Rob Oller | Ohio State considered Jon Gruden for job that eventually went to Jim Tressel

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch
Former Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger said “there was a push” for him to hire Jon Gruden, pictured, to replace John Cooper in 2001.

Ohio State dodged a bullet when athletic director Andy Geiger hired Jim Tressel instead of Jon Gruden in early 2001.

“There was a push” for Gruden, Geiger said Wednesday during a revealing phone conversation from his home near Seattle. “Be careful what you wish for.”

Indeed. Geiger, who oversaw OSU athletics from 1994-2005, would not reveal details of what individual or group pushed for Gruden but confirmed that the former Las Vegas Raiders coach was a legitimate candidate to replace John Cooper, fired after the 2001 Outback Bowl loss to South Carolina. 

Gruden resigned from the Raiders this week after the NFL released emails which included him aiming homophobic, sexist, racist and obscene insults at gays, women and NFL and NFLPA officials.

There is no telling what brutish behind-the-scenes behavior Gruden might have brought to Ohio State from the NFL, where he had just coached the Oakland Raiders from 1998-2001. Maybe returning to the college game, where he spent the early part of his coaching career, somehow would have spawned or helped develop a more progressive mindset. But I doubt it. 

Still, it remains an interesting exercise to wonder how Ohio State would have fared, both on the field and in the consciousness of college football fans, if Chuckie had coached the Buckeyes instead of Tressel.

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Answering the on-the-field portion of the question is difficult, except to say that Gruden almost certainly would not have matched the success of Tressel, who won one national championship game, played in two others, went 9-1 against Michigan and finished his 10-year run in Columbus with a sterling .828 winning percentage (including a 12-1 record in 2010 that Ohio State recognizes as 0-1 because of vacated wins tied to NCAA violations involving players trading merchandise for favors).

Reports at the time had Ohio State willing to pay Gruden $25 million over 10 years. Geiger dismissed those numbers as severely overblown, but it is no stretch to suggest money was a determining factor in hiring Tressel, who signed with OSU at an almost embarrassing low base salary of $205,000. (Ryan Day’s base was $4.5 million when athletic director Gene Smith hired him in 2019; inflation definitely pays the bills.) 

Given the fallout from Gruden’s inflammatory emails, the quick answer to the second part of the question of how college fans would perceive him is “not well.” 

Let’s be clear, it’s not like Ohio State achieved sainthood under Tressel, who resigned under pressure in 2011 when the NCAA determined he lied about details pertaining to Tattoogate. 

And that’s really where I want to go with this; not with the intent of judging Gruden, Tressel or Urban Meyer, but rather examining whether a common flaw threads through many big-name coaches, eventually leading them to finish in a flurry of self-inflicted controversy.

(Quirky aside: Gruden (Sandusky), Tressel (Mentor) and Meyer (Toledo) were born between 50 and 140 miles apart; is there something in Lake Erie water that breeds highly successful yet also highly polarizing coaches?)

Geiger was especially insightful on the subject of coaches descending from the mountaintop via avalanche. As an accomplished musician — at 82 he still plays saxophone in two jazz bands — the retired college administrator knows that low notes follow the highs.

“It’s partially that people do not understand how bright the klieg lights are,” Geiger said of a coach’s inability to handle the spotlight. “And because of that they wind up having a problem and then try fixing it themselves, not necessarily because they’re an evil person or have lost their values, but they’re just so into the kids and what they’re doing.”

Geiger agrees with the notion of a  “windowless room effect” that alienates many coaches from university rules and NCAA reality. Coaches can get so closed off from anything not directly impacting their programs that they lose sight of the institutional standards, instead placing their personal values above all.

“They say they’re going to straighten a kid out by applying old-fashioned values and teaching and doing the right thing, or what they think is right, but to the outside world it looks like a cover-up, and you can’t do that,” he said.

Specifics?

“I’d talk to (Tressel) about it all the time,” Geiger continued. “I’d say, Jim, we can’t save this guy. He’s going to bring us down.’ And it was, ‘Yeah, yeah, but … ’ I’d tell him, ‘We’re going to go down, and it’s not worth it because you’ve got another 100 people depending on it going the right way.’ Most of the time he’d say, ‘OK.’ "

But it only takes one “Not OK” to sink the ship. 

“Sometimes the truth you tell and the truth you believe in are not the truth in a legal sense,” Geiger added. “In terms of values, you’re telling the truth. But in terms of what you signed up for, it’s not the truth.”

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And so you have Tressel protecting Terrelle Pryor and Urban Meyer protecting Zach Smith and Woody winding up on Charlie Bauman because the Clemson nose guard put Hayes’ program in peril.

Gruden is a different matter, but maybe not entirely? Power corrupts, and the moment you think your manure does not stink is the moment you unknowingly sign your walking papers.

Tressel wasn’t perfect. But the Buckeyes could have done a lot worse. And maybe almost did.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD  

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