When coaches undergo their annual personnel review, two of the metrics at the very top of the list are "Team Finish in conference championship" and "Team qualified for, competed in NCAA tournament." Qualifying for the NCAA tournament is the only way to earn Directors' Cup points, and there's also plenty of talk about doing well in the competition that crowns which school has the most successful athletic department on the field each year.
"I think to play in the postseason is what Ohio State is all about, and the administration has made no bones about it," baseball coach Greg Beals said recently, before his team fell just shy of making the NCAA tournament. "They're going for the Directors' Cup, and you have to play in postseason play to get points. There's nothing I'd like better than to get Gene Smith more points in that Directors' Cup."
The focus tends to pay off. Ohio State finished second in 2010-11 and fourth last season, showing the strength of the 36-sport department. Though OSU could not unseat Stanford – which has won 18 such trophies in a row – either of those years, the Buckeyes proved yet again that they were among the handful of schools who could push the Cardinal until the very end.
That's why the first release of the 2012-13 Directors' Cup standings had to be like a cold towel across the face of Smith. The Jan. 10 standings – which take into account all eight fall sports that are part of the competition – had Ohio State in a tie for 74th place with Rutgers, Northeastern, Bowling Green, Air Force, California, Colgate, Western Kentucky and Santa Clara.
In other words, that was not where the Buckeyes want to be. As expected, things got better in the winter season, but Ohio State was still in 15th place when the last update was posted April 25.
A Thursday update that will include some of the team's more successful spring programs like men's tennis and men's lacrosse will help, but there is a chance the Buckeyes will not finish in the top 10 this season, which would be the first time that has occurred since an 11th-place finish in 2007-08.
Needless to say, Smith is fully aware of the situation.
"We want to be in the top three or five, and we want to win that thing one year," Smith told BSB as part of a wide-ranging interview that will run in the June issue. "Two years ago we were second, last year we were fourth. We want to get back up there. We need to be in that top five on a consistent basis, is what I strive for."
So what happened? On the surface, a number of programs took a step back this season when it came to NCAA play.
Of the 29 rated programs to finish their seasons to this point – only men's and women's outdoor track and field as well as rowing remain – only men's tennis and men's lacrosse saw their point totals go up from a season ago.
Those were among two of the most successful sports at OSU this year, and their recent NCAA tournament runs – men's tennis lost a heartbreaker in an NCAA semifinal and the lacrosse team won the first conference tournament and home NCAA tourney game in program history before making the final eight in the nation – drew plenty of interest from Buckeye fans and media.
On the other hand, though, 14 programs have seen their point total go down, losing a combined total of almost 300 points in the standings. While some programs simply fell short of expectations or could not duplicate past NCAA success, some of the other issues can be easily explained.
The biggest point loser so far is women's soccer, which earned 64 for last year's run to the Sweet 16 but gained only 25 this year when it lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That's a rough metric for that program, though, as the Buckeyes on the whole had a better year this time around – winning the Big Ten tournament championship and going 16-3-2 before being upset on penalties in their opening NCAA match.
Football, meanwhile, dropped 25 points from the year before, but the program obviously had a better campaign, going from 6-7 and a Gator Bowl loss to 12-0. It, however, was banned from postseason play and thus could not earn points.
Then there was women's indoor track and field, which lost 35 points, much of which could be attributed to the graduation of national champion hurdler Christina Manning.
"I understand some of the issues," Smith said. "When you lose a Christina Manning in women's track, you're going to have issues, and then football didn't count, so we have all those things. We lost Sammy (Prahalis) in women's basketball, so we'll be back there. We'll get there."
Smith said he goes through each team individually to assess performance, and he sees plenty of things to like going forward. Programs like the track teams – which are important because they count twice in each gender thanks to the indoor and outdoor seasons – and women's tennis have strong recruiting classes inked that should boost their future totals, while the baseball program is on an upward swing despite being on the wrong side of the 2013 NCAA bubble.
Add everything up – including two more excellent seasons out of the flagship football and men's basketball programs – and Smith isn't pleased with the Directors' Cup result but philosophical that his department is on the right track.
"It hasn't been as good a year overall as we've had two years before this, but some of that is because of our youth," Smith said. "We've had some great moments like men's lacrosse winning the first conference championship and hosting the NCAAs for the first time. That's a new exemplar for us. We're excited about that.
"And obviously you go back to the fall and with what Urban (Meyer) did, that was just phenomenal, and what Thad (Matta) has done is great. We've had some great successes here. I feel good about the way things are going."