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Goodbye, Columbus
Austin Murphy
September 09, 1991
Robert Smith, a standout tailback at Ohio State, quit football after accusing his coaches of hindering his premed studies
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September 09, 1991

Goodbye, Columbus

Robert Smith, a standout tailback at Ohio State, quit football after accusing his coaches of hindering his premed studies

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At around 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 15, the first day of Ohio State's preseason football camp, Buckeye tailback Robert Smith was hunched over his dorm-room desk. A sophomore premed student, Smith was slogging though a chapter of General Chemistry, the text for inorganic chemistry, his bear of a summer school course. The final exam was two weeks away, and Smith was worried. He needed a good grade to stay on track in his premed program.

Suddenly, his door swung open. "Lights out!" barked Elliot Uzelac, the Buckeyes' new assistant head coach-offensive coordinator. Smith tried reasoning with him. No luck.

"Lights out!" Uzelac repeated. Incredulous and furious, Smith defied Uzelac. Finally, Uzelac went away.

Nine days later Smith was cheek by jowl with Boris Yeltsin on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Yeltsin had dissolved the Communist Party in Soviet Russia, but Smith had done something really shocking. He had walked into coach John Cooper's office on Aug. 23 and quit the team, citing these reasons:

•Cooper and Uzelac were not concerned with their players' physical well-being.

•Cooper and Uzelac had been "stripping players of their dignity."

•Ohio State coaches were less concerned with their athletes' educations than with keeping them eligible to play.

According to Smith, on at least three occasions Uzelac pressured him to miss class to attend football practices or meetings. At various times Uzelac told Smith, "You're here to play football" and "You take school too seriously."

"Guilty as charged," says Smith. "I simply can no longer play for those two [Cooper and Uzelac]." Last Friday, Smith held a press conference in Columbus to reaffirm his decision. Though he apologized to "Cooper and Uzelac and their families" for "inappropriate" statements made in the last week, Smith didn't back off from his original accusations.

In the wake of Smith's charges against the two coaches, Ohio State president Gordon Gee held meetings with Cooper and athletic director Jim Jones, who canceled a trip to Belgium with the Buckeye basketball team. The tension could not have improved the health of Uzelac, 49, who on Aug. 29 underwent an emergency angioplasty to clear a clogged coronary artery after suffering chest pains on the