Gee's attempts at humor fell flat

Most university presidents couldn't locate the football stadium on their campus before they took the office. Not E. Gordon Gee. He embraced football. Gee saw it as a vehicle for transporting his university's message.

But there was more to it than just the love of football or of spectacle, or of congregating with the big wallets who sit in the nice seats. No university president has taken a lap around more football press boxes than Gee. He wanted the media to see him. He wanted to chat.

And that should tell you all you need to know to understand why Gee needed to retire Tuesday as the boss at Ohio State. Gee loved attention. Show me a man who wears a bow tie in this day and age and I'll show you a man who wants to be noticed.

Show me a man who considers himself glib and I'll show you a man addicted to the rush of making people laugh. That's what this is about. Gee never delivered a sober statement if he could channel Jay Leno.

To be fair, Gee's sense of humor helped propel him to stand among the top university presidents in the country for more than two decades. Gee has been the boss at West Virginia, Colorado, Ohio State, Brown and Vanderbilt. He performed his duties so well that when Ohio State needed a president in 2007, the university asked Gee to come back. How often does that happen with any high-profile job?

Gee was a university president for the people. He got out among the alumni. He got out among the students. That's what made his final slip all the more compelling. Gee may have loved to talk to his constituents, but at some point, he stopped listening.

Had Gee had his ear to the ground, he might have noticed over the past decade that sensitivities have heightened. You can debate whether the death of poking fun at others is a good development or not, but you can't debate the death itself. Ethnic humor has gone to its glory. Ridicule isn't faring too well, either.

Context is important. President Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner made fun of Republicans. Everyone knew it was coming. It came. And Obama was funny. But he had the license to be funny.

That's the sort of nuance that Gee never grasped. You can't say, as Gee did two years ago, that you hope Jim Tressel, your head coach who is embroiled in scandal, doesn't fire you. You can't talk about Notre Dame's priests being holy on Sunday and holy hell the rest of the week, as Gee said to a Buckeyes alumni group some months ago. And you surely can't joke about "those damn Catholics." Jokes about religion, skin color or ancestry live only on YouTube. Type in "Henny Youngman" and click on "Search."

Alumni groups and booster clubs used to be the equivalent of Free Parking on the Monopoly board. You could arrive and not get in any trouble while there. But those days are gone, too. It's not just Gee. It's Florida assistant coach Tim Davis, who referred to his former boss, Alabama head coach Nick Saban, as "the devil himself."

No one in a position of stature may speak behind closed doors any longer. That's because the doors can't be closed. Blame smart phones. Blame the Internet and Twitter and all of us who make a living feeding the news beast 24/7.

Gee knew how to use social media. Late Tuesday afternoon, he issued his 2,852nd tweet, one that began "As my time as president draws to a close ..." That's why the remarks to the Ohio State alumni remain mystifying. Gee is playing the game. He is interacting with students who know no other way to communicate. Yet somehow Gee didn't grasp that the rules apply to him.

Gee released a statement last month in which he apologized. He acknowledged that the shots he took at Notre Dame, former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and pretty much the entire SEC were "a poor attempt at humor."

Gee had to know better. He has been a public figure for the majority of his adult life. Yet he still had to crack wise in public. He did it for the same reason he wears a bow tie. He wanted people to notice. Well, they noticed. Their attention cost him a prestigious, well-paying ($1.9 million in fiscal year 2012) job. There's one educator who never learned.