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Athletic Director In Residence: Gene Smith (Ohio State)

By Gene Smith
6 min read

I’m a female senior associate athletic director at a Power 5 institution. I have had the opportunity to interview for the top spot at smaller Division I schools twice in last several years. I felt my candidacy was very strong in both situations, and that I interviewed very well. Yet both times I was passed over for a male who, at least on paper, did not have nearly the same credentials as I. What advice would have for women like myself who are struggling to get to the top of college athletics hierarchy?


Not only is your situation unfortunate, but sadly also not uncommon in this business. Yet as with any challenge we face in our lives, we have to focus on controlling our controllables. You will never be able to dictate whether someone will hire you for any job, but what you can do is focus on being the best possible candidate for a position. Eventually the tide will turn in your favor.


Although you may feel as if you interviewed well for the position(s), are you really sure? Did you seek feedback from the hiring committee after you were passed over? Have you taken the time to sit down with an administrator or search firm and have them mock interview you to determine where your weaknesses are? You need multiple third parties to give you honest feedback. We do not know what we do not know, so we assume all is good, when it might not be.


Lastly, remember that the job doesn’t always go to the best-credentialed candidate – fit matters too.  While you may feel as though you’re a fit for the institution, if the school’s president (or whoever is hiring you) doesn’t think so, you’re going to get passed over for someone with less experience.  That being said, you can’t change who you are and nor should you try. Stay the course and your opportunity, the right opportunity, will come.


One of my junior administrators seems to be romantically involved with an assistant coach on one of staffs. While it usually wouldn’t be an issue, she is also the program supervisor of that sport, and I fear that their relationship may compromise her ability to judge the coaches performance without bias. It’s obviously a very delicate situation. How would you handle a situation like this in your department?


There are two issues at hand here. The first is whether or not your institution’s rules allow for such a relationship to exist between two employees. You should engage your human resources office to see if there are policies against such behavior, and if there are, then the issue is much more cut and dry.


Let’s assume that your institution does not have any policies as it relates to consensual relationships between managers and subordinates. Now the more delicate issue becomes whether you have a problem with it. It is not uncommon for people to meet their future spouses in the workplace, particularly in an industry like college athletics in which the hours are long and there is often more personal interaction than in traditional workplaces. And while I wouldn’t necessarily be against it, I would have a problem if it were affecting the ability of my employees to do their jobs the right way.


While you can choose to have a conversation directly with the administrator, I would try to take the appropriate time to address the department as a whole. That doesn’t mean doing it in such a way that would embarrass someone who was engaged in such a relationship, but rather integrate it into a larger conversation about ethical behavior and my expectations that people never do anything that might compromise their ability to perform whatever it is they were hired to do.


I recently took over as an athletic director of a Division I FCS institution. Within my first few months, I was given the opportunity to bring on several senior members of my staff. All of the individuals I hired came with strong references and were highly qualified for their positions. That being said, they spent a prolonged period (5-7 years) at their previous institution and certainly come with a pre-established set of habits and values. I’m not totally excited about the way some of them operate, but they are very good at their jobs. I appreciate that there’s more ways than one to lead an organization, but also want to make it clear that there are certain cultural expectations that I have. How do you recommend I do that?


Hiring senior people is a process rife with peril. People bring their own habits, and no matter how good they are at their jobs, their bad habits will find a way to undermine your culture. Which is why you have to address this issue head on, and avoid letting behavior you would otherwise not tolerate become the norm before too long.


You also have to remember that people can always improve, no matter how good they think they are. And while you have to have people within your department who bring different viewpoints to the table, people who are willing to challenge others, it can’t come at the cost of your ability to lead. The same way I hold my coaches accountable for their actions is the same way I hold my administrators; winning national championships or raising lots of money doesn’t give you free reign to do what you want if it’s against everything our organization stands for.


My department is constantly losing talented young administrators and coaches to bigger programs. How do you aggressively promote and/or reward your best employees when your organizational structure is limited (particularly on the mid-major level) and every dollar you spend is being scrutinized?


You’re facing a difficult dilemma that all business leaders deal with in some form or another when they take the time to develop the talent around them. The positive is that your employees are moving on to bigger opportunities, which likely means they did a good job for you. Yet you have to find ways of incentivizing them with the resources you have. While you may not always be able to financially reward your employees, you can expand their roles and responsibilities in ways that larger universities would likely not. Yes, a bigger school might pay them more money to do less, but they may choose to place more value on a role where they can grow and learn.


In the end, while turnover is hard to deal with, the reality is that people have professional goals that may require them to move on, and so you have to find a way to develop your own talent from within. We constantly lose people but keep a short list of internal and external candidates to recruit. Talent identification, recruitment and retention is a huge part of being a successful athletics director.


It seems as though the questionable actions on some athletic departments across the country have caused our own constituents to scrutinize our department even further. It is as though we are simply guilty by association because we happen to play school xyz that was sanctioned or reprimanded. In the past year, what have you done (or could you have done) to increase the perception of Ohio State athletics as an ethical and honest organization?


You don’t want for someone in the media to press on what your plan of action is, or demand insight for the things you should already be holding yourself accountable for. You have to do whatever is necessary internally to use those cases to educate, and reaffirm the values and expectations of your program. Sometimes that might mean scrubbing your processes, but the point is that if you don’t do it, someone else will for you.


At Ohio State, we spend a great deal of time with our administrators and coaches looking at everything that happens with the college athletics community with scrutiny. Why did it happen at such an institution, what we can we learn from it, and how can we make sure it doesn’t happen to us? We are of the mantra that you must constantly be evaluating and reevaluating every aspect of your program, and because we are totally embedded structurally in the university, we invite others to look at what we do with open transparency. They can draw their own conclusions.