Ohio State University President Gordon Gee abruptly announced his retirement Tuesday after he came under fire for jokingly referring to “those damn Catholics” at Notre Dame and poking fun at the academic quality of other schools.
The remarks were first reported last week by The Associated Press, and Ohio State at the time called them unacceptable and said it had placed Gee on a “remediation plan” to change his behavior.
Gee, 69, said in a teleconference that the furor was only part of his decision to retire, which he said he had been considering for a while. He said his age and the start of a long-term planning process at the university were also factors.
“I live in turbulent times and I’ve had a lot of headwinds, and so almost every occasion, I have just moved on,” he said. Gee explained the abrupt timing by saying he was “quirky as hell” and hated long transitions.
According to a recording of a Dec. 5 meeting obtained by the AP under a public records request, Gee, a Mormon, said Notre Dame was never invited to join the Big Ten athletic conference because “you just can’t trust those damn Catholics.”
Cardinal Mooney athletic director Don Bucci, a Notre Dame graduate and the Cardinals’ former football coach, said Tuesday he was disappointed in Gee’s comments.
“I feel that he was totally, totally out of line,” Bucci said. “I’ve never heard of a Mormon who criticized the Catholics and to attack Notre Dame is totally uncalled-for.”
Canfield resident Rocco Fumi, a 1955 Ohio State graduate, said Gee’s retirement was inevitable in the wake of his most recent comments.
“Sometimes even things said in humor aren’t funny,” Fumi said. “He backed himself into a corner with those comments. He might have been trying to be funny, but it wasn’t funny. He knows better than that.”
Bucci’s Cardinal Mooney football program has sent players like Bo Pelini and John Simon to Ohio State over the years.
“I don’t know if getting rid of [Gee] was the answer, but something had to be done,” Bucci said. “The reason I’m so upset is that he has joked this way before.”
Fumi likened Gee’s downfall to those of former Buckeyes football coaches Woody Hayes and Jim Tressel. Hayes was fired after punching a Clemson player in the Gator Bowl. Tressel resigned in 2011 after a scandal.
“Woody and Tress and Dr. Gee are just people,” Fumi said. “If you talk 365 days a year to someone, sooner or later you’re going to say or do something you shouldn’t have.”
Fumi remains an ardent Ohio State booster.
“Ohio State football has made me cry twice,” he said. “One was the day Woody Hayes died and the second was the day my son [Rocco Jr.] called and said Tress resigned.”
Tressel, now the Vice President of Strategic Engagement at the University of Akron, responded to Gee’s retirement in an email to The Vindicator.
“It was truly an honor to work with a great president at a wonderful university,” he wrote. “[My wife] Ellen and I send Dr. Gee all good wishes.”
Gee also took shots at schools in the Southeastern Conference and the University of Louisville, according to the recording of the meeting of the school’s Athletic Council.
Gee apologized when the comments were disclosed, saying they were “a poor attempt at humor and entirely inappropriate.”
His decision to retire was first reported by The Columbus Dispatch.
Robert Schottenstein, who as chairman of the university’s board of trustees condemned the remarks last week as “wholly unacceptable” and “not presidential in nature,” deflected questions about whether Gee had been forced out by the board.
“It’s really about a decision to retire for the reasons that Gordon has articulated,” Schottenstein said.
Ohio State, one of the biggest universities in the nation, with 65,000 students, named provost Joseph Alutto as interim president.
Gee, a familiar figure on campus with his bowties and owlish eyeglasses, has repeatedly gotten in trouble over the years for verbal gaffes. Tuesday’s news lit up Twitter, with numerous posts using the hashtag (hash)savethebowtie.
Ohio State trustees learned of Gee’s latest remarks in January and created the remediation plan. In a March 11 letter, the trustees warned any repeat offenses could lead to his firing and ordered him to apologize to those he offended. But it appeared that several of Gee’s apologies came only in the last week or so as the school prepared to respond to the AP’s inquiries.
Gee said Tuesday he waited until recently to apologize in person to the Notre Dame president, Rev. John Jenkins, because they had a long-scheduled meeting. Schottenstein said the board was satisfied with Gee’s response to the letter.
In the recording of his meeting with the Athletic Council, Gee said that the top goal of Big Ten presidents is to “make certain that we have institutions of like-minded academic integrity. So you won’t see us adding Louisville.” After laughter from the audience, Gee added that the Big Ten wouldn’t add the University of Kentucky, either.
When asked by a questioner how to respond to SEC fans who say the Big Ten can’t count because it now has 14 members, Gee said: “You tell the SEC when they can learn to read and write, then they can figure out what we’re doing.”