Bruce Hooley
Bruce Hooley

Bruce Hooley was sports editor of the Troy Daily News from 1983-86 and has covered Ohio State athletics for more than 25 years. Bruce was the OSU beat reporter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland from 1987-2005.  From 2005-2011 he hosted the afternoon show on  ESPN radio 1460 AM,  in Columbus, and recently took another ESPN talk position on WKNR, 850 AM, in Cleveland.  In addition to his contribution to Press Pros Magazine, Hooley is a regular columnist for FoxSportsOhio.com.

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Regardless of how Ohio State finishes its season to remember, the real drama begins when the athletic director Gene Smith has to make a decision on who, when, and how to hire the next coach.

Columbus - Gene Smith isn’t going to lose his job as Ohio State’s athletic director, but he’s about to face something even scarier than being fired.

For the first time since his hiring in 2006, Smith is nearing the point where he’ll have to start earning his $1.2 million salary.

Up until now, it’s been all sunshine and balloons for Smith, even amid the ugliness of the Tattoo-Gate scandal that he seriously mismanaged.

No matter how incompetently Smith spoke or acted – and years from now he’ll be a textbook case of failure in the face of challenging circumstances – Smith has never been in danger of losing his job, because he has the backing of OSU president E. Gordon Gee.

Why that’s so is subject to conjecture. Mine is that a Smith still employed by OSU is a Smith still easily controlled and silenced about what he knew and when he knew it regarding exiled coach Jim Tressel keeping emails detailing misdeeds by his players secret from the NCAA.

Regardless, Gee has made clear – despite his public grandstanding in a letter scolding Smith – that the OSU AD isn’t going anywhere. Gee said that in an exclusive interview (of course) with the Columbus Dispatch, before he became too busy to decline interviews with any other media entity (likely on orders from the Dispatch).

“It’s very clear I’ve been supportive of Gene and will continue to be,” Gee told the Dispatch, OSU’s head football cheerleader.

So Gene Smith’s job is safe. It’s just too bad for him that he’s going to have to, you know, start doing it.

Because now, with OSU having lost at Purdue to fall to 6-4, the longshot candidacy of Luke Fickell to hold onto the job he inherited when Tressel resigned is all but dead. Even with wins over Penn State and Michigan, Fickell likely isn’t going to get Ohio State into the Big Ten championship game or to the Rose Bowl.

That ratchets up the pressure of Smith to jettison Fickell immediately after OSU’s trip to Ann Arbor on Nov. 26. Hiring Urban Meyer – who will have right of first refusal on the job – would allow him more than two months to tread on his two national championships and put together a strong recruiting class.

Unless the NCAA absolutely levels OSU with a multiple-year bowl ban or scholarship limitations in the 20s, Meyer would plow through the sanctions and have the Buckeyes back up and running in short order.

Considering possible wins over Penn State and Michigan, a bowl possibility, and the recruiting ramifications of firing/hiring a coach, Gene Smith is faced with the toughest decision of his life.

Ah, but before he can do that, Smith would have to dump Fickell with a bowl game still to play. And that gets considerably stickier if Fickell defeats both Penn State and Michigan.

Does Smith have the backbone to say, “Urban Meyer is the coach to take us where we want to go,” despite a strong finish from Fickell? Or will Smith do the safe (read, cowardly) thing and keep Fickell around to coach in the post-season, despite knowing he won’t retain him, regardless of the outcome?

That would set Meyer’s recruiting back considerably, and it would run the risk of Meyer casting a wayward glance to another job (Penn State or perhaps Texas) where he could get after it right away.

Smith has never been forced to make or stand behind a decision with such high stakes. He inherited Tressel, Thad Matta and Jim Foster – coaches of OSU’s three highest-revenue-producing sports. Because of that, the OSU athletic department purred along on cruise control for the first five years of Smith’s tenure, allowing him to glad-hand his way through life and grin while Gee almost doubled his starting salary.

Those days are over.

Gene Smith has some decisions to make. They’re not even really all that tough. The best thing is to tell Fickell he can coach the bowl game, but hire Meyer as soon as possible and let him hire his own staff for 2012 and beyond. But that decision will require Smith to put his stamp on something  and risk offending some OSU fans who believe it unseemly to fire one coach (particularly if he defeats Michigan) before hiring another.

Smith has never had to do anything like this before.

That makes me wonder if he’s capable of doing it at all.

Email Bruce@BruceHooley.com
Follow Bruce on Twitter @bhoolz
Bruce Hooley hosts The Hooligans on ESPN 850 WKNR from 3-6 p.m. weekdays.

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