Ohio State AD Gene Smith, on plan for FBS structure: ‘We’ve got to do something different. That’s for doggone sure.’

ROSEMONT, Ill. — The Big Ten’s longest-tenured athletic director knew exactly what he was doing. When Gene Smith was “just throwing ideas out” to ESPN two weeks ago, the Ohio State AD was hoping to generate conversation inside and outside the industry about the future governance structure of college football.

Specifically, FBS football.

Does the 130-school subdivision really need the NCAA? Could all of those schools that compete for College Football Playoff and bowl spots every year simply be governed under the CFP umbrella?

In some ways, it makes too much sense, which explains why the feedback so far — particularly at the Big Ten’s joint group meetings here this week — has been overwhelmingly positive.

“When I did that first interview with CFP and 130 and the FBS being separate, I wanted to put it out there so people would begin to talk about it,” Smith said this week. “And it may not be the model that we should go to, but I really felt like it needed to be talked about.”

Smith spoke at-length with The Athletic about the proposal, which remans in its infancy stages but has nonetheless garnered plenty of attention and led to several of the sport’s leaders sharing similar sentiments since Smith made his initial remarks on May 3.

Unsolicited, ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of he NCAA’s transformation committee, asked last week if FBS football has a need for the NCAA. Miami AD Dan Radakovich said a break-off of some kind is “inevitable” and only a matter of time.

Smith, who has been at Ohio State since 2005, knew better than to give a timeline on when something of the sort could come together. He said he has a whole bunch of specifics of the reformed FBS model that he isn’t ready to publicly share yet, but he went deep on a number of other details, including the strong reception he has received so far.

“My assumption is you will hear more people talk about it publicly, and that might allow us to get presidents who ultimately make these decisions to move,” Smith said. “And then we’ve got to have conversations with our presidents, because I’ve had one with mine, just conceptually, but we’ve got to go beyond that. And so maybe have a recommendation.

“So anyway, we’ve got to do something different. That’s for doggone sure. Because the model that we’ve had for whatever the case has been (in terms of years), it’s not going to work. We have 358 Division I schools. God bless it. We’re different than a lot of them. That recognition has to be accounted for. And I love the basketball tournament. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great. But those schools who have committed the 85 scholarships and more, in the FBS in football underneath the CFP umbrella, are different. And that difference needs to be recognized.”

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, who was presiding over his first in-person joint group meetings since February 2020 — his second month on the job — was open to the idea.

“I definitely think not only from us in the Big Ten, but across the country, people are starting to express their thoughts,” Warren told The Athletic. “Is there a better way for us to kind of manage, empower and grow college football? And now all these issues are on the table, and I know speaking for me and probably others in college football, people are comfortable now to have these conversations.”

Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick told Sports Illustrated last month that a breakup of Division I was inevitable, comments that reverberated throughout college sports. Phillips pushed back some on the notion of a complete breakaway at the ACC spring meetings last week, while offering the idea of an alternative governance structure for FBS football.

Clearly, the sport has grown too big for the NCAA’s britches, from the lack of oversight of its enforcement staff to the current lame-duck status of president Mark Emmert, who recently announced his plans to step down.

“We have 1,100 member institutions — Division I, Division II, Division III — with all manner of very meaningful differences, which has led to extraordinary difficulty in governance and management,” Illinois AD Josh Whitman told The Athletic. ”And this effort to try and create a single set of rules that’s broadly applicable to all of those diverse institutions has proven to be really difficult, and increasingly so as the institutions become even more dynamic and even more different in their composition. And so, any way that we can create more homogenous groups of institutions to allow them to adopt sets of rules and governance standards that make sense for that set of schools, to me, has a lot of promise.”

The way Smith sees it, the FBS already plays by its own rules when it comes to the postseason anyway, having outsourced its championship events to the bowl system for more than 100 years.

His biggest question the past two weeks, especially to his Big Ten peers, has been discovering his blind spots.

“When I threw it out there, I got calls, I got text messages,” Smith said. “I mean, our colleagues today are talking about (how) it is a good concept. Now the devil is in the details. That’s always, right? I’m not talking about affecting any revenue share that the Division I schools have now. Keep the basketball tournament alive. You get your money. Division II, Division III keeps their money. Those who came into Division I for the brand, the brand’s protected. All I’m talking about is the 130. Underneath the CFP umbrella. So you protect what you’ve got.

“And what I’m talking is something different for us: set up our own recruiting rules, our own playing rules, our own enforcement, the whole nine yards. And so yeah, my colleagues, many of them, have embraced the concept. But now we’re starting to (ask): What does that really mean? That’s what’s important. And there are those who believe the 65 should just break away. So I’m a curious leader. I always try and make sure I see through the eyes of others. And so I’m listening, and we’ll see what I learned, too.”

The 66-year-old Smith is the nation’s third-longest tenured AD. His Buckeyes are annual national title contenders, having earned four Playoff berths in the event’s eight-year history and winning the CFP in its first year of existence. His school’s needs may differ from others.

His conference’s needs may differ from others, too.

“I think that reasonable minds can agree on the principle that college football is different — FBS football is different, Power 5 football is a little different — and that we need to have the flexibility and the opportunity, basically, to control what we’re doing,” retiring Penn State AD Sandy Barbour told The Athletic. “Now Gene might have one idea of what that looks like. I might have another idea of what that looks like. So I think that’s what we’ve got to get down to.”

Barbour, the chair of the NCAA’s football oversight committee, added: “It’s the ability to be immediately eligible. NIL, transfers, the specter of pay-for-play, educational benefits, payments — that looks very different at FBS and Power 5 than it does at FCS, than it does at Division I without football. And so I do think that we’ve got to find a solution that gives us the ability, frankly, to move more quickly.”

The Big Ten and the SEC stand alone from the pack when it comes to revenue and influence. With Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby recently announcing his retirement, SEC boss Greg Sankey is the longest-tenured Power 5 commissioner. Once Bowlsby’s successor is named, Sankey’s seven years atop the most dominant football league will be longer than the other four power conference commissioners’ combined tenures.

Sankey has also been among the most outspoken critics of the NCAA, and with the SEC set to hold its spring meetings next month in Destin, Fla., expect models similar to Smith’s proposal to be discussed even further publicly.

Without proper guidance from the NCAA, each conference is left to look out for its own members, a strategy whose flaws have been on display in recent years. From the disjointed decisions to play amid the pandemic in 2020, to the buildup and ultimate teardown of the proposed 12-team Playoff in 2021 and ’22, it has become increasingly clear that no one is in charge of college football.

Would Smith’s new model have a football czar of sorts as well?

“At the end of the day, what you call it doesn’t matter to me,” Smith said. “But at the end of the day, if you have a CFP, and you’ve got the 130 underneath that umbrella, you have a governance structure, somebody has to lead it. And I think it’s more than just a football person. You need a governance person, right? Because you’ve got legislation, rules and regulations. You’ve got television. Whatever you call it, we need that one person that leads it, a board, that will be a part of that. In my view, ex-athletic internal people and then some external people, a private sector of people, and then you develop a little structure underneath that.

“So that’s the way I see it.”

(Photo: Kirk Irwin / Getty Images)

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