, and why it’s OK to be selfish sometimes.
Self-awareness is critical. Then you have to make sure you pay attention to your teammates. You’re not going through that challenge alone, so you need your teammates to be the best they can be… but it starts with me.” – Gene Smith
Named “one of the most powerful people in collegiate sport,” Gene is in his 13th year at The Ohio State University and has also served as a director of athletics at Arizona State, Iowa State, and Eastern Michigan universities.
The former college football standout and Notre Dame alum grew up in Cleveland. After getting his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Notre Dame in 1977, he joined Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” coaching staff.
“The 1977 Notre Dame team captured the undisputed national championship. Smith has the unique distinction of winning national championships in football as a student-athlete, coach, and athletics director.”
A leader in his profession, Gene has garnered countless awards, chaired multiple NCAA committees, and “… oversees the nation’s most comprehensive and one of its most successful collegiate athletic programs.”
Note: Please pardon the sounds of Gene stirring his coffee throughout 🙂
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In this episode Michael and Gene talked about:
- How he found a career in coaching and athletics
- The importance of focusing on your self first to serve others well
- How he inspires student-athletes to be their best
- The importance of developing your interpersonal skills
- His philosophical focus on the “total student-athlete”
- His journey and transformation as a “leader of leaders” in 2020
- And on making sacrifices in face of adversity
Gene Smith: So years ago, that became my mantra. I used to get interviewed so often back in the day, and I'd get that question. I'd say, "I'm proud. It's an honor to be the only black athletic director in the Mid-American conference, or the first black athletic director at Iowa State University, or the first black athletic director as president of NACDA, blah, blah, blah. That's not what it's all about. What it's about for me is to be the best. And I held true to that because I had a belief that if I failed, it would give an excuse for hiring authorities not to hire a black director.
Micheal Redd: Hey, everybody. This is Michael Redd, and welcome to the Betting On Yourself Podcast, where I interview successful entrepreneurs, athletes, and other top performers who rose to the top, took success into their own hands, and bet on themselves. Gene and I had great rapport from the moment we met back in 2004, and he remains one of the most important people in my life. He is now in his 13th year as the director of athletics at The Ohio State University and has been named one of the most powerful people in collegiate sports. He heads up a department that sponsors 36 fully funded varsity sports, with more than 1000 student athletes competing for Big 10 conferences and NCAA championships.
Micheal Redd: He is passionate about creating an environment for students to thrive academically, athletically and socially. That's because he learned the importance of focusing on yourself first in order to be able to serve other people well. We talk about his journey from growing up on the east side of Cleveland to his first athletic director role at Eastern Michigan, and how it's okay to be selfish sometimes. Welcome my friend, Gene. For those who are listening, this is pretty much a conversation that we would normally probably have on the golf course.
Gene Smith: That's right.
Micheal Redd: And so we're going to just transition that conversation to the podcast. But Gene is certainly one of the more important people in my life. And he is very influential in a lot of decisions I made over the years pertaining to life in general. And so he's beyond just the athletic director and vice president of the university... of The Ohio State University, but he's like an uncle as well, so this is kind of personal. But it's so good to have you on the podcast Gene today with us.
Gene Smith: Well, thank you Mike. I appreciate the opportunity. I just so enjoy spending time with you. I'm so happy for you and Achea and proud of all the things that you've accomplished in life, and your children, and just a phenomenal opportunity to spend time with you every time we get a chance.
Micheal Redd: Yeah. I feel the same and I met you back in 2004, I think.
Gene Smith: Right, right.
Micheal Redd: When you first took the job at Ohio State and you kind of knew what kind of person you were then, because when I heard the news that we had a new AD at the university, I happened to be home in the off season. And I went up to go see you during a parade for you, and you were in the car. And I ran up to the car, and you spent time with me just saying, "Hey, you never met me before ever," but we spent time while you were in the midst of being celebrated and all that. And then you said, "Let's connect." And we wind up connecting and it's been incredible since then.
Gene Smith: Yeah. It has. You've had an unbelievable career and what you've done and obviously, being so embedded and connected to Columbus, it was great for me to have the opportunity to get to know you and learn what it means to be a Buckeye, to understand what I needed to try and to as the athletic director of Ohio State for our student athletes because you were one of them. But then, also to learn through you about Columbus and your experience growing up in Columbus and so it was a two way street relative to learning. I was blessed to have that opportunity to meet you early because you helped me transition as well.
Micheal Redd: Wow. Well there's obviously, as you can hear, a love fest going on but Gene will never, ever probably ride in a golf cart with me again. That's an inside joke.
Gene Smith: I'm going to have to have insurance in order to do that. I love walking the course.
Micheal Redd: No I mean, it's... your journey to me has been remarkable and I want to go back a little bit to that. But I want to first ask you. What has meant to you to bet on yourself?
