Column: Gordon Gee’s Greatest Gaffes

Ohio State University president steps in it – then steps down
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Ohio State University president Gordon Gee’s ability to put money in the bank – both his and his university’s – was equaled only by his ability to put his foot in his mouth. Well, this week he was finally fired – er, retired. Entirely voluntarily, of course. Not pushed at all. Nooooo.

Over his long career as president of West Virginia, Colorado, Brown, Vanderbilt and Ohio State – twice – Gee has raised billions of dollars, while delivering a seemingly endless stream of gaffes, slanders and just plain stupid comments, which culminated in his unexpected departure.

In politics, they say, when a man is shooting himself in the foot, don’t grab the gun. In that spirit, I’ll let the man’s words speak for themselves.

In 1992, when the Buckeyes ended their four-game losing streak against Michigan with a 13-13 tie, Gee said, “This tie is one of our greatest wins ever.” Ooo-kay.  
But Gee really got on a roll starting in 2010, when he said that, unlike Boise State and Texas Christian University, “We do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor.” That little gem prompted him to pay the Little Sisters of the Poor – which, it turns out, really exists. But he claimed his check to the charity was completely unrelated. Just a nice guy.

The next year, 2011, when football coach Jim Tressel was being investigated, a student reporter asked Gee if he might fire the popular coach. President Gee replied, “No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear. I’m just hopeful the coach doesn’t dismiss me.” Sad fact is, I think he meant it.

Gee followed that in 2012, when he said managing Ohio State’s 18 colleges was similar to leading a Polish army – which, for some reason, a Polish-American group found offensive. Go figure.

Last week a tape emerged in which Gee insults pretty much everybody he’d somehow missed the previous two decades, including Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who Gee said was so “aggressive” in his pursuit of money, “we need to make certain he keeps his hands out of our pockets.”

He added that the Big Ten would never invite Louisville to join the league because it lacks “academic integrity,” then went after the entire Southeastern Conference: “You tell the SEC when they learn to read and write, then they can figure out what we’re doing” in the Big Ten.

But Gee wasn’t done. He hit his highlight when somebody asked him why Notre Dame wasn’t invited to join the Big Ten. “The Fathers are holy on Sunday,” he replied, “and they’re holy hell the rest of the week. You just can’t trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday, and so, literally, I can say that.” Yes, literally, he said that.

Not surprisingly, he spent this week apologizing to all of the above, while canceling a commencement speech at a Catholic high school. Probably a good idea.

He also released an official statement: “I recently returned from a vacation with my family, during which time I had a chance to consider the university’s phenomenal achievements and the road that lies ahead for it.”

That’s pretty nice. But that’s not all he thought about. No.

“I also spent some time in self-reflection. And after much deliberation, I have decided it is now time for me to turn over the reins of leadership to allow the seeds that we have planted to grow.”

But just in case you cynics out there were wondering, he repeatedly maintained that his sudden retirement had nothing to do with his comments.

And that was the best whopper of them all.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

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  1. By BenW
    June 7, 2013 at 9:25 pm | permalink

    First “gaffe” is clearly talking about a moral victory.
    Gee wasn’t the first person to liken bad teams to little sisters of the poor. Here’s someone using it in 2008 –
    You THINK he meant he hopes Tressel doesn’t fire him. I think you’re wrong and exaggerating. The rest of your article helps this case.
    I never served in the Polish Army, but I don’t see why that’s offensive, unless the Polish Army is known for having many branches and having that lead to its downfall? Probably his most offensive comment of the lot though.
    Really? THAT’s an insult to Delaney? Basically -We need to keep our universities finances in order while we admire and support him. We want the Big 10 to expand but not at our financial expense. Reading the entire quote and looking at context is key.
    He said Louisville didn’t match the B1g 10′s academic integrity. Was he wrong? Not if you ask US News and World Report – B1G teams (including Maryland and Rutgers) average ~62 nationally. Rutgers is worst at 115. Louisville sits at 160. Kentucky is 125.
    His comment about the SEC was in response to people supporting the SEC saying that the Big 10 can’t count because they’ll have 14 members and are still called the Big 10. Math jab countered with literacy jab. Both clearly jokes. Not a big deal. Context still key.
    You gave more context with the Notre Dame thing, but you don’t seem to understand it, let me help. The people who are in charge of Notre Dame are first and foremost identified as religious leaders. Even though they have doctorates they go by Reverend or Father. Gee has negotiated with these specific Catholics, and if anyone is qualified to say someone representing a notoriously difficult to negotiate with group is “holy hell” why wouldn’t it be someone who has continuously been trying to negotiate them?
    Surprised you didn’t add in and try to twist his quoting someone talking bad about Bielema or his factual, unofficial explanation as to why Cincinnati wasn’t a candidate for the B1G (which includes, “We love Cincinnati as a city).
    People like you are the reason Gee is out of a job. I’m sure you’re satisfied.

  2. By Rod Johnson
    June 9, 2013 at 9:37 am | permalink

    I’m sure Gee will land on his feet and be back to sucking up to rich people, raising the salaries of administrators, fighting unionization, cutting arts funding, selling off science programs, and spending egregious amounts of money on his personal lifestyle soon if he wants.