Athletic Director Gene Smith on All Things Ohio State, B1G
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — There have been new developments unfolding in the college football world on what seems like a daily basis over the last few years. Expansion, realignment, playoffs and the end of the BCS have dominated headlines for one of America’s most popular pastimes.
One of the hottest topics in Big Ten expansion and realignment has been the future of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. It has been one of the best in all of sports for a number of decades, and it appears as though the future of ‘The Game’ is safe after the noise stopped on the latest round of musical chairs.
After a brief split, the Buckeyes and Wolverines have ended up in the same division, which was an important part of the new realignment in one of college football’s power conferences.
“We learned a lot when we brought Nebraska in and we corrected some things,” Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith said during an appearance on 97.1 The Fan with Bishop and Rothman.
“While the East (Division) is without a doubt the stronger, tougher division, I think it was the right way to go. Getting Michigan and Ohio State in the same division was the right way to go.”
One of the toughest aspects to these changes in the college football landscape has been the battle between progress and tradition. Few schools in the country have more deeply-rooted history and culture than Ohio State and Michigan.
Protecting the purity of that rivalry, and other similar historic battles in the Big Ten, was an important part of bringing Maryland and Rutgers into the fold for 2014. It created a temporary imbalance in Big Ten power, with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State all in the same division, but it made for a much more natural fit than the previous Leaders and Legends fiasco.
“Natural rivalries are protected,” Smith continued.
“We only have one required crossover game, so it makes scheduling easier. It ended up in a good place. Everybody had to sacrifice something.”
One thing Ohio State’s athletic director did not want to sacrifice as a part of the new realignment was the placement of the OSU-Michigan game. Smith has been committed to keeping ‘The Game’ as the regular-season finale for both schools, and he also fought to keep it from going under the lights.
“Dave Brandon and I, the athletic director at Michigan, talked about that before we started our conversations on realignment,” Smith said during his appearance on 97.1 FM in Columbus.
“We feel that game should be a noon kick, but we also agree we need to be open to the 3:30 kick. That’s a good window, but we both like it at noon. A night game would be a challenge for us, and our position right now is not to play that game at night. Never say never, because that could be taken out of my hands, but Dave and I are in agreement that it should be a day game.”
Ohio State’s football coach Urban Meyer has been an outspoken proponent of playing more night games at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes one game under the lights in Columbus last season against Nebraska. They also played a pair of road night games at Indiana and Penn State.
“In the last couple years we’ve played one at home and two on the road. My problem is, we’re the marquee team and our kids are getting back at three o’clock in the morning,” Smith said.
“When I was comfortable we could handle more night games at home, I felt it was important to do that. I started to lobby the conference to give us two night games at home.”
That doesn’t mean the Buckeyes will start loading up on nonconference night games just to create a better atmosphere in The Horseshoe every week. According to Smith, it could actually have a counter effect if Ohio State went to too many night games per season.
“The benefits of recruiting are very important, but we’ve enjoyed night games because they have a novelty to them,” he said.
“If you play too many of them, the novelty can wear off. If you do too many of them, the luster could be lost.”
Not much could take away from the luster and grandeur of the Ohio State-Michigan game. It has become a national past time for fans in the Midwest, which is precisely why Smith doesn’t see the day when ‘The Game’ will need any extra novelty to reach its maximum potential.
“I just don’t see a need to do that,” he said of moving to a night game, “it’s already maximized. It’s one of the most watched contests in all of sports. People schedule their weddings around it, so it’s maximized to a great degree.
“Could you optimize it a little more? No doubt, but I don’t see a need to do that. It’s later in the year, it’s after Thanksgiving, I don’t know if we need to go down that road.”
One road Ohio State will travel in the future is the path to a college football playoff. For Smith, that means upping the level of competition in Columbus. The Buckeyes have added a number of high-profile home-and-home series to their future schedules, and Smith doesn’t intent to revisit that idea simply because the Big Ten is expanding to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016.
“We won’t change that philosophy,” he said on Bishop and Rothman.
“In fact, we made a commitment as ADs in the Big Ten we will no longer schedule FCS schools after 2016. Those who have contracts have to honor those, but our goal is to upgrade our schedule across the board, not just at Ohio State.”
Smith said Big Ten programs will still play the occasional Mid-American Conference school, but their goal is to have at least one marquee non-conference game on the schedule every year.
That includes a home-and-home series with Virginia Tech starting next season – the first game will be in Columbus on Sept. 20, 2014 – and they also have future series slated with Oklahoma, TCU, Oregon and Texas.
“The hard part is trying to project. We hope Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon, teams we scheduled for the future, are going to be what they are today and we think they will be,” Smith said.
“We have Virginia Tech coming up, and when we scheduled them they were leaders in the country and top 15 every year. We hope they’ll be at that level when we play them next year. There’s some art to it and some science to it.”
There is also some good faith involved. Ohio State’s 2013 schedule looked a little better before Vanderbilt backed out of its series. That sent Smith and the Buckeyes scrambling to find a replacement for their season-opener.
The 2013 schedule also looked a lot stronger when they schedule Cal, which had been a 10-win football team under Jeff Tedford in the mid-2000s. The Buckeyes have to play in Berkeley this season, but Smith isn’t worried that a weak schedule might cost Meyer and his team a chance to play for the crystal football this fall.
“We’re not in the playoff structure. If we were in the playoff structure, I’d have that issue,” he said.
“We have to beat whoever we play wherever we play them. We have some tough competition on our schedule, it might not necessarily be at home, but we’re gonna have to beat whoever we play and let the cards fall where they may.
“We’ll just have to see where it is at the end.”
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