Gene Smith: To bet on myself is something that's amazing. When I think about that, I go all the way back to the east side of Cleveland where I grew up and I've always been fortunate to make sure that I understand that the best person to take care of you is you. And I had kind of the total sum of our experiences in life. And I've always felt that if there's one thing that I can control is me, and that goes all the way back to my little red wagon on Cedar and [inaudible 00:05:33] in Cleveland and all the things I experienced as a young kid. It was always instilled in me to focus on what I can take care of and that's me.
Gene Smith: So I've been blessed in my life to have some great experiences, particularly when I found my career path and I would have to say relative to that question, I'd have to say because sometimes in life you have to be selfish, and when you're trying to bet on yourself, it requires you to be selfish to some degree and make sure you take care of yourself and focus on yourself, and do what you have to do to get yourself better. There's a lot around that, but I made a decision a long time ago. I'm going to achieve the things that I ultimately want to achieve, I have to control me and I have to trust me, and do the things that I have to do. Basically bet on myself.
Micheal Redd: Was there a specific moment in middle school, high school, college even and there's been a number of, I know moments probably throughout your life were you had to do this, was there a specific moment early on where you had to bet on yourself?
Gene Smith: Oh man, there's so many. Mike, that's a deep question, you know? I can go all the way back to you mentioned middle school and thinking about Charles W. Eliot At middle school in Cleveland and there were so many times when where I grew up, you... if you weren't with your friends walking home, you put yourself in danger and there were a lot of times when I wasn't with my friends and I had to figure out a strategy in order to get from Charles Eliot to my home, which at that age, seemed like it was 30 miles and was frankly, only two and a half. But you're dipping and dodging and so you know early on, there were moments in time like that where I had to do that, or I want to go to a party somewhere across the tracks and my guys wouldn't go with me, so I had to go by myself if I really wanted to go and took the risk and did it.
Gene Smith: But then there were a lot of different times as I went on into college and I was blessed to have great roommates and good teammates, but there were times when I had to become a loner in order to accomplish things. My first two roommates, they liked to party and I was that guy that on a Friday night that would be in the room studying until 10 o'clock, then I go party. But my partners, they start at six, so there are so many moments in my life where I took a path where I focused on myself. When I became the athletic director at Eastern Michigan University at the age of 29, there were only two Black athletic directors at the time and they called it Division I-A at that time. There was 110 schools and there were so many times I was the only one in the room, and even though I knew what I might face to go to some of those meetings, because it was more covert than overt, but it was there. I maintained my strength and went, because I needed to be there.
Gene Smith: There's just so many moments. I can't say that there's one moment Mike. There's just a lot of... when I think about this, I can give a lot of examples of where I had to say to myself, "Okay, you have to do this." And I got better because I did that, so there's a lot of them.
Micheal Redd: You were named by Black Enterprise one of the most powerful African Americans in sports. Did those early moments in school at Notre Dame transitioning out of school to being one of two AD's in the whole country that are African American, did those moments prepare to where you wind up becoming?
Gene Smith: Oh, there's no question. So the 9th grade, my dad sent me down and told me I was not going to go John F. Kennedy High School. I'd been in public schools all my life and the natural order of life was to go from Charles Eliot to John F. Kennedy, and he said, "You're going to go to Chanel High School out in Bedford Heights, Ohio. I bused out there and it was a north of 500, all boys, all White with three Black kids in the school and that's when my eyes were opened and I learned so much. It was the first time I actually ever participated in an organized sport, because we didn't have organized sport where I grew up. We had rec sports and things of that nature, but... and pickup. So that was the first time I actually put on pads and a helmet, a full uniform in football and actually played on a real basketball team. Played baseball with real clothes on, so... my experiences in meeting people in that environment from different walks of life uniquely prepared me.
Gene Smith: Then when I went to Notre Dame, I was better prepared and that opened my eyes to the differences in people and I began to embrace that. Then I coached for four years and went to IBM and learned business and then got into athletic administration from there. But those experiences that Chanel High School, Notre Dame, being around diverse people that I didn't grow up with from K through nine, just this was phenomenal for me. So I never traveled in those circles and I knew the son of Coca-Cola, other people who owned Coca-Cola, people who owned McDonald's. I started to become friends with these very affluent people that I had never been exposed to. So yes, those experiences positioned me extremely well for the opportunities I ended up having.
Micheal Redd: How did you go from IBM to being an athletic director?
Gene Smith: Man, that was a crazy one Mike. That was wild. So when I graduated from Notre Dame, the head coach asked me to stay on and be a graduate assistant and then I became a full time assistant, and I was a backup player. I was never starter. Played on special teams and... but I was that locker room guy, I kind of held things together and he recognized that, so he kept me on staff and I coached for four years. Then when he retired, I was going to go get my MBA and at that time, in 1981, going to IBM training school was equivalent to getting your MBA. So I did that and I was selling computers to the manufacturing, distribution, legal and medical industries and doing well. I didn't love it. I found myself chasing a quota, chasing the bonuses and commission. I found myself chasing money.
