OSU's AD: Irish players missing experience

CHICAGO -- Gene Smith finds himself in a unique position when it comes to Big Ten expansion and Notre Dame.

Smith is the athletic director at Ohio State, one of the nation's largest and most powerful athletic departments. Ohio State has thrived as a member of the Big Ten, especially in recent years and particularly in football, where the Buckeyes have won or shared the last five conference championships.

But Smith doesn't forget his roots.

"I'm just the guy that was in Room 325, Cavanaugh Hall," he said Tuesday.

Cavanaugh Hall was Smith's dormitory at Notre Dame, where he played defensive end for the Fighting Irish and won a national championship in 1973. After graduating from Notre Dame in 1977, Smith joined the coaching staff and helped the team win another national title that fall.

Those were the glory days for Notre Dame football, a fact not lost on Smith. Times have changed, but Notre Dame remains steadfast in its desire to remain independent in football.

As the Big Ten pushes forward with its expansion study, Notre Dame once again has been mentioned as a potential candidate. The Big Ten made two unsuccessful attempts to add the Irish in the past 15 years, and Notre Dame officials, at least publicly, are stating their desire to remain independent.

What does Smith think?

"I've always struggled with my alma mater," he said. "I love them deeply. I've always struggled with the quality of experience today, in this landscape, for football players. If they end up being one of the schools [invited to the Big Ten], I hope they would consider what a conference championship means to a young person. I was blessed to be there when we won national championships -- we won two -- but the landscape has changed."

Smith thinks winning conference championships can't be undervalued and should be celebrated more. Notre Dame football players don't get that chance.

"I've just got to believe that a Notre Dame football player winning a conference championship and having that conference ring, is a memorable experience," Smith said. "And then, chasing a national championship. You can do both, but when you only have one, I struggle with that.

"Now back in the day when I was playing, different deal. The landscape was different. You didn't have the BCS, you didn't have the bowl alliance. Notre Dame could dominate. When I coached there, we selected, we didn't recruit. It's a different time space."

Notre Dame officials and fans might beg to differ and want to remain on their own, a position Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany respects.

"I was glad we approached Notre Dame [years ago]," Delany said. "I felt it was the right thing for us to do. And I've respected, from the day that they indicated what their decision was, until today, the reasons for them doing that."