Football scandal puts focus on Ohio St president

In the wake of football coach Jim Tressel’s stunning
resignation, attention is now focusing on the job security of Ohio
State President Gordon Gee and athletic director Gene Smith.

Both Gee and Smith offered unwavering, and in the case of Gee,
gushing-to-the-point-of-embarrassing support for Tressel at a March
8 news conference.

Since then, it’s become clearer that the NCAA may take a hard
line on the university’s transgressions, and Tressel’s resignation
under pressure was likely the first attempt to minimize damage to
the university.

But the university is already facing new allegations about its
football program, including questions about cars driven by
quarterback Terrelle Pryor and a growing number of alleged
violations involving players’ sales of OSU memorabilia. Ohio State
faces an Aug. 12 date with the NCAA’s committee on infractions,
which could lead to vacated games and seasons, a bowl ban and
recruiting limitations.

The setbacks couldn’t come at a worse time, as Gee leads a $2.5
billion fundraising campaign, OSU’s biggest ever, and the
university prepares for a tuition increase in light of decreased
state aid.

Ohio State trustees referred calls to Gee’s office, and both Gee
and Smith declined comment on Tuesday.

Both were thought to be distancing themselves from Tressel –
despite their earlier praise of the coach’s integrity and honesty –
in the weeks leading up to Monday’s stunning resignation. Likewise,
both played roles in Tressel’s shocking departure.

Tressel was forced to step aside in the midst of an NCAA
investigation of his program. In his resignation letter, he called
the inquiry by the sport’s sanctioning body a ”distraction.”

Five top players – including Pryor – were suspended in December
for the first five games of the 2011 season for accepting cash and
tattoos from the owner of a local tattoo parlor. Edward Rife, a big
Buckeyes fan and sports memorabilia collector, owned Fine Line Ink.
Dozens of autographed items including jerseys and gloves, along
with Big Ten championship rings and even Pryor’s Fiesta Bowl
sportsmanship award, were discovered in a raid on Rife’s business
by the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Tressel received an email in April 2010 telling him of the
players’ involvement with Rife and also disclosing that they were
selling the items, a clear violation of NCAA rules against improper
benefits for athletes. Yet Tressel did not notify his Ohio State
superiors, the NCAA or the university’s compliance department as he
was required by the NCAA and his own contract. Instead, he
forwarded the original email to Pryor’s ”mentor” in his hometown
of Jeannette, Pa.

Smith met with Tressel on Sunday night and again on Monday,
making it clear that the coach needed to resign. Gee also had a
hand in the situation. He selected a special, eight-person
committee of administrators and members of the university’s board
of trustees to review and analyze all aspects of the issues
surrounding the beleaguered football program.

In a note to the board of trustees notifying them of Tressel’s
resignation, Gee said he had been ”actively reviewing” the
matter.

Even if the NCAA – which continues to investigate Ohio State’s
athletic department – were to find nothing else wrong with the
program, there has been a rising tide of dissatisfaction with both
Smith and Gee by alumni, fans and donors.

Gee, in his second stint as president of Ohio State in addition
to being in charge at West Virginia, Colorado, Vanderbilt and
Brown, has been a rainmaker for the university, bringing in large
donors and large contributions. It’s the biggest reason why the
energetic man in the trademark bow tie is the highest-paid Division
I university president in the country at around $1.2 million.

Gee didn’t help his cause with a joke he made at a March 8 news
conference when asked by a reporter if he had considered firing
Tressel.

”No, are you kidding?” Gee said. ”Let me just be very clear:
I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.”

That could not have played well with administrators and
academicians fighting the lingering image of Ohio State as a
football factory.

Smith also heaped praise on Tressel during the March news
conference, saying, ”He is our coach and we trust him
implicitly.”

In a subsequent interview with The Associated Press, Smith
conceded that the news conference had been ”a nightmare.”

Now with Tressel out of the picture, both Gee and Tressel are
the easiest targets left. With the NCAA still probing the athletic
department and with headline-grabbing reports almost every day that
athletes were coddled and received cash and cars, they are taking
the heat from fans and media.

Their fate will rest in the hands of the board of trustees and
the movers and shakers behind the scenes of one of the nation’s
largest universities.