Gene Smith: My dad always told me to find a career. So the defensive coordinator that I played for had become the athletic director at Eastern Michigan University and he called me out of the blue, and I think it came from me having conversations with mutual friends that I wasn't in love with my IBM work. It was a job, not a career and he called me out of the blue. Said, "Hey, I got this associate athletic directors job that I've created. I'm just getting ready to hire a new football coach. I need somebody that understands football. I need somebody with business skills, because I don't have any and I want someone that's going to be loyal to me." So I drove up and met with him for a long time and basically on a napkin, he basically drew up what athletic administration was because I had no clue.
Gene Smith: So I left IBM and went to work for him. I left a lot of money behind at the time from a cash flow point of view. Stock was pretty good, but... he taught me the business and because of him, I'm indebted to him. Unfortunately he passed away. He taught me the business and for Monday through Thursday at 7:00 AM, we would meet at this little coffee place and we'd talk for 45 minutes, maybe an hour, then we go to work. So he did that with me for weeks on end, because I didn't know what I was doing. But he, everyday, he taught me a lesson. So I'm indebted to him for the opportunity to find a career. So that's how I got started and he retired and he... I was the interim athletic director at Eastern Michigan University for a little over 300 days. Then I applied for the job and I was not in the top six.
Gene Smith: So they asked me, I don't know why they asked me this Mike. They asked me to tour the six finalists. I said, "It's awesome. I can sabotage these guys." So I toured them around campus. I did not sabotage them, but I toured them around campus and took the high road like my dad always taught me and then out of the blue, they called me. Roy Woodbanks, the vice president at that time asked me to meet him at the Huron Bar and we had a beer and he offered me to job. So that's how that happened. I'm so blessed to have this opportunity.
Micheal Redd: This is so powerful because everyone sees who you are now and I think you're the best AD in the country, but this is powerful to hear the origin of where you came from, and when you made that shift from IBM to being the athletic director, what was your mindset? Was it daunting to do something that you've never done before or did it excite you more than scare you? Or both?
Gene Smith: It excited me and sure, I had trepidation because you have uncertainty and I was moving from South Bend and Ypsilanti, Michigan and so I never worked that way in higher education. So I had a lot to learn and I burned both ends of the candle, full days. But I was young and dumb and stupid, you know? You just go and you just... my dad was an electrician and I grew up in a labor environment, so you just worked hard. Work ethic was the thing that you put your everything into. It was just outwork people, and over time, I figured how to... outwork and outsmart. But in the beginning, it was just outwork. So I wasn't scared, I just went to work. But I think my blessing from what we talked about earlier, Chanel and Notre Dame, playing sports, I didn't know it at the time, but I think my interpersonal skills, my emotional intelligence was pretty high. I wasn't the smartest guy in the room, but I had this uncanny ability to relate to people, to evaluate people, to motivate, inspire people, bring people together.
Gene Smith: My degree was in business administration at Notre Dame, but the courses I loved was personnel management, group dynamics, strategy and policy and I held onto those books up until I think two years ago. My wife Sheila cleared out our bookshelves when we moved to a condo, but those books, I had all my life. There were times I'd go in and look at the highlighted yellow pieces as I was doing my work. So I wasn't scared, I just dove into it. But I listened a lot, learned a lot and then I think I made an impact, because my interpersonal skills.
Micheal Redd: Learning a lot is I think one of the hallmarks of your life, because you read all the time. If anybody knows Gene Smith, he's in book clubs. He has a book a month that he reads and it inspires me to read more. Knowledge is power.
Gene Smith: That's right.
Micheal Redd: With that being said, who was some of your biggest inspirations along the way?
Gene Smith: You know, my parents, I was blessed. I had two great parents. They were hardworking parents and so they taught me work ethic, taught me respect for people. My dad was an electrician, as I said, and so from the time I was five til I left to go to school to college, I worked with him in the summer time, on weekends and I listened to him preach in the truck as we went in truck and preach in the truck on the way back. These sayings that came from him. One of them was "Through the eyes of others, you see yourself." I don't know who he stole that quote from, but he used to preach [inaudible 00:19:36] preach that to me all the time and let your heart be your guide, but let your mind draw the line. I got all these things in my head, but they were unbelievable to me, and then when I got into athletic administration, I had three mentors.
Gene Smith: One was a guy by the name of Mike Cleary. He was the executive director of [NACDA 00:19:58] our National Association Collegiate Director of Athletics. He was big into diversity. John McClendon, you might know that name.
Micheal Redd: Yeah.
Gene Smith: Black coach and Mike, he and Mike were best friends. Mike pulled me into NACDA and put me on all the committees and he just put me in and exposed me to all the old heads in the room. I learned so much just by listening. So I owe a great deal to Mike because he was committed to diversity. Then Cedric Dempsey, used to be the athletic director at Arizona, became the president of the NCAA. He was an unbelievable advisor and then DeLoss Dodds, who was the long time athletic director at Texas, 30 something years. They were great advisors along the way. Three guys that I depended on and they mentored me along the way. Those two, Ced and DeLoss embraced me when I first started. I think they sensed that I was [inaudible 00:21:02] sometimes in meetings and I'd go into a meeting and people would be sitting there and DeLoss would say, "Hey come over, sit over here." So he pulled me in and Ced did the same.
