Commentary

Is Gordon Gee serious?

The Ohio State president recently told a joke that revealed the hidden truth about college sports. He's been playing defense ever since.

Updated: August 8, 2011, 11:01 AM ET
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

Gordon Gee Ohio StateGrant Cornett for ESPN The MagazineGee's grand office befits his status as the nation's top-paid public university president.

This story appears in the Aug. 22, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

ABOUT 40 MINUTES BEFORE I MET GORDON GEE, I decided to play a joke on him. I entered a Columbus bookstore and bought a bow tie. They're popular on campus because Gee, Ohio State's president, famously wears one every day. I was visiting at a touchy time, in the middle of an NCAA investigation, to discuss a sensitive subject: a joke of Gee's that bombed. I had to see whether he could take a joke. So I dropped $26, stood before a men's room mirror and fastened the scarlet tie under the collar of my blue-and-white-checkered shirt. When I entered Gee's second-floor office overlooking The Oval, the heart of campus, his assistant's eyes jumped. "Did you wear that for him?" she asked. "Nobody's ever done that."

The funniest jokes are grounded in truth. But not all truthful jokes are funny -- as Gee learned on March 8, when he deadpanned a most revealing zinger about the state of college sports. It occurred at a news conference to announce then-football coach Jim Tressel's punishment for knowingly using ineligible players during the 2010 season, then covering it up. Gee had hoped to show a skeptical public that he was in firm control of his athletic department, but the event quickly turned into, in Gee's words, "a disaster."

Instead of quickly apologizing, Tressel portrayed himself as a victim whose love for his players overshadowed the "NCAA part of things." Meanwhile athletic director Gene Smith struggled to sell Tressel's punishment of a two-game suspension and $250,000 fine. When Gee approached the podium, a bad performance got even worse.

Wearing a scarlet-and-gray-striped bow tie, Gee, typically a flamboyant speaker, flatly praised Tressel's "superb integrity." As Gee backed away from the mic, a reporter started to ask whether dismissing Tressel had ever crossed his mind.

"No -- are you kidding?" Gee interrupted. He sputtered for a second, searching for a one-liner to break the tension. "Let me be very clear," he said. "I'm just hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me."

Smith, standing behind Gee, grinned briefly before zipping it, as if caught snickering in class. But nobody else laughed. The joke landed with a silent thud. In the ensuing weeks, as the scandal escalated, the national media recycled the line in blogs and in print, on TV and radio. That offhand remark, a glib aside, would ultimately become the news conference's most famous quote, drawing a host of admonishments from college sports executives.

What were you thinking? was one AD's reaction. Florida president Bernie Machen says he shook his head and thought, I bet you wish you had it back. Five months later, Tressel is gone and Gee is preparing to testify before the NCAA Committee on Infractions. His fellow presidents wonder whether the man who once promised zero-tolerance for Buckeye rule breakers might lose his job in the scandal's wake.

Along the way, Gee had aired his profession's worst-kept dirty little secret: that presidents can't really control athletics. Although every infractions case reveals as much, nobody had ever simply admitted it.

Critics can complain all they want about how athletics encroach on a university's true mission, but as state revenues shrink, the inconvenient truth is that sports increasingly bankroll academics. Of the 120 FBS colleges, a mere 22 had profitable athletic departments in 2010. But in a 2009 Knight Commission survey of 95 FBS presidents, 51 percent said that sports help generate revenue for their universities.

Call them a loss leader. Last year, for instance, Texas president Bill Powers, in trying to persuade defensive coordinator Will Muschamp to stay, sought permission from UT's trustees to double Muschamp's salary to $1 million. The request was granted because athletics had just contributed $30 million to the university. "Yes, the salaries are robust," Powers says. "But it pays off."

Gordon Gee Ohio State
Kevin Fitzsimons/The Ohio State UniversityGee, the consummate cheerleader, works the crowd in September 2010, three months before the "tats for trophies" scandal broke.

