I got to know Gene Smith more than 20 years ago when he was the athletic director at Eastern Michigan and I covered his sports teams as a writer for The Detroit News.
Smith had inherited a downtrodden sports department, one on the brink of being booted out of the Mid-American Conference. Using his sharp mind, engaging personality and political savvy, he rescued the program by hiring coaches who were as sharp, personable and as savvy as he was.
It didn’t take a Mensa scholar to discern that Smith wasn’t long for Ypsilanti and a second-tier program like EMU. He bounced quickly—on to higher ground before landing in one of the most prized athletic departments in intercollegiate sports: Ohio State.
He got there because he was smart and savvy. He got there because he avoided the missteps that can rock the foundation of an institution.
As an Ohio State alum, I applauded his hiring. I saw no reason Smith wouldn’t continue to make the proper moves. For with experience comes wisdom, and Smith had plenty of the former when he arrived in Columbus, Ohio.
Apparently, however, Smith didn’t learn as much as I thought he did. If he had, he would fire Jim Tressel as Ohio State football coach. For how much more embarrassment must alums and fans suffer as more allegations emerge about Tressel, Terrelle Pryor and those damned tattoos?
Tressel’s duplicity undermines all Smith and the department he lords over stand for.
Forget about the games and Big Ten titles that Tressel won. His task wasn’t Herculean with the deep pool of talent he had to recruit from. Tressel was expected to win—and beat Michigan like a snare drum—when he took the job.
What he wasn’t supposed to do was bend the rules and then lie about doing so. Tressel was entrusted to maintain the university’s integrity, even if it meant winning one or two fewer games each season.
Smith’s job was to make certain Tressel and other OSU coaches won within the rules. Smith was the hammer that kept wrongdoing from creeping into the sports programs.
He’s failing at his task.
The good work Smith had done to ensure the Athletic Department had money and that teams won is unraveling like a spool of yarn as the coach he so steadfastly supports proves unworthy of that support.
Tressel, whose red vest has come to personify OSU sports, is a liar and a cheat. Worse, he’s sullying the image of a great university, dragging Ohio State through the tar pits. The Scarlet and Gray grows blacker and bluer.
“Tattoo-Gate,” as the Tressel incident has come to be known, lives on, even after the press conference that Smith and university President Gordon Gee held to quiet its uproar. More stories are coming out about the football program and the wrongs under Tressel’s watch.
Nothing more needed to happen for Smith to have made the smart choice a few weeks ago. He didn’t. Now, in the face of additional reports, he has but one option: to distance the university from Tressel and his boldfaced lies.
During times that try a man’s soul, bold leadership is needed. Bold leadership is what Smith had shown in past years he was capable of providing. But in the most unsettling time of his career as an administrator, he hasn’t proved up to task. He has lacked the necessities for his job just as Tressel lacked the necessities for his.
In the end, Smith’s failure to take a bold stance against a rogue coach is costing Ohio State University more than money and won games; it’s costing the university its integrity.
Perhaps at Eastern Michigan, integrity can be bartered like Pryor did his football memorabilia, but if Smith thinks so here, he best return to the insular world of MAC football and let somebody else guide Tattoo U through this public humiliation.