Gene Smith: So those three guys, hugely instrumental but probably the person that is the most important, that's been an unbelievable friend and mentor is my wife Sheila. I've been so blessed. She [inaudible 00:21:29] on her plate, basketball at the highest level, represented her country in the Olympics and became a basketball coach at Oregon, head coach at UNLV and she studied leadership and taught leadership. Then I think when I met her is... my thirst for reading leadership books really picked up and we used to talk about leadership all the time. I wasn't the best public speaker. I wasn't the best at articulating words. So she would help me with my speeches and help me practice words that I struggled saying correctly. So she's been a... when I think about it in the aggregate, besides my parents, she's been so instrumental in my life.
Micheal Redd: Yeah, you can't mention Gene Smith without mentioning Sheila. Power couple on so many levels and Sheila is like Auntie Sheila and will tell it to you straight.
Gene Smith: There's no gray area is there Mike?
Micheal Redd: No gray. No gray area. No topic that we won't cover. She will say what you're thinking.
Gene Smith: Exactly right. Exactly right. You got to be careful now.
Micheal Redd: Yes, yes, yes. Sheila's amazing and it's been a huge influence on [inaudible 00:22:51] life. Going back to when you were one of two AD's, African American AD's in the country, athletic directors in the country, where you thinking at that time of being a trailblazer or you just had your head down moving forward?
Gene Smith: Yeah, that's a great question. It's interesting. Mentoring some of the guys that I've mentored over the years, I've always told them "It's a blessing and an honor to be in this seat as a Black AD, but that's not what you hold on to. Your goal is to be the best AD."
Micheal Redd: Yeah.
Gene Smith: So years ago, that became my mantra. I used to get interviewed so often back in the day and I'd get that question. I'd say, "I'm proud. It's an honor to be the only Black athletic director in the Mid America Conference or the first Black athletic director at Iowa State University or first Black athletic director as president of NACDA," blah, blah, blah. But I said, "THat's not what it's all about. What it's about for me is to be the best." That's what I've always held true to and I held true to that, because I had a belief that if I fail, it would give an excuse for higher authorities not to hire Black athletic director. Some people could say that's a tremendous burden for a 29, 30, 31 year old athletic director back in the day, but I looked at it as an opportunity. I knew then if I could be successful, I would open doors for others. And I could have the opportunity to be a person that student athletes and anybody else who looked like me could say, "Oh, he can do that. I can do that."
Gene Smith: We haven't had that. We didn't have that back in the day. Now we do. Alan Greene at Auburn and Martin Jarmond at UCLA and Warde Manuel up at that team up north. I mean, all the young puppies that I remember them going through the pipeline. Man, I'm just so proud of them. Derrick Gragg, who just left Tulsa is going to the NCAA to be in charge of diversity and inclusion at the NCAA. I can just... Carla Williams at Virginia who was a basketball player at Georgia. She's just a stud. So I just... Bernard Muir at Stanford. To say that Stanford has a Black athletic director is just... it warms my heart. Just warms my heart and I just remember all those puppies back in the day, and they've grown and they're leading.
Gene Smith: So for me, when I think back to how I thought about it back then, which is what I've always done is say, "Hey, I just got to be the best. If I get fired, it gives them an excuse." So I've always worked hard to set the standard.
Micheal Redd: You're certainly a leader of leaders and your leadership transcends even being an athletic director. I think you're one of the top leaders in the country and... So you go from Eastern Michigan to Iowa State. That's a long way away from Cleveland.
Gene Smith: Iowa man. I remember with Sheila. So back in the day, I was at Eastern for 10 years, eight years as athletic director and I reached the point where I thought I did all I could do. So I started applying for jobs and back in the day, affirmative action, EEOC was really strong and people couldn't do interviews unless they demonstrated that they had a diverse pool. So obviously being one of the few Black athletic directors at that time, I was in almost every search and I think I interviewed at nine places before I ended up at Iowa State, and I interviewed at places that I already knew who they were going to hire.
Gene Smith: I remember Ced Dempsey told me, "Gene, you got to go. You got to go do that interview." I said, "We know who they're going to hire. I'm just a token in the pool." Said, "Gene, interview is a beauty contest. It's a beauty contest and the more you do it, the better you're going to get. Go do it. Besides, you may impress somebody that may become a reference for you." So I just dragged myself and go do it. He was right. Iowa State called me out of the blue. Somebody nominated me and they called me out of the blue and I remember Sheila and I sitting on my condo floor looking at the map trying to figure out where the hell is Ames, Iowa. We thought we'd be there for two years and we were there for seven and fell in love with the place. It was a great experience, it really was.
Gene Smith: I'd never been in a farming community or never been on a combine. I remember getting on a combine and learning more about farming than I ever thought I would know coming out of Cleveland. I love that place.
Micheal Redd: Wow, and then you go further from Iowa State to Arizona State.