To raise money, presidents seduce donors with sideline credentials, locker room visits and private calls with the coach -- anything to make a check writer feel like an insider. On football Saturdays, presidents mingle and conduct business in their suites with billionaires and politicians. If athletics are run well, the university is too. Or so goes the perception. And if a winning team makes a donor more likely to cut a check for a new library, then firing a coach can be that much tougher. Robert Gates, who has been both secretary of defense and a university president, once said that it was easier to remove a dictator than it was to oust the football coach at Texas A&M.

Few understand that better than 67-year-old E. Gordon Gee, who's been a university president for 31 years, longer than any other American. Gee's job is complicated and fascinating: One minute he's speaking with Ohio governor John Kasich, the next he's appeasing angry faculty, the next he's welcoming freshmen. But two cards on Gee's office table, he says, "remind me what my business is on a day-to-day basis." Scribbled on one card: But for Gordon Gee, The Ohio State University would not have received its first $100,000,000 gift -- largest in school history.

The other reads:
Gordon,
Think about it ...
BEAT Michigan
(Not mimic Michigan)

Both are from Leslie Wexner, the billionaire chairman of OSU's board of trustees. One of Gee's 18 bosses.


TURNS OUT, Gee can take a joke. He laughs when he sees my tie. "You wore that for me?" he says. "I knew I was going to love you."

He extends his arms to my shoulders in a near hug, as if we're slow dancing in junior high. Then he tilts his head disapprovingly: "A clip-on?" (Gee would later confide to me that he wears his ties slightly messy so that nobody will think they're clip-ons.) He asks his secretary to get me a real bow tie, a professional charmer at work.

Skinny and slightly hunched, with grayish-blond hair neatly parted to the right, blue eyes squinting behind black bottle glasses, trousers fastened by suspenders, and a white shirt and blue coat topped by that ubiquitous bow tie, Gee looks every inch the geeky academic. But beneath the tie beats the heart of a hardened executive. A native of Vernal, Utah, he received his doctorate in education from Columbia, and after stints as a law professor at Brigham Young and as dean of West Virginia's law school, he was hired as West Virginia's president in 1981, at age 37. From there, Gee moved to Colorado, Ohio State, Brown and Vanderbilt before returning to Columbus in 2007. He now presides over 64,077 students, 42,370 employees and a $5 billion budget.

Make no mistake: To have survived this long in his chosen profession, Gee has had to be a ruthless, political, ball-crushing, consensus-building cheerleader. Faculty members marvel at how he rarely forgets a name -- and how quickly he recovers when he does.

During summers, he travels the state in a van to persuade students to attend OSU instead of Cornell. In the fall, he hits frat parties and drops into dorms carrying pizzas. On this mid-June week, he's met with House Speaker John Boehner, fired off a few tweets to his 19,000-plus followers, placated angry faculty and met with his athletics staff about the NCAA investigation.

Yet as he sits with legs crossed in a leather chair in his apartment-size office, Gee seems calm. "Internally, this hasn't been a difficult issue," he says, noting that academic politics are often far bloodier. Still, the violations are damning because he, unlike most presidents, aligns himself with sports so publicly. Yes, many presidents serve as deal closers for recruits, and most stuff their offices with footballs from big wins. But only Gee appears on JumboTrons to rally the crowd, has a chunk of a goalpost from Colorado's 1990 title-clinching Orange Bowl game on his desk and begins each morning with Mike and Mike.

Last year, he drew so much heat for his "Little Sisters of the Poor" comment, disparaging the schedules of Boise State and TCU, that he ended up apologizing to the sisters before the Ohio Legislature. (He is now, he says with a laugh, their "biggest fundraiser.") A few years ago, when star linebacker James Laurinaitis deferred NFL millions to return for his senior year, Gee called him and said, "James, I'm going to take you to dinner." The meal turned out to be an NCAA violation -- one of many minor ones Gee commits each year. "I'm more self-reported than any president in the country," he quips.

