Former Vanderbilt University chancellor Gordon Gee made headlines locally and nationally when he announced the re-structuring of VU’s athletics department in September of 2003. As I have noted in this space and elsewhere, the future was never as dire for Vanderbilt sports as many seemed it would be that day. The athletics department never ceased to exist, as some claimed. It was mostly only re-named and merged with another area of the university, and there were also hidden benefits: teams got unprecedented access to funds that they’d historically been denied.
As a result, the next nine years have, across the board, been the best that Vanderbilt’s sports teams have been in decades, and maybe in history. The university has several excellent coaches under contract, it is improving its facilities and its coaches are recruiting at levels rarely seen at Vandy. So as far as Gee’s experiment went, all’s well that ends well over on West End.
The reasoning for Gee’s restructuring, though, was almost comical. He did it under the guise of “reform.” Had Gee been a minister looking for souls to save, starting with the NCAA’s version of Mother Teresa was a strange choice. Of course, Gee knew better than to believe his own words; what he really wanted was two things: his name in headlines across the country, and a convenient reason to get rid of athletics director Todd Turner, who’d made some good hires with coaches but had underperformed in other ways. In both cases, he got what he wanted.
But even though Gee had the wrong motives, he had the right answer. His ideas started to look a little better to the sports community at large when the sports scandals at North Carolina, Miami and Ohio State broke within the last couple of years.
By the time we found out the whole truth as to what happened at Penn State, Gee looked more like a visionary. Last week, several in the media were calling for Penn State to adopt a model similar to Vanderbilt’s – one where athletics is not an island unto itself, one where there’s transparency and accountability. As VU’s David Williams not-so-subtly asked when he was introduced as Vandy’s new athletics director last week, “I wonder where they got that idea?”
So Gee got to not only eat his cake in Nashville, he found that it had an extra layer of frosting to boot.
But when Gee returned to Ohio State, things suddenly weren’t that simple. When his high-profile football coach, Jim Tressel, got caught in a cover-up of NCAA violations, Gee made his infamous “I just hope [Tressel] doesn’t fire me,” remark when asked if he planned to dismiss a coach who’d won a national title and finished runner-up for another.
Gee’s remark was made in jest, and while it was quite disturbing to hear from the guy who’d positioned himself to lead the bandwagon of college reform, the irony is that he’d become a lot more honest eight years after his move at VU.
At Vanderbilt, selling “athletics reform” in the name of bettering a college’s mission is about as risky a strategy as it would be for a kindergarten teacher trying to earn popularity with her class to hand out free puppies and candy to all her students. But at Ohio State, when Gee pondered the possibility of doing something that could, in his words, get him “fired,” he lost his nerve.
That’s really the problem with college athletics these days. We have no real leaders; instead, we have the Gordon Gees blathering things they don’t really mean when push comes to shove. At Penn State – an institution which, more than any, should have learned the danger of this right now – you have a room full of administrators right now debating whether to take Joe Paterno’s statue down.
The reason why they haven’t pulled the trigger? They’re afraid it might be unpopular. What does it say about the state of higher education that Penn State needs to debate whether it’s “worth it” to pull a monument to a man who knowingly harbored and protected a known child molester through more than a decade of ruining lives, then lied about it and covered it up later?
The final irony is that Gee has unwittingly shown us the way to real reform. He and his pointy-headed brethren, for all their idealism and enthusiasm, actually accomplished nothing. What we need in their places are sheriffs with guns and bullets – and the courage to actually use them.