The ever multifaceted E. Gordon Gee.
Hello, Off Tackle Emperors. My name is Luke Zimmermann. If you have anything resembling a penchant for the absurd, you're no doubt familiar with my body of work over at SB Nation's carnival fun house mirror hall, Every Day Should Be Saturday. If you're an Ohio State fan, troll, or just a White Castle enthusiast, you probably came across some of my handiwork at Big Ten Bloglympics silver medalists (all hail the gold standard from the great nation of MGostonia), Eleven Warriors. I also pick up cyber litter around these parts as the Community Manager for Vox Media, parent company of SB Nation, The Verge, and Polygon. Now that you know my entire resume, I can tell you what this all means.
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Now, without further adieu, here are some thoughts on Ohio State's own multifaceted mad man, E. Gordon Gee:
Cap'n Gee & The Shrimp Shack Shooters
Instinctively as a college football fan of any creed or background, your visceral response anytime E. Gordon Gee says something publicly about the sport is a cringe of sorts. Amongst his many crimes, Gee has perpetrated a sham of a press conference in the wake of one of his multi-million dollar football program's lowest of lows, cracked "witticisms" that were anything but in an audience of third party scribes unfamiliar with his candor or delivery, and also perpetrated a number of half-truths about college football's post-season -- all the while being dismissive and patronizing towards BCS outsiders. As a college football fan, these are crimes worthy of ridicule. Hell, as a reasonable, rational person these are things that merit ostracizing. But as is more often the case than not when dealing with unique individuals and personalities, nuance is involved and more information is mandatory.
When Gordon Gee dropped the now infamous line, "I was just hoping he wouldn't fire me!" in regard to later disgraced Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, I watched the press conference and neither groaned nor reacted. I simply thought, "that's Gordon Gee being Gordon Gee"1. Having met the man some two dozen times in college and had conversations lengthier than five minutes on a handful of occasions, the sentiment comes from a jovial, zealous-for-life grandfather type who feels every bit like the caricature of a man he looks. Anyone fortunate enough to share words with Gee, however, is also quick to pick up on his encyclopedic knowledge of public affairs and university governance. As a university president with an entire career in academia behind him, having a deep rooted mastery of college football outside of an economic, logistical, and cultural sense doesn't exactly fall under the scope of his due diligence. There's a reason major universities have athletic directors, and if there's any place for the axe of incompetence to fall, one might be wise to start there -- so perhaps it's marginally understandable that the man may not know TCU from his elbow.
Despite a rocky stay at Vanderbilt where he was never culturally nor personally embraced -- and his then-wife infamously smoked pot (medicinal) in the chancellor's mansion (which, you know, pisses off superficial outrage prone southern socialites with an axe to grind like nobody's business) -- Gee has been universally lauded at every place his storied career had taken him. When Karen Holbrook's long quest to better academia at the cost of burning every other conceivable bridge imaginable in Columbus came to its conclusion, I happened to be in a professional situation where I was within ear shot of the Ohio State Board of Trustees daily. Despite having no real connections beyond a face recognition basis with many of them, even I managed to catch wind that Gordon Gee would be one of (if not) the preeminent targets for the university's presidential vacancy.
Until the Tressel scandal turned the program over on its side, Gee's second term in OSU's top office was amongst the university's most celebrated and most successful. He was increasing the school's already war-chest rich endowment, rebuilding political bridges within the university's power hierarchy, and generally having a positive impact on the culture and attitude of the university as a whole. Gee's quirky commencement interjections to "always check the bag before leaving the drive through" and the like were as of his identity along as his clear sharp mind and mastery of politicking.
And then, inevitably, the subject turns to football as it so often does.
As previously mentioned, Gee's shown little other than a complete lack of self awareness when dealing with issues related to major college football. The faux outrage champions of this country may be in their Sunday best in the likes of Nashville or Savannah, but the close runner ups reside in the telecommute offices of Sports Illustrated, The Daily, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports, and of course, The World Wide Leader. Viewing things quickly and sans context isn't so much a science as an art; he who has the most indignant response the fastest wins. 2
Many in those ranks have crucified Gee from the onset, remembering far from fondly the firestorm he set off when he abolished Vanderbilt's athletic department. In doing so, Gee approached the situation unconventionally in a structural, chain of command, and financial magnitude never before seen and not often observed since. Whether the controversy came from costing SID-types -- with preexisting relationships with said quick to react, seldom wise journo types -- their jobs, or some other angle not immediately apparent, the long-term aftermath of such a bold undertaken has been worse than anyone could've ever imagined: the university is experiencing previously unforeseen levels of success almost universally in athletics. Gee's ambitious (and risky) paradigm shift not only helped keep Vanderbilt solvent financially, it actually made the university athletics programs competitive: the football program is by all accounts at multi-decade highs in terms of incoming talent; the basketball team that did what only one other team (Indiana) did this season (defeat the national champion Kentucky Wildcats); the tennis program is routinely at the top of the polls.
Under Gee's oversight Ohio State's athletic programs have experienced nowhere near this level of change, but they haven't exactly needed to. Gene Smith's predecessor Andy Geiger made the two most important hires in the school's money sports history in Thad Matta and Jim Tressel. While Tressel's tenure ended unfortunately, the overarching legacy of success he left will have a hard time being matched, even by the all but universally applauded addition of two time national champion Urban Meyer.3 Gee deserves credit for making that hire happen. Even the often bewildered Gene Smith (to whom much credit is due for the resurrection of a sleeping giant wrestling program) deserves a hearty hand shake for not screwing the pooch and landing the most sure thing of any coaching prospect in the country. However, it's what Gee most recently said that is garnering the attention in an otherwise would-be-slow news cycle.
Gee told the Lantern earlier this week that Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News weren't particularly worth the time and reaction merited by their supposedly "bombshell" reports on Coaches Tressel and Meyer respectively and were guilty of so-called "bad journalism". Anyone thinking Gee was chastising their use of anonymous sources is no more guilty than so many other faux-ideological old school print types. Being perfectly blunt, he was calling shitty, over sensationalized scare-mongerers what they were in far more diplomatic language. Claiming that because neither Sports Illustrated nor The Sporting News have printed retractions is proof positive that there were merits to the articles is just as erroneous as claiming that the only reason Ohio State failed to face punishment for "crooked raffles" or "hand shake discount cars" was because SI's George Dohrmann's mythical "Ellis" failed to cooperate with the NCAA. I've never publicly disputed the facts of Matt Hayes' "exposé" but I'm not sure it matters; of course superior players and student athletes get superior treatment. Suspect sources can be suspect sources; a thesis without teeth, just that. Like most of these situations, the truth likely falls somewhere in the middle -- but even in that middle, neither pieces had any real substantive bite. Therein lies the bad journalism Gee was putting on trial, not methodology or the century-old practices of protecting one's sources.
To call those particular articles shoddy isn't doing a disservice to the university in any sense other than rehash superficial firestorms that had long since gone out. For that, Gee deserves every bit the consternation he's been getting. To pain him into anything more than that is looking for a reason to cast a villain. That, or just plain and simple myopia.
1. Intellectually a giant; self-awareness, a Manny Ramirez. ↩
2. This outrage goes to eleven. ↩
3. You know, until insincere pseudo off-season controversy became the zeitgeist in a moment of sheer boredom again. ↩