Again, others might not laugh. At Miami, president Donna Shalala personally hires each coach. She studies the NCAA rulebook and weekly compliance reports. During football games, she scours the sidelines for suspicious guests. "I'm on alert all the time," she says.

Many presidents complain that they have to spend too much time on sports, relative to their percentage of university budgets. Even Ohio State's football revenue -- $51.8 million last season -- accounts for just 1 percent of the school's total budget. But presidents have no one to blame but themselves. During the 1980s, in the wake of SMU's Death Penalty, Gee headed a group of presidents dedicated to reining in athletics; that effort led to the concept of institutional control. In the '90s, presidents created the D1 Board of Directors to decide policy on matters ranging from eligibility standards to expanding the schedule. Then in 2002, presidents tapped one of their own, Indiana's Myles Brand, to head the NCAA. The message was clear: Presidents -- not players, fans or even Congress -- run college sports. Which is why today, if you're dreaming of a football playoff or thinking that athletes should be paid, only presidents can make it happen.

It's ironic, then, that presidents have so little power in managing their own houses. And that if those houses blow up, presidents can go down in flames along with coaches and ADs. It happened recently to USC's Steven Sample, who resigned during the Reggie Bush case. Gee says that at NCAA meetings, presidents "sing 'Kumbaya' " about clamping down on athletics but that back on campus, they wilt under "tremendous pressure from their boards" to produce winning teams. As Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman puts it, "We're responsible, but we're not any more in control."

All they can do is joke about it.

"I survive on humor," Gee says. His shtick is to be self-deprecating. Still, he now sees that his Tressel joke was, let's just say, a clunker. "The coach was supposed to say I'm sorry. Instead, he had gone into a long conversation, which I didn't think was very healthy. So my tongue spoke before my brain, and the minute I said it, I thought, What a stupid thing."

The truth is that Gee, like a politician who recycles a good line, had used versions of that bit for years. He once joked that he became Vanderbilt's president so that his salary could actually exceed the football coach's. (He now makes $1.8 million, the most among presidents of American public universities.) And he's tickled Buckeyes audiences by explaining that he knows his place: "With [former football coach] John Cooper, I'd call him and he'd answer. With Tressel, he calls me and I answer."

Throughout his career, Gee's charm has helped him gloss over his inability to lasso athletics and has allowed him to mitigate his own controversial comments. He's always tried to control athletics by amassing political capital, spending it on sports and living with the glory or fallout. It's roulette, really. One of his first acts after being hired by Colorado in 1985 was to extend the contract of football coach Bill McCartney, who had won just seven games in three years. Gee invested capital in his coach, and five years later the Buffaloes split the national title. Gee's epiphany: "Always stick with a coach you believe in."

His first stab at Ohio State, he says, was tougher, both with academics and athletics. Faculty and local government roasted him after he eliminated the university's open-admissions process. He now admits he was overwhelmed by the intensity of the only big-time show in a football-mad state. The athletics department, more than at any other college, was "separate and isolated." It was on him to reach out. But since he didn't look like a sports fan, he says, he felt he had to pander -- and it was so awkward he thought he might be fired. "I had to gain a level of credibility," he says. "If not, I'd have serious problems." So he turned himself into a lifeline for coaches, according to Cooper: "Most presidents say, 'Okay, get it done.' He said, 'Okay, how can I help you get it done?'"

When Gee returned to Ohio State in 2007 -- trustees wanted him back after the controversial moves of his first term, including the stricter admission standards, paid off -- athletics were more powerful than ever. Tressel was a legend after winning the 2002 national championship. Gee, seeing opportunity, aligned himself with the coach, using Tressel's celebrity to improve the campus. Tressel co-chaired and donated an undisclosed amount to a $109 million library renovation; Smith chipped in $9 million from athletics. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten four years in a row and earned millions from postseason bowls. Gee, meanwhile, met his annual fundraising targets, often as high as $350 million.

