Gee a good but flawed man

By Jeff Svoboda 

For whatever reason, Ohio State has a knack for drawing outsized characters into its leadership positions, brilliant stars that shoot across the sky and perhaps are meant to crash to earth when all is said and done.

Woody Hayes lasted 28 cantankerous, headstrong and glory-filled years before his career came to a screeching halt with forearm shiver to the neck of a Clemson football player. Though many fans likely did not want to hear it, Ohio State athletics director Hugh Hindman was left with little choice but to relieve him of his duties one day later.

Jim Tressel provided 10 of the best years in Ohio State football history before he was forced out almost exactly two years ago, the victim of a coverup of NCAA violations. Though many fans likely did not want to hear it, the university had little choice after Tressel lied to the NCAA, committing one of the cardinal sins of college sports.

University president E. Gordon Gee lasted two terms at Ohio State and was a lightning rod for all of them. On Tuesday afternoon he announced his retirement effective July 1, though it doesn’t take the two doctorates Gee possesses to figure out that his choice to step down was related to the swirling controversy regarding his offensive comments about Catholics, the SEC and multiple other subjects that surfaced last week.

It did not have to be this way.

Had Ohio State wanted to, it likely could have circled the wagons and come to the defense of its effective and charismatic leader — as it had many times before.

The university had a choice in the matter. In the end, though, it didn’t appear that Gee was extended many lifelines.

To those who know the school, though, this couldn’t be a huge surprise. Ohio State is a learning institution, but perhaps equally as much a corporate behemoth with a culture to match. In many ways, it might as well be named Ohio State, Inc., and its balance sheets have the requisite number of zeroes at the end to prove it.

And when things go wrong, someone has to take the fall for the good of the company.

The irony of the whole thing is that against that admittedly cynical view of Ohio State, Gee stuck out like a sore thumb — he was smiling, welcoming, a beacon of familiarity in what often can be a wildly impersonal place.

He made people feel Ohio State in a way that likely will not ever be matched. His visits to house parties, senior crawl and just about every other on-campus activity made him beloved within the student body. His boisterous cheerleading for the university in the classroom and on the field made him a familiar sight to fans from Ashtabula to Zanesville. He was the people’s president.

More than that, he was a force to be reckoned with in the halls of power, a political creature whose amiability appeared to take the edge off the tensest of negotiations and helped him get what he thought was best for his institution.

Those traits, however, don’t recuse him from scandal, and that is what he had on his hands the past five days. What made him so popular and so effective in his job — his easy manner and quick wit — were powderkegs in the wrong circumstance, and his comments at the December meeting of the Athletic Council that surfaced last week were that and then some.

Gee clearly was joking when he bashed Catholics, multiple other institutions of higher learning, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, but his comments were unbecoming of a man of his office. The subjects of his barbs were rightfully offended, and many in the Ohio State community were embarrassed by his words.

As a result, I will not sit here and say he should have kept his job. Your opinion on that is all your own.

But make no mistake, there will be major consequences of this decision. Gee had just used his immense political capital to switch the school’s academic calendar from quarters to semesters — a herculean and task that no one but Gee would ever have had the audacity to try, and a major change whose effects will be felt for some time.

Many of his other far-reaching proposals — including numerous fund-raising measures and construction projects, not to mention the ambitious plan to move all sophomores into campus housing — will now be tougher to fulfill.

Athletics also will feel change, and it might not be comfortable. It was no secret that Gee admired athletics director Gene Smith, certainly much more so than a fanbase that was left with a bitter taste in its mouth as Smith, in their eyes, bungled Ohio State’s NCAA case two years ago.

While Gee’s biggest gaffes often concerned athletics, he also firmly understood that sports —especially football — is the front porch of the university to many across the state of Ohio and the nation. (Whether that should be is a discussion for another time, but it is reality). What he did for athletics at Ohio State cannot be underestimated.

With all that in mind, Ohio State could have tried to save him if it had the wherewithal to do so, but that is not how the game is played at this level. In times of crisis, someone must pay the piper, and that is what is happening. I do not feel sorry for him — he signed up for this, after all — but in the end his work must be appreciated.

Not everyone, including this writer, agreed at all times with his ways or policies, but there can be no doubt Ohio State is losing a great man who dedicated his life to the university and made it a better place on the whole.