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Football: Gene Smith says no to playoff expansion, discusses other College Football Playoff topics

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Senior Vice President and Athletics Director Gene Smith sits down with The Lantern on Jan. 24. Screenshot by Colin Hass-Hill | Assistant Sports Director

Ohio State Senior Vice President and Athletics Director Gene Smith has served in numerous roles on NCAA committees throughout his 12-year tenure in Columbus. Some of those roles include five years on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament selection committee — he was the head of the committee in 2011— three years on the NCAA Division I Administration Cabinet and is currently serving his third of four years on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Oversight Committee.

On Jan. 17, Smith added another title to his list of committees. He was named to the College Football Playoff Committee. Smith replaces Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez.

Like all members of the committee, Smith will be a part of the decision on selecting the final fours teams to play in the national semifinals for the next three years, when his contract ends in 2020. Smith will be required to be out of the room when the committee discusses OSU, like he did when acting on the basketball selection committee.

He told The Lantern that he will take his experiences from the NCAA tournament selection committee and apply those to his new role with the playoff committee. Smith admitted he understands the guidelines and the processes the committee goes through, but will rely on those with CFP committee experience, including Alvarez.

When the NCAA first instituted the College Football Playoff, Smith said he originally wasn’t in favor of the playoff committee because of guidelines and structuring concerns — he liked the Bowl Championship Subdivision system in place at the time — nor was he interested in being on the committee.

“I admire what the first (committee) did, and how they set it up and the way it ran. Obviously, I have been the beneficiary two out of the three years, so I’ve got a little biased view,” he said. “But you know I really did like how they set things up. So now I’m much more comfortable. I had a little apprehension at the beginning.”

Smith was the head of the NCAA tournament selection committee when the field expanded from 64 teams to 68, which only added two more games. Smith said he was criticized heavily for his selection of the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams as one of the final four at-large teams, but he was confident in his decision having seen VCU play numerous times.

In 2011, VCU became the first No. 11 seed to make the Final Four.

As a member of the CFP committee, he won’t be asked to vote on expansion given the television deal in play through 2025, but Smith said he would not be in favor of expanding the playoff to more than four teams.

“I’d vote against it,” he said.

Following OSU’s 2015 CFP championship run, Smith said that he was worried after the semifinal game against Alabama that the players wouldn’t be physically capable of playing a 15th game. Now throwing in a possible 16th game, when factoring in a conference championship game as well, Smith said that wear-and-tear on the bodies of the players is too much when playing against the best of the best.

He also cited exam schedules and the rest of the bowl season. Smith said that by pushing the playoff further into January, the college season would run into the NFL playoffs and the NCAA would not do that. Therefore, the playoffs would start earlier in December which, in turn, could eliminate a few bowl games — something Smith doesn’t want to see, although speculated expansion would happen at some point.

“Somebody’s going to lose,” he said. “Something is going away.”

Committee clarity

From serving on numerous committees, Smith knows what works. All committee meetings are closed-door sessions and he understands why.

Through the CFP committee’s first three seasons, the group of athletic directors, former coaches and others familiar with the bureaucratic process of intercollegiate athletics has been lambasted with the lack of transparency presented when it releases the weekly rankings starting in early November leading all the way up to the announcement of the semifinalists in mid-December.

As a member of the basketball committee, Smith valued the eye test the most. He said in his new role, he’ll probably watch three times the amount of football he watched this season. Smith added that the eye test might not be as important to him because he’ll be watching elements of the game that he never has before.

“I would never talk about my preferences. You guys can ask me, “What’s your criteria? What are you going to use in the room?” Smith said. “I’ll never talk about that because one it’s my criteria integrated with the criteria of my colleagues.”

Smith said all committee members not revealing their individual preferences regarding the weight of conference championships, nonconference scheduling and overall strength of schedule is vital to having constructive discussions in the decision-making process.

“I think once you pull the curtains back on that, then it gets back to that ability to be open and free,” he said. “And I think that that is so important. We need to come out collectively on our decision and all stand behind one another. When you take the veil off, I think it makes it very difficult to do.”

Smith discussed the importance of eliminating the history of a program. Teams like Duke, North Carolina and Michigan State in basketball, and Alabama, OSU and Michigan in football have such a large enterprise attached to their names with NFL talent and Hall-of-Fame coaches that it’s challenging to ignore the brand and focus on the team.

In 2016, OSU became the first non-conference champion to play in the CFP. Moving forward, Smith’s comfortable with setting precedents in the committee’s selection, much like he did with VCU in 2011, saying “that’s the way you got to do it.”

“You look at the teams this year, 2017 … to me, it has nothing to do with the last three championships. Those things are over,” Smith said. “I don’t look at it as we have to do the same thing. That has nothing to do with the team in front of me.”

After his three year term is finished with the CFP committee, he said that his committee work is likely over. As for a timeline for his time left at OSU, Smith doesn’t have any plans for retirement saying “until they fire me.”

“I know that if I can’t come to work positive and energized like I am, then no one will have to tell me. I’ll know it’s my time,” he said. “I have some things I want to do for our student-athletes and I want to get them done. Ohio State should be the preeminent intercollegiate athletic program in the country that everyone aspires to be like, and we’re close.”

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