In all, working with athletics was "easier than I thought," Gee says. Perhaps that's because he didn't meet monthly with the compliance office, normal procedure on other campuses, or because he softened his zero tolerance policy for rule breakers. He tried to create more oversight -- and protect himself -- by creating layers. He appointed a liaison to athletics so that, as he says, "It's not just the AD and the president responsible." Because of the changes, compliance staffers didn't feel they had the power to ask tough follow-up questions. And Tressel, who declined comment for this article, wasn't exactly forthcoming.

When the whole thing blew up this spring, Gee was still left holding the bag. "How would I know that players would sell memorabilia to a tattoo parlor?" he says. "No matter what procedures are in place, people can get around them." Yet he also admits he sent the signal that he didn't want to be bothered. "None of us want to hear bad news," he says. "We hear what we want to hear. It's not just about people being forthcoming. It's about us being receptive, and I start with myself."

Gee says that many OSU officials, including provost Joseph Alutto, advised him to fire Tressel. But that's not how presidents survive. Gee subscribes to a three-bullet theory: He believes he gets only three mea culpas with the trustees before he's, as he puts it, "pumping gas." He didn't want to burn political capital by unilaterally firing Tressel, who had friends on the board. "It would not have been pretty," Gee says.

The president had a choice: back his coach and take heat or fire him and risk hell. "There were a lot of negative scenarios," he says. "And no right answer." As one of Gee's fellow university presidents says: "You have to work through issues like this in ways that don't make the 'losers' angry. It comes down to how you handle relationships, and Gordon is very politically savvy."

So as Gee publicly defended Tressel, he also privately appointed an internal task force to assess the damage. Throughout the scandal, he kept OSU's board abreast of every detail. "I still have my job, so you still have yours," he'd joke to his secretaries after each meeting. And once it appeared that the violations were more widespread than Tressel had admitted, the trustees universally supported the decision to force the coach to resign. "There was no daylight in the decision," Gee says.

The result was an NCAA charge that indicted only the players and Tressel, sparing OSU the dreaded "failure to monitor" tag, which would have carried stiffer penalties. "That was critical," Gee says of the charge. "It shows what it was: a coach who failed to disclose, and players who sold memorabilia." Due to the embarrassment the scandal brought the university, Gee admits he "might have gotten close" to firing one of his three bullets and removing Tressel earlier. (Tressel's resignation was later recast as a retirement, sparing the coach a $250,000 fine. As for his relationship with Tressel, Gee says the two men, once chummy, haven't spoken since.)

Heading into the infraction hearing phase, Gee is not out of the woods yet. Just as the trustees turned on Tressel, they could still flip on the president. That's the risk of governing big-time athletics. But everyone knows that boosters, trustees, students and faculty will forgive NCAA infractions in exchange for the benefits reaped from football Saturdays.

Maybe that's why, according to OSU chemistry professor Rob Coleman, "nobody bad-mouths Gee" at faculty meetings. On a June day, Coleman drives the point home. He walks up to the third floor of Evans Lab, a chemistry building that he says used to resemble "an open sewer." It was so bad that faculty hid it from prospective students. After Gee saw it, he immediately started a seven-figure renovation. This summer, construction began on a new building. Faculty might wish that Gee had kept his lame joke to himself, but nobody wants him gone. After all, he's as good at his job as Tressel was at his.


ON A JUNE AFTERNOON, Gee enters a town-hall-style meeting with the staff advisory counsel. He hugs professors, calls everyone by name and mocks himself after announcing a staff promotion that had already been made public. Pure Gee. Then he opens the floor to questions.

Nobody asks about athletics. Nobody brings up the joke. Nobody prods him about the NCAA investigation hanging over his head.

Finally, one person touches on the scandal, in a sideways manner: The questioner wants to know how the university can receive publicity for its positive work, not just its football problems. She is essentially asking Gee to fix Ohio State's image without fixing its problem -- maybe because she, like Gee, knows that the problem is bigger than any of them.

Already done, Gee assures her: Neither fundraising nor enrollment has been affected. "This isn't my first rodeo," he says.

That's no joke.

Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.