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.