COLUMBUS — Gene Smith knows his emotions will churn when he watches next month’s national championship game, the empty sense of what could have been crossing with the satisfaction of what is.
In an alternative world, the contest would have been deeply personal, matching the two schools nearest his heart and the only unbeaten teams in major college football. Instead, the Ohio State athletic director will cheer for Notre Dame, where he played defensive end on its 1973 title team and coached for four years after graduation, while chewing the question forever unknowable because of the Buckeyes’ postseason ban.
What if OSU and not one-loss Alabama was the Fighting Irish’s foil in the BCS title game?
"There is that conflict," Smith said in a phone interview this week. "I wish we had the opportunity to be considered. Who knows if we would have been chosen to be in that position? I would have loved to find that out."
Yet for Ohio State’s once-embattled leader, life is good these days.
Or, at least, better than it was.
While Smith remains a polarizing figure among many fans — he was booed at a Buckeye basketball game in January and has since avoided speaking in similar settings — his department is largely thriving in Year 1 after a scandal that seemed poised to deliver a devastating wallop.
The two revenue cows are among the nation’s elite, with first-year coach Urban Meyer leading a six-win football team in 2011 to its sixth perfect season in school history and the basketball team under Thad Matta perched familiarly in the top 10; OSU last month received a $10 million gift — the largest single athletics donation in school history — to help finance a 4,000-seat arena that will replace aging St. John Arena; and two of Smith’s top lieutenants recently became athletic directors at Division I schools (Pat Chun was hired by Florida Atlantic in July and Ben Jay was tabbed by Hawaii this month).
Meanwhile, emails obtained by The Blade through an open records request illustrate Smith never lost support from many of the school’s top power brokers — and portray him as the point man in the hire of Meyer.
"Gene has gone through a lot over the past 10 months," current Board of Trustees chair Robert Schottenstein wrote to president E. Gordon Gee and board members Alex Shumate and Gil Gloyd in November, 2011, after OSU landed Meyer. "I think he's done a very fine job, under considerable stress, and a great job on this. I think we've turned an important corner."
In a separate email, Cloyd wrote, "Again, we are very fortunate to have a great leader like Gene Smith to lead us from the abyss to the pinnacle."
Schottenstein in a later interview dismissed the popular narrative that cast Smith as a lame duck after former coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign in May, 2011. When OSU officials felt confident only Tressel was involved in the cover-up of players receiving illegal benefits from an area tattoo parlor, he said, "there was rock-solid unanimous support for Gene."
"We’re thrilled to have him as our athletic director," said Schottenstein, president and CEO of Columbus-based M/I Homes, who also rattled off a list of the Buckeyes’ recent academic and non-revenue athletic successes. "I couldn’t give him higher marks.
"He cares so much about Ohio State. Every morning when gene wakes up, the first thing he thinks about is what can he do to make Ohio State a better place."
Smith, 56, who arrived at Ohio State in 2005 after previously leading Arizona State, Iowa State, and Eastern Michigan, called the athletic department’s return to firm ground rewarding.
While Tressel and Gee remain popular figures in Ohio, the state’s relationship with Smith is more complicated. At times, it has seemed fans have projected their frustration about the school’s major NCAA violations and resulting sanctions entirely onto one man. A glance at any OSU message board reveals decidedly mixed opinions of Smith.
Among the biggest gripes: Smith’s near-assurances last year the Buckeyes would not receive a bowl ban. Many fans and national observers questioned whether OSU could have avoided the postseason exile this season by declining a bowl invitation last year.
"I realize we serve and I serve a broad-based constituency of thoughts and feelings," Smith said. "I accept that people are going to have different views on me."
Those divided views hit hardest when fans booed Smith as he introduced Meyer during halftime at a basketball game. Smith said he has since followed a "strategy to let things heal," which has precluded him from speaking at mass gatherings, including the celebration of the football season at St. John Arena last week.
"Whenever the next opportunity is, whenever it happens, it happens," he said. "I've kind of moved beyond it."
Of the jeers in January, Smith said, "I have alligator skin, but with my children and my wife, that bothered me for them. I've been through so many hardships in my life as a child and growing up in Cleveland to the things that I've dealt with as an athletic director, whether you lose a student-athlete because another athlete shoots them or they die in a pool.
"I've had really hard things that have hardened me. But my children haven't had those things, and my wife hasn't had those. So from that point it stung, and I felt for them. They're the ones that had to deal with it the next day. But me, I'm too old school."
So Smith carries on, focusing on what is — not what could have been — while repeatedly saying there is no job he would rather have.
He thinks often about a famous quotation by Martin Luther King, Jr.
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy," Smith said. "I have a lot of quotes like that in my head, and I hold true to them.
"That’s why it was so important to lead my team, to say, ‘You know what, we've got to help all of our programs and particularly football have a chance to be successful beyond people's wildest imaginations.’ I'm so happy they did what they did. It’s awesome."
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.