I met Gordon Gee years ago at a University of Colorado home football game. It doesn’t matter which game. I was at all of them as a CU student. He was at all of them as CU’s president.
He would wear these ridiculous pants that said CU on them a few hundred times, and a bow tie with CU on it maybe a dozen more. He would work his way through the crowds, shaking hands with anyone who wanted to, smiling, saying hello to big-dollar boosters, to anonymous students, to anyone. His job was to raise money, and he did it by becoming one of the fans, being one of the crowd.
Then, he threw money and resources at the football team, which the fans loved, until Colorado won the national championship. Next thing you knew, he was at Ohio State.
Gee chose a path that used football to get him to the top of academia.
That’s a sad statement, but not so much about him as about our education system. His path was to join the party, to be a fan. But he needed to be a president. And in the end, that did him in Tuesday. In the aftermath of his off-color jokes about Catholics and Notre Dame, among other football things, Gee retired. He took his role as fan so seriously that he forgot to be president.
He told a run of jokes like the ones you’d hear in the stands of a game, or maybe on talk radio, or maybe with your buddies. Not like what you’d expect a president to say.
You might just say that Gee is sort of goofy. That’s true enough. But the real problem is what this says about the relationship between sports and colleges. Gee was part of the group of presidents who supposedly took over college sports to bring sanity back, to remember there is an academic mission that is first and foremost. The presidents were there to show that sports can’t just be about a money grab that excuses every behavior.
Gee was unable to separate himself from football fandom, which is where the money comes from, which is what he built his career on, which is where the bad behavior comes from.
At Colorado, Gee knew that football was his ticket. When then-Colorado coach Bill McCartney complained about facilities, Gee found a way to raise money for them. He found a way to lock up McCartney for the long term. McCartney credited him heavily after Colorado won the national championship in 1990.
It’s not that Gee knew anything about football. He even joked about being a geek and looking like Orville Redenbacher. What Gee did know about football was this:
It was his path to the top of the mountain.
This wasn’t the first time Gee made insulting jokes. At Colorado, he used to rip into rival Nebraska. It’s hard to recall which ones came from him and which ones from the fans on talk radio, but the usual ones involved asking what the N stood for on Nebraska’s helmet.
Stuff like that. Stuff like what we heard from him last week — in a recording from December — as Ohio State’s president. Yes, he ripped into Notre Dame as untrustworthy Catholics, ripped into former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema as a thug, ripped into the SEC as a conference where people can’t read and write.
Those jokes were all just like the ones he used to tell at Colorado, when he hated Nebraska. That was before he welcomed, as Ohio State’s president, Nebraska into the Big 10.
The problem is that Gee had become a great fan of wherever he is, and whatever his people want. But what he needs to be is a president, a leader.
Gee went overboard with those jokes from December, reported by the Associated Press last week. The topic was Big 10 conference expansion, and he was making fun of everyone as a rah-rah to the Big 10. He also was showing his enthusiasm over the greed that led to all the conference reconfiguring.
He told the exact type of jokes that college football fans tell each other, the type they typically would like to hear. From their friend.
But from their president? Well, it’s a fine line, because Gee did climb by making wisecracks like that.
In 2011, with the Jim Tressel controversy building at Ohio State, someone asked Gee if he had thought about firing his football coach: “I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me,’’ Gee said, joking.
I believe he was actually playing off a famous line in Oklahoma, when a school president fumbled his words and said he wanted to build a university the football team would be proud of. That one got laughs for decades.
But that’s roughly what did happen Tuesday. Football got Gee fired. He built himself up via football, and while trying to be a fan/president, he tore himself down with it.
By embarrassing the football team, he embarrassed the university. Or maybe it was the other way around.