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"If I made the minimum salary for one NFL season, it would be enough to pay for med school," says Smith. "Once I get out of med school, I don't think I'll be worrying about where my next meal's coming from."
Ohio State should not suffer noticeably on the field without Smith, who was twice named Mr. Football in Ohio during his high school career. The Buckeyes are blessed with a wealth of gifted tailbacks. Throughout the state, though, the fallout was immediate and widespread. State Senator Eric Fingerhut, a Democrat from Cleveland, wrote to Gee, asking that the president "publicly address the disturbing questions" raised by Smith.
In one, sad sense, everything is in order in Columbus. Once-proud Ohio State has been on the defensive ever since its graceless firing of Earle Bruce, who had won a mere 75% of his games, near the end of the 1987 season. When the handsome, extroverted Cooper arrived shortly thereafter from Arizona State, he seemed the antidote to the rumpled, withdrawn Bruce.
But Buckeye fans began booing Cooper early in his first season, in which his team finished 4-6-1, and they have yet to stop. In three years under Cooper, Ohio State has lost no fewer than four games in a season; neither has it beaten archrival Michigan. Meanwhile, Cooper, 54, pitches everything from clothing and carpets to cars and hot tubs, providing easy fodder for area columnists.
Cooper's most recent pillorying came after the Buckeyes' 23-11 loss to Air Force in the Liberty Bowl last December. Gee, who had earlier in the season publicly discussed extending Cooper's contract, began hedging. Gee's vacillation handed rival schools a recruiting tool with which to hammer the Buckeyes: You don't want logo there—Cooper's not even going to be around.
Thus did Gee, a self-described "aggressive proponent of reform in NCAA athletics," send this unambiguous message to his football coach: Have a big year or retain a good Realtor. "We've got to produce this year," says Cooper. "President Gee and the Athletic Council and pretty much everyone who has anything to do with my future have indicated that."
Armed with this mandate, Cooper hired Uzelac, a Type-A personality with a reputation for toughness, who had most recently been an offensive line coach at Indiana. The Buckeyes lacked discipline last season—some players admit that Cooper's practices had gotten soft—and Uzelac was hired to provide it, beginning with more-rigorous drills.
He was particularly tough on Smith, who, in Uzelac's opinion, was coddled last year by Jim Colletto, the offensive coordinator at the time and now the coach at Purdue. According to a source inside the Buckeye football office, Uzelac became exasperated when he learned that Smith's inorganic chemistry class conflicted with morning practice. Uzelac was overheard yelling at a secretary, "You told me [the class] was in the morning. You didn't tell me it was during practice."
Smith contends that Ohio State coaches get interested in athletes' academic progress only when the players are threatened with ineligibility—a charge that Gee rejects. He points with pride to the university's academic support system, its graduation rate for athletes, and its 20 football Academic All-Americas—"More than the rest of the Big 10 combined," says Gee. Actually, the other schools have produced 80 Academic All-Americas.
Former Buckeye offensive lineman Karl Coles, a product of that "support system," who used his degree in recreation education to secure jobs in the Arena Football League and at a Columbus car dealership, sides with Smith. "The system does not work in favor of the athletes," says Coles, who graduated in 1990. "Go into any recreation class at Ohio State—you'll find that 80, 90 percent of the people are athletes. People who have a problem with what Robert said have a problem with the truth."