Gene Smith: Yeah, that was another moment. Someone nominated me for that job and Lattie Coor was the president at that time. I actually turned down the interview-
Micheal Redd: Wow.
Gene Smith: He called back and said, "Look, I'm going to be in Chicago, can you at least fly and meet me in Chicago?" And I finally did it because I was... Sheila and I were walking the beach in Marco Island, Florida. Ced Dempsey and his wife Jean were walking the beach and he had heard that I turned down the interview and he stopped me dead in my tracks and used some colorful language like, "Blah, blah, blah is wrong with you?" I said, "What?" He said, "You're not going to interview at Arizona State? You need to do that interview." So ended up meeting Lattie in Chicago and fell in love with him. Did not see Arizona State at all, because my world is about people and if I have a president that I can work with and appreciate, we were supposed to meet for 30 minutes, we met for 90 and I fell in love with him.
Gene Smith: After Iowa State, went to Arizona State. Probably my hardest job. Great experience, but it was my hardest job. Learned a lot about a lot of things, learned a lot about myself. Phoenix at that particular time, 2000, 2005, it's still this way was the entertainment dollar was stretched. Everything's there Mike, right? 200 golf courses, which was awesome. 200 golf courses, but they had the Diamondbacks, they had the Cardinals, they had... the Phoenix Suns, everything there that stretched the entertainment dollar. Three quarters of the people in the valley were not from the valley. They're from Kansas, they're from Ohio and they didn't have an affinity for the environment. So really, from a marketing point of view, if you weren't performing at the highest level, you better be good. You better have great marketing strategies and you better be good. It was a hard job. A lot of money so you could fundraise, but it was a tough job. I learned a lot about myself there.
Micheal Redd: At this point now, you have accumulated a track record of just betting on yourself and taking risks. That is probably one of the core values you have of just taking risks and jumping into the river man. You take the biggest jump from Arizona State to the Ohio State University. Talk about that transition to this massive opportunity.
Gene Smith: Wow, so that was another moment. Someone nominated me and everywhere I've been, I tried to leave... not leave a place unfinished. I wanted to accomplish my goals and I felt that at Eastern, I felt that at Iowa State when I left. At Arizona State, I had many more things to get done and so I turned down the interview to Ohio State twice, and Sheila and a good friend of hers were having a conversation over some wine and Jude Parker Roach, who's a creative writer, outstanding writer at Arizona State, good friend and they challenged me. She started it. She said, "You have an obligation as an African American to interview for that job and consider it." It caused me pause and so I really didn't want to do it, but they were right.
Gene Smith: I remember Sunday morning, I had to fly to Dallas and do the interview and I really didn't want to do it. I was in the bedroom, I had my jacket on and I wasn't going to wear a tie. She goes, "You got to wear a tie." And I said, "Okay, I'll put on a tie." It was the best interview I ever gave because I didn't care. But I did connect to Joe Alutto, who was a dean of the college of business at the time. He was chair of the committee and he and I just connected. They got a big community, big committee and he and I connected. Obviously my degree is in business administration. My course, being an entrepreneur and he and I connected. Next thing I know, I'm getting all these calls and I actually turned it down. Even after that, because I just had so much I needed to do at Arizona State and I had asked a lot of people and invested in a vision that we had there, and I felt guilty.
Gene Smith: But anyway... and plus, I had a pool. I had a jacuzzi that sat eight people. I lived on Ancala Country Club Golf Course and I was on the 10th tee box. Backyard gate opened right onto the golf course and I was looking outside backyard, I was looking at the mountains. I'm from the east side of Cleveland. I'm going back to Columbus, Ohio?
Micheal Redd: Right.
Gene Smith: In my backyard? Anyway [crosstalk 00:33:47] that's right. I was barbecuing on Christmas Day on my patio man. Anyway, obviously I ended up taking it [inaudible 00:33:58] greatest moves that Sheila and I ever made was coming here, and it's provided tremendous opportunities in so many different ways. So I went through a little process to get here but we pulled it off and came and it's my last stop.
Micheal Redd: Yep. One of the great hires ever at Ohio State was you and Sheila come on board.
Gene Smith: Thank you.
Micheal Redd: How important has vision been to you? You've kind of expressed that a little bit throughout the podcast, but you had to have vision by coming to Ohio State. You're in a sweet spot at Arizona State and you come to Ohio State and there's some holes here when you get here obviously, and things that need to be accomplished and Andy Geiger preceded you before you got here, was my AD when I played at Ohio State. How big has vision been for you in this whole process?
Gene Smith: Huge, it's massive and when you work with a group of people, when you're the leader, you have to be authoritative in where you want to go. People want to understand "What's the direction?" So it's a great book by Micheal Watkins that Sheila had introduced me to. It's called The First 90 Days, it's an easy read. So any leader that's going through a transition, the most important thing they do is listen and learn and ask questions. You don't get that opportunity to be stupid and curious, you know? So after a certain point of time and you just listen and learn, then based upon that, you can establish your vision. You have some fundamental things that you hold true to your values and those type of things, but you need to truly understand the environment in this capacity before you actually set a quantitative vision.
