Senior Vice President and Wolfe Foundation Endowed Athletic Director
The Ohio State University
Now in his 17th year as director of Athletics at Ohio State, Gene Smith’s leadership and depth of experience was called upon in 2020-21 – a year unlike any other. Smith is a former student-athlete and coach who has earned a reputation for advocating for student-athletes and increasing the support they receive. His philosophy was put to the test this past year.
Smith was intimately involved in the crafting of new Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) NCAA legislation and was a fierce advocate for student-athletes to have the opportunity to train and compete during the pandemic.
Smith co-chaired the NCAA’s Federal State Legislative Working Group, and continued to advise the NCAA on name, image and likeness throughout the year. Smith then worked with the Ohio legislature and Governor’s office on NIL legislation which resulted in an executive order that went into effect July 1, 2021. The Governor’s order ensured equal opportunity in the NIL space for all student-athletes in Ohio.
The 2020-21 season will go down in the history books as one of both great challenges and tremendous resilience and perseverance. Smith’s resolve and relentless effort to afford student-athletes the opportunity to train and compete safely was rewarded with extraordinary performances by Ohio State teams, both in the classroom and on the fields of play.
Michael Jordan once said: “If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it.” In 2020-21 the Buckeyes did just that, reaching new heights in academic performance. Ohio State boasted a record 799 Ohio State Scholar-Athletes and 527 Academic All-Big Ten selections while 223 student-athletes earned their degrees. It is also noteworthy that 14 former student-athletes graduated with support from the department’s Degree Completion Program.
In addition, 36 of 36 teams finished with a 3.0+ Cumulative GPA in both fall and spring. A record 93% of graduating student-athletes had accepted a job, enrolled in graduate school or earned professional sport opportunities prior to graduation. Among those headed to graduate school, 15 earned OSU postgraduate scholarships and four received Big Ten postgraduate scholarships, over $120,000 in aggregate.
The Eugene D. Smith Leadership Institute continued to be a national leader in providing support for student-athletes as they prepared for successful careers after sport. Its creative and innovative programming is truly a game changer for student-athletes striving for both academic and athletic excellence while honing the skills required for success in life beyond sport. The EDSLI aspires to reach 100% placement of graduating student-athletes in the years ahead.
On the competitive side, despite a shorter season due to the pandemic, of 450 scheduled sporting events for varsity teams, only 26 were cancelled, and only four of those by Ohio State. Led by Dr. Jim Borchers and the medical and athletic training team, and thanks to the dedicated efforts of the strength and conditioning team, 110,000 covid tests were administered to student-athletes, coaches, support staff, visiting teams and officials in an effort to ensure safe training and competition.
Despite the magnitude of the challenge, Ohio State teams excelled. Football won the Big Ten Conference championship for the fourth consecutive year, won the Sugar Bowl, and competed for the CFP National Championship. Women’s Swimming and Diving, Women’s Tennis, Men’s Tennis, and Women’s Track and Field all won Big Ten Conference championships or division titles. Pistol won Open and Women’s National Championships; Fencing won Men’s and Women’s CCFC championships and Dance was once again National Champions in Pom and Jazz.
Ohio State athletics had three individual national champions in 2020-21: Adelaide Aquilla won both the NCAA indoor and outdoor shot put national championships, and pistol shooters Jack Leverett and Katelyn Abeln won the open and women’s individual national titles, respectively.
Melissa Schaub, Bill Dorenkott, Don Anthony and Jen Flynn Oldenburg were honored as conference Coaches of the Year. Smith is proud of the coaching staff he has assembled, and often refers to them collectively as the drivers of “the best culture in the country.”
A record 26 current, former or incoming Buckeye student-athletes competed for their respective country’s Olympic team at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021. Four won medals: Hunter Armstrong (gold for USA; men’s swimming); Nichelle Prince (gold for Canada; women’s soccer); Ilse Paulis (bronze for the Netherlands; rowing); and Kyle Snyder (silver for USA; wrestling).
The new Ty Tucker Tennis Center opened for practice and competition this past year, complimenting the adjacent outdoor courts which together comprise the Auer Tennis Complex. The Bill Wells Baseball Team Suite was also opened, enhancing player facilities at Bill Davis Stadium.
This August, the Ohio State Board of Trustees approved the construction of a men’s and women’s lacrosse stadium that will be constructed in the heart of Ohio State’s Athletic District. Construction of the $21.5 million facility is expected to begin in November with a November 2022 completion date.
Smith was especially proud of the many Athletic Department and Business Advancement staff who redeployed at the University during the pandemic. In a year of exceptional challenges to the University, the staff responded with collaboration across many units on campus, embracing the concept of “One University.” Smith noted, “their collective can-do attitude was simply the best.”
Notably, the Schottenstein Center was set up as a vaccination site, with over 215,000 shots administered on its concourse, even though hockey, and men’s and women’s basketball continued to compete at the facility.
For Smith, the relentless effort by the entire staff made for a remarkable year. He is immensely proud of its efforts, and the achievements of the student-athletes and coaches that resulted from the opportunity to compete.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.” By all measures, the entire athletic program had an extraordinary season, and it will be one for the history books.
Athletics faced perhaps its biggest challenge to date, and given the perseverance, resilience, and competitive excellence that resulted, the entire team is anxious to see what’s possible when Buckeye fans are welcomed back for the 2021-22 season.
“I’m proud of our people and the culture we’ve built together.” said Smith. “It’s truly a great time to be a Buckeye and our future is bright.”