IOWA CITY — Ohio State President Gordon Gee opened his mouth, and the Big Ten is reeling because of it.
Gee disparaged the academic integrity of the Southeastern Conference, referenced former Wisconsin football coach (and Iowa team captain) Bret Bielema as “a thug” and referred to Notre Dame officials as “damn Catholics” in comments to his school’s athletics council last December. An audio recording was released first to the Associated Press and later obtained and aired in full on SI.com.
Damage control immediately was in full effect. Both Gee and the Big Ten offered apologies.
“The remarks made by Ohio State University President Gordon Gee were inappropriate and in no way represent the opinions of the conference,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said. “We have great respect for the University of Notre Dame and the SEC, and we are proud of the rich, competitive history we share with each.”
LISTEN TO GEE’S COMMENTS HERE (courtesy SI.com)
Delany personally called leadership at both Notre Dame and the SEC. While Gee’s comments were insensitive and boorish, they likely won’t leave a lasting effect on those slighted. But his words publicly contradicted the league’s one-for-all spirit and weakened Delany’s efforts to build cohesion.
Perhaps most damaging was Gee’s comments about expansion. Gee told the council the “Big Ten needs to be predatory” when adding schools. Then he added, “Very candidly, I think we made a mistake. Because we thought about adding Missouri and Kansas at the time. There was not a great deal of enthusiasm about that. I think we should have done that at the time. So we would have had Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and then moved into that other area. I think, by the way, that that can still happen.”
No college sports association has matched the Big Ten’s locked-arms togetherness. And no other official has dared to publicly question or second-guess Delany when it comes to expansion.
The league debuted in 1896 and has lost just one member (Chicago) since 1917, and that school remains embedded in the conference’s academic consortium. Three Big Ten additions since Chicago’s departure — Michigan State in 1953, Penn State in 1993 and Nebraska in 2011 — were celebrated by league officials, alums and fans throughout the league footprint. There was a common fit and a shared identity.
Last fall the Big Ten invited Maryland and Rutgers to increase the league’s visibility in major markets like New York, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. League officials have sought to build a foundation with those schools before they begin play in 2014.
“I think Jim did a great job with Nebraska, with Penn State and with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland of integrating us before the decisions were made,” Michigan State Athletics Director Mark Hollis said. “So we kind of felt like brothers before the relationship started. I think we have some work to do with some of the coaches.
“I think we need to continue to reach out in positive ways to make sure that top-to-bottom those schools feel connected, feel connected to Michigan State. I know their leadership does. They do have different values, and I don’t think that’s necessarily bad.”
Maryland and Rutgers have voices inside Big Ten meetings but are not allowed an official vote until July 1, 2014. They carry academic credentials as members of the Association of American Universities, a collection of research institutions of which all Big Ten schools but Nebraska belong.
The league added Maryland and Rutgers from a protectionist viewpoint. After the ACC picked up Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, Delany and other officials believed they needed to make a move or lose revenue and influence over time.
“I think the thing to look at with the Big Ten Conference is, like (MSU basketball coach) Tom Izzo says in his commercials, we’re comfortable in our own skin,” Hollis said. “We are right now. At the same time we’ll fight tooth and nail to protect our brand and protect our borders.
“While I wouldn’t call it a reactionary mode, I would call it a mode that as we continue to survey the landscape we’ll continue to advise the commissioner. He’s tremendous at this, at what we need to ensure that our revenues are in place to support broad-based programs, our exposure is there, our recruiting ability is there.
“If we feel like there’s a threat due to things that are happening in other areas, we’ll respond, we’ll step up and be proactive. Right now we’re very comfortable in our position.”
Rutgers and Maryland’s Big Ten membership belies the league’s traditional Midwestern roots. Delany wants the league to transition from a regional viewpoint to a national perspective. That only happens in Maryland and Rutgers are successful in the Eastern Corridor.
“If we can build relationships, make friends, be impactful and relevant over time, that’s the goal,” Delany said. “We’re not going to be changing the world, but we are looking forward to do everything we can to build a presence in that place.”
That mindset has worked for the Big Ten since its existence. Schools long have denied their own self-interest in favor of the league. For 20 years they resisted the urge to expand and add a lucrative football championship game. They accepted less money and visibility from ESPN in order to start their own television network. Wisconsin and Iowa conceded their longtime football rivalry to allow the league’s original divisional structure to prosper.
“I think the values of the conference really inure to the leadership and enable us to kind of check our individual interests at the door and make the decisions from a conference perspective,” Indiana Athletics Director Fred Glass said. “My understanding is that’s very unusual of a conference. My expectation is that will continue.
“Anytime you add things it’s harder to have unity and all that. I’m optimistic of unity, and I think our fans will increasingly feel that way, too.”
But unity is difficult when president of a flagship university undermines the conference leadership. With the league’s presidents meeting this weekend in Chicago, you can bet Gee’s comments will receive a dissection. Based on his sentiments, that discussion may take a while.