Gene Smith: So I went through that process and assessed what needed to be done at Ohio State to allow us to become preeminent. We were good, but we weren't preeminent. I wanted to be the institution that everyone wanted to emulate and that there's a lot in between that to get there, but once I learned the environment and what our capacity was, it was pretty easy for me to set the vision.
Micheal Redd: Did those experiences at Eastern Michigan, Iowa State, Arizona State prepare you for some of the decisions you had to make with Ohio State?
Gene Smith: Oh, no question. No question. You know, one of the things we did not do a good a job as we should have done with developing a total student athlete development program. We had exceptional athletes in so many different ways, but we were not as focused as we should have been on the development of the person in our [crosstalk 00:37:07] at Iowa State and Arizona State in particular. That became one of my deepest passions. We did it at Eastern Michigan, but I didn't have the total wherewithal financially and I was still learning to implement all the programs that you needed to have in place in order to focus on the person. So that became a big passion of mine and all the things that I did at Iowa State and Arizona State allowed me to build the two box that I needed that I ultimately implemented and used here at Ohio State and was able to add on to because of the resources here, the environment here and access to talent, people who could come in and help.
Gene Smith: So that became a huge passion of mine, but I learned a lot of that talent and skill from my experiences at Iowa State and Arizona State. [inaudible 00:38:10] just a primary focus of mine here.
Micheal Redd: I'm going to talk about legacy, or ask you about legacy in a few minutes, but I want to tap into something because the podcast has been very celebratory of what you've been able to accomplish and how you've handled success. Talk about how to handle adversity because as great as your journey has been, there's been some bumps in the road. As a leader of universities, how have you been able to handle adversity and what's your mindset with that?
Gene Smith: Yeah. No, it's been a lot of challenges along the way, everywhere from the worst experiences when you lose a student athlete to death and with that and there's just nothing worse than that. Then I've had to make personnel changes and some of them were very challenging. I had some [inaudible 00:39:06] investigations, so I've had a number of different things that have been real challenging. That gets a little bit too... the betting on yourself, for me, and that conversation I shared about being selfish. When we went to the 2011 NCAA situation here and all the issues around that, one thing... and even with the COVID issues and postponement of our fall sports. One thing I always knew about myself was I had to take care of myself. I had to stay in my regiment in order to keep my mind clear, to keep my emotions clear.
Gene Smith: So I workout every morning. I workout every morning at least five times a week, sometimes six. Just to take care of me and make sure that physically, emotionally and mentally I'm in the right frame of mind to lead. In 2011, I remember when I was coming back from New York, I was the NCAA men's basketball committee and coming back to our NCAA case, landed early in the morning and my team was meeting already. There was about nine people in the conference room and papers everywhere, stuff up on the boards and I walk in the room and you would have thought we were at a funeral. I could have continued with that attitude, but I didn't. I told a joke and it lifted the spirits in the room.
Gene Smith: The best time to make a good decision is at the top of mood elevator when you're feeling good-
Micheal Redd: Yeah.
Gene Smith: You're happy and that when you're down in the dumps, it's hard to make a good decision. I've always said to myself, in all of those situations when you encounter them, you first and foremost have to be grounded. You have to make sure you're in a place where you feel comfortable you can make rational, regional, proven decisions and I know if I haven't worked out an X number of days, I'm the worst person to be around. So self awareness is critical and then, you have to make sure you pay attention to your teammates. Because you're not making these decisions alone, you're not going through that challenge alone. You need your teammates to be the best that they can be. So I really focus on my team that's helping me and helping us get through whatever that challenge might be. So I get real focused when we are in those storms. So it's... but it starts with me.
Micheal Redd: How much pressure... and I know you're a leader of leaders, how much pressure is it to lead in these times with COVID, with social unrest? 2020's been an incredible year.
Gene Smith: That's a book by itself Mike. A lot of things in my life are chapters. [inaudible 00:42:23] really writing a book already it was chapter to chapter. Nope, 2020's going to be a book.
Micheal Redd: Yes. Yes.
Gene Smith: Oh my god.
Micheal Redd: And I think you stood out... in this time because there's so much pressure to lead right now, and I want to get your thoughts on that and how you even mentored the Martin's and the Pat Chung's and all these leaders that are under you. It's a unique time to lead right now.
Gene Smith: Yeah it is. It is. It gets back to that part of being grounded-
Micheal Redd: Yeah.
Gene Smith: Helpful with a lot of my colleagues across the country and I get a lot of calls now because they want to get advice, and so I always just make sure I'm patient and thoughtful and share from my perspective. But because I've been at it a long time, I've seen so many things and I know [inaudible 00:43:22] the social injustice issues. I lived in Cleveland five blocks away from the 66 riots on [inaudible 00:43:30] and Hough, 105 and all that. So I've seen it before and I knew that this was a unique one, but I also have a lot of young people in our athletic department that have not. So making sure that I implemented measures to help them. With our student athletes, we help them find their way to deal with that challenge, to be able to express themselves freely in the right way and keep it in front of them.
