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Gene Smith: Five things I’ve learned

Hard work and life lessons launched Smith to success

Gene Smith, athletics director at The Ohio State University, has been on a fast track to success since graduating from Notre Dame in 1977. He accepted his first athletics director position at Eastern Michigan University when he was 29 years old. In the process of becoming one of the most influential leaders in college sports, he has learned many valuable life lessons along the way.

  • I learned early on how valuable a mentor can be throughout a professional career, and my mentors have helped me grow as I’ve transferred from one position to another. After graduating from Notre Dame, I stayed at the university to coach football under Dan Devine until 1981. My years as a coach at Notre Dame, working with some of the great assistants I worked with, provided me valuable lessons in leadership as we strived each year to win a national championship, as we did in 1977.
  • I learned to get out of my comfort zone, which allowed me to grow as a person and a professional. After leaving Notre Dame, I took a position as a marketing representative with IBM. I made numerous presentations to executives who were considering automation in their business. I grew significantly as a public speaker and developed motivational messages that helped me as a leader.
  • I learned the importance of having a winning attitude through a winning experience. My next career move brought me to Eastern Michigan. I had kept in touch with my Notre Dame coaches, and my position coach, who had just accepted the athletics director role at Eastern Michigan, contacted me to follow him there. Fortunate timing enabled me to rise quickly into the athletics director position there myself. I was blessed to have an environment of good people to work with, but they did not understand how to build football and the consequential success around a winning program. We went from the bottom of the Mid-American Conference to conference champions in three years in my tenure. Efforts to educate and motivate people strengthened my leadership skills.
  • I learned that what I do and the decisions I make as a leader send a message. During the entire time as a marketing representative at IBM and my years at Eastern Michigan, I would read two to three leadership books a month. They allowed me to understand academically what I was dealing with practically. When it comes down to it, as an employee, no matter if you are entry level or executive, to succeed and make a lasting impression, you need to do the job you’re hired to do -- as simple as that. If you do that while having a goal of making the place better than it was when you got there, you’ll do just fine.
  • I learned that this business we’re in, collegiate athletics is a people business. I met my wife, Sheila Smith, in 1991. Her doctorate is in leadership. She and I have constantly talked about experiences, events and circumstances as it relates to leadership. Ultimately, we need to hire the right team of people from all different backgrounds, respect each other’s differences and grow from the diversity that surrounds us.


Gene Smith
Director of athletics, The Ohio State University

Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio

Current City: Columbus, Ohio

School: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, University of Notre Dame, 1977

Sport: Football

Fun Fact: Gene’s nickname in college was QT. Other than his college roommate and a select few others, Gene had never told anyone how he got the nickname until he spilled the beans in the NCAA studio. Truth be told, QT stands for Q-tip.  It seems when he moved into his dorm his freshman year, his roommate and a few friends were astonished by the large box of Q-tips he brought with him. The name has stuck ever since.

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