Gene Smith ready for double duty with Ohio State and the CFP

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith sat down in one of the red stadium seats in his spacious suite in Ohio Stadium just before kickoff on Saturday, wearing a casual red button-down shirt with the Ohio State logo over the pocket. With the massive windows open, he had to raise his voice and lean in to have a conversation over the noise from the raucous crowd.

"When I sit here and watch our game, I watch and see how our offensive line does, how our defensive line does," he said. "When I'm here, in this seat, watching our game, I'm not even thinking about the College Football Playoff."

He saves that for Sundays. And, eventually, Mondays. And Tuesdays.

Smith is one of three new members on the selection committee -- and one of its highest-profile members -- who will help determine the top four teams in the country on Dec. 3. Smith, former Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer and Robert Morris University president Chris Howard will go through their own mock selection on Sept. 17 and 18 to learn the computerized voting process before the entire 13-member committee meets for the first time on Oct. 30 in Grapevine, Texas.

"For me," Smith said, "the biggest thing is listening and learning, and then go from there."

As Ohio State prepared to face Oklahoma in arguably the most important nonconference game of the season, though, Smith was playing only one role: the head Buckeye. He has quickly become an expert at separating his dual responsibilities, which is a must for the leader of a nationally elite program that has been at the heart of CFP discussions and debates over the past three seasons. Ohio State was a semifinalist in 2014 and 2016, and has the potential to earn a bid again, in spite of Saturday's 31-16 loss to the Sooners.

Smith is uniquely positioned to handle both jobs, having spent five years on the NCAA men's basketball selection committee, serving as chairman during the 2010-11 season. He knows fellow committee member and former NCAA executive vice president Tom Jernstedt from their basketball days together.

"Just like on the basketball committee, the greatest thing about that committee was our integrity and our trust in one another," Smith said. "I never want to breach that trust. When that question comes at me from the quarterback club, or the luncheon, from the audience, I literally have to flip a switch. When I talk about Ohio State and what we do and everything, I'm very candid and transparent. All of my media people worry about me because I'm just going to tell you what I think. That's who I am. So I literally flip a switch and go into that focus mode."

While Smith hasn't started to rank any teams yet (the committee's first of six rankings is on Oct. 31), he has been spending Sundays catching up on games he missed. Game film is nothing new for Smith, who was recruited by the late Ara Parseghian and played on Notre Dame's national championship teams in 1973 and 1977.

He will miss Notre Dame's 1977 championship reunion this year because Ohio State has a game, but he won't miss a single Buckeyes game this fall while juggling his responsibilities as a committee member.

With particularly large suites at Nebraska and Iowa, Smith said he and several donors will take a private plane on the day of the game, get to the stadium early, and fly home right after the game.

"I'll come home late Saturday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday night I'll go to Dallas," he said. "That's our jobs. We're 70-80 hour a week guys anyway."

Last December, Smith was watching the Selection Day show and waiting to see where Ohio State would end up, just like everyone else outside the sequestered committee meeting room.

"In the old BCS system, you used to know before," Smith said. "In this one, you don't. I love that. I was excited. I didn't know what was going to happen."

It wasn't the first time the Buckeyes added to the intrigue.

In 2014, Ohio State lost at home in Week 2 to a subpar Virginia Tech team but went on to run the table, winning the Big Ten and finishing No. 4 in the committee's final top 25. It was the only time all season that Ohio State appeared in the top four, and it came at the expense of the Big 12, as TCU dropped from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final rankings. The drop prompted the Big 12 to bring back its conference championship game beginning this season, as Ohio State's convincing win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game that year was the boost the Buckeyes needed.

In 2016, though, Ohio State got in without even winning its division. Penn State won the Big Ten and beat Ohio State during the regular season, but the committee deemed the Buckeyes unequivocally better.

"I don't know what happened in the room, I have no clue," Smith said. "If we weren't in? I'd still be fine. I trust the people in the room. I just wasn't sure. You've got to have faith. I've been in this a long time. If I was 29 or 30, or a 31-year-old AD, I might have had my hair on fire, but I know how it works. So whatever happens, happens."

After losing at home to Oklahoma, a lot has to happen for Ohio State to be considered seriously again for the one of the top four spots. The Buckeyes likely need to run the table and win the Big Ten. If Oklahoma goes on to win the Big 12, though, and it comes down to a debate between the Sooners and the Buckeyes, it will be difficult for the committee to ignore their head-to-head result in this case.

Regardless, Smith won't have any input on it. He will adhere to the CFP's strict recusal policy and will be out of the room, probably munching on bacon the CFP provides in its breakroom. ("In basketball they had all types of candy," he said.) That red shirt Smith wore with the Ohio State logo on it? It won't get packed for Texas. Committee members aren't allowed to wear any school-issued apparel with logos in Selection Central.

"I know what that's like," he said. "I'm ready, and I've always supported that policy, even when we kept talking about it on the basketball committee."

Nobody knows that better than Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich, who has spent countless hours outside the meeting room as the rest of the committee discussed his school.

"The committee as a whole understands that the athletic directors work at a school, and they represent that school, and there are lines they don't cross as it relates to information," Radakovich said. "We're out of the room when our schools are being discussed, and that's something that is hard and fast. [Executive director] Bill [Hancock] and [COO] Michael [Kelly] have really ingrained that into everyone. It has never ever been uncomfortable, and that goes a lot in saying about the integrity of the committee. When I'm out of the room, I have no idea what they're talking about."

Smith won't hear any talk about the Buckeyes, either.

Ironically, the more he misses, the better it is for Ohio State.