Gene Smith: So there are so many different things were I said to myself, "Okay, I have to make sure that I can [inaudible 00:44:12] myself to help my teams, my teammates, everyone move through these challenges and be focused and come out the other side." The social injustice issue is going to be with us for a long time, but for the first time in my life, I feel like we have a chance to change things because we're looking at the systemic things. We're not just looking at the individual behavior that occur that took us to where we are. We're looking at the structural issues. The red lining and all the things that have always been there, but now we're pulling back the onion and getting at them.
Gene Smith: So I'm really encouraged by that and COVID, it's just a whole new ballgame. People are dying and people on respirators. It's one that you have to say to yourself, "There will be sacrifices." So you just got to help people get to them.
Micheal Redd: So for those who don't know Gene Smith, he's a fierce competitor and I see it every weekend. Last... I don't know, 10 years, he's been my partner.
Gene Smith: We lost the last two man. Guys were [inaudible 00:45:25] finding they win two matches and they think you're world beaters.
Micheal Redd: Exactly. We were dominating early in the spring and summer, but yeah. So Gene is ultra competitive and I think that competitive nature has driven you, even through tough times.
Gene Smith: No question.
Micheal Redd: As a leader.
Gene Smith: You hate to lose.
Micheal Redd: Yeah.
Gene Smith: You're faced with challenges and you want to come out the other side. I just did a webinar with my staff the other... yesterday and 527 people on the webinar, and it was a difficult webinar because we canceled our fall sports. We're not going to have football this fall. I fought up until the day before and realized there was nothing I could do to turn back the decision and we're going to take some real challenges. We got 110 million dollar deficit that we're going to incur. So all of us have to make personal sacrifices, but I couldn't go on that webinar and be gloom and doom. I got to find a way to deliver the message that everyone already knew, because I have socialized it over time, but I have to deliver the finality of where we are and do it in a sensitive and humanistic way, but try and bring levity. So it was about a 45 minute webinar, a couple of other speakers on the agenda and I never know, particularly now, with these... because you're not in person.
Gene Smith: If I was doing an all staff meeting in person, I know if I was winning the room. But in this case, you just don't know and I don't know how many text messages I got within the first 10 minutes after the webinar was over and I had acclimation. I had... it was affirmed that I had won the room, and when I give speeches or when I do those type of things, my objective is to win the room. Is stature and presence and it's the... to make sure my message is clear and concise, and make sure that I bring some levity to the environment. And that when people leave, they feel good. They felt like it was worth their time to be there and listen to me, and these times when you don't see people, my only affirmation was getting those text messages and I knew that I won, I won the room. So everything I do is to win. Is to win, even on that level. I don't care what it is. I go into-
Micheal Redd: Yeah.
Gene Smith: Individual meetings with people individually and I want... when they walk out, I want them to remember the meeting. I learned a long time ago, I tell kids this today, kids today, they go in athletic administration and their first question is "How do I get your job?" You know? The best job in the world. I ask them, "What's the best job in the world?" And they start rattling off stuff and I tell them, "No. The best job in the world is the job you have. Do that job expertly. Differentiate yourself."
Micheal Redd: Wow.
Gene Smith: "When you do the job that you're hired to do and you do it excellently, when you leave, you're missed. Be that person that's missed. Don't be that person like glad he's gone." So everything I try, everything I do is to win.
Micheal Redd: Wow. Well I experience it every week and every week [crosstalk 00:49:30] you know? It's fierce. I mean, your resume with Ohio State, the athletic department, we're clearly one of the top schools every year as far as athletic performance, academically and also athletically and you've won a number of national championships throughout your time here at Ohio State. Each and every program has thrived for the most part under your leadership, what's the proudest moment for you out of OSU?
Gene Smith: Oh my god. I can't say that there's one. There's so many of them, you know?
Micheal Redd: Yeah.
Gene Smith: Winning contests is huge. Winning a national championship in football, winning a national championship in wrestling. I just go on and on in that space, but I have to share that we've changed the culture Mike. When I first came here meeting with my coaches, there was some of our Olympic sport coaches, I never forget a couple of them telling me, "We can't beat Stanford in recruiting." Then I begin to dig in and understand why and part of it was we needed institutionally to change our academic profile, so I kind of caught it, an issue in stride where I said, "Okay, we have to change our academic profile in the athletic department consistent with the academic profile that was developing with the institution." So our coaches can sit in the living room of parents and convince them that our academic stature and presence was great as Stanford's and now we're there.
Gene Smith: It can recruiting against Stanford and beating them in the recruiting game is huge for me. Being able to differentiate ourselves, 92% of our student athletes who graduated this past year, before they walked across the stage, they knew where they were going. They had a job, they were going to graduate school, they were signing or have signed or signing a professional contract, or taking time to chase the Olympics. Our goal is to help our young people get to their next chapter in life. They go to college to work.
Micheal Redd: Yeah.
Gene Smith: So we got to help them figure that out, so changing that whole culture Mike, academically changing the culture around... I remember when I implemented the policy years ago, in your sophomore year, you have to have a resume and I was a complete idiot. I was tracking it week to week. I'd call coaches and say, "So and so, they don't have their resume done. You tell them next week they're not practicing unless they get that resume done."
Micheal Redd: Wow.
Gene Smith: So we had to implement those type of punitive measures to change the culture. Again, it became just a culture because you're changing behavior to get the culture. So ultimately, getting people to think in their junior year, if you want to go to grad school, you need to start applying before the deadline. So we have 63 of our graduates this past year are going to graduate school, and that's the largest number ever because we changed the thought process that you don't have to go out there, if you don't know what you want to do, we can help you get into grad school, help you get financial assistance going to grad school and you can figure it out. So I don't know, those things Mike I'm so proud of besides the wins. I'm so proud of those accomplishments.
Micheal Redd: I think your legacy will be people.
Gene Smith: I [crosstalk 00:53:12]
Micheal Redd: Think your legacy will be beyond the new facilities and infrastructure, I think it will be people and we will miss you when you're... from the university at some point, I don't know when that is. We talk about it a lot.
Gene Smith: I don't know either.
Micheal Redd: I know, I know.
Gene Smith: When Sheila tells me.
Micheal Redd: Oh man, it's going to be a sad day, but a glorious day. What's next for you in the next few years? Goals that you have and-
Gene Smith: Well we got to get through this COVID.
Micheal Redd: Yeah.
Gene Smith: Leading our team to get to a different way to operate and get to our new next and redefine our new next. I have some things that I want to try and do structurally for intercollegiate athletics. I'll begin to look at that in 21. I think from a governors point of view, we need to make some changes, do some tweaks.
Micheal Redd: Yeah.
Gene Smith: So we can do a better job. I want to see [inaudible 00:54:18] NIL implemented the right way next year, and we still have a lot of work around that. I think that's a huge game changer for a lot of student athletes. Everybody thinks about the top athlete, but I think for our Olympic sport athletes, who are on partial aid-
Micheal Redd: Yeah.
Gene Smith: Those kids will benefit in a big way and... but there's things that I, in this career, hopefully here at Ohio State that I have as goals, things I want to focus on. Besides getting with you back on the golf course to spank a couple guys [crosstalk 00:54:56]
Micheal Redd: Yes, I'm looking forward to it. I think we play in a couple days. So-
Gene Smith: Exactly.
Micheal Redd: Looking forward to it. If you had to go back and talk to your 16 year old self, what would you tell yourself?
Gene Smith: You know, slow down. Early in life I made so many mistakes because I was driven by work ethic, and I could have done a better job in a lot of ways if I had just slowed down. I think back to my time at Eastern Michigan, even my time at IBM when I was selling computers and driving to an industrial park and doing cold calls. Just slow down and I would have been much more effective in those environments at an early age. I know when I was... went to Chanel High School and the riots just ended, it was the height of Civil Rights Movement. I was a Black kid busing to White neighborhood and all White school, all boys, my first year I made a lot of mistakes, I really did. So I was trying to prove myself and just slow down. Then I would have been all right if you just slow down.
Micheal Redd: Yeah. It's... I think one of the things that you've done as well, and we may have talked about this, you having the ability to bet on yourself has oozed through you to the point to where you instill that into people. So I get a call about a month ago out of nowhere after me and you obviously have seen each other, but you call me and say, "Hey, I want you to speak at the commencement this year for the university, for our graduates and it was one of the great honors of my life." I think you have an ability to see the potential in people and challenging them to bet on themselves as well. So I think that's a great quality you have as well.
Gene Smith: Well thanks Mike, that gets back to trying to... there's a book by... I forgot who wrote this. Oh, Max Dupree and he talks about people are the heart and soul of all that matters in life, and it's called The Art of Leadership and he's right. For me, is people are at the core of everything we do, and if you can't figure out how to work with people from all walks of life, but also try and assess people's values, talents and skills. As a leader, it's very difficult to create the team that you need to create in order to be successful. So I don't only do that in work, I do that in my personal life and then understand that I have an opportunity to help others realize experiences or help them chase their dreams. So I see life, it's painful and that's [inaudible 00:58:03] giving of yourself, because people are the heart and soul of all that matters.
Micheal Redd: Couldn't have said it better. Ladies and gentlemen, Gene Smith. It's a pleasure Gene. Thank you for being on with me today man.
Gene Smith: Thank you. Appreciate it.
Micheal Redd: What I love about Gene is his ability to motivate and challenge people to be better. He truly embodies the spirit of what it means to bet on yourself and I'm honored to be his friend. I hope his story inspires you too. Thanks for listening to today's episode. To read the show's notes, learn more about my work, or connect with me visit michaelredd.com. New episodes release every week on Monday, so make sure to subscribe if you want to stay up to date. Until next time, I'm Michael Redd and remember, you are the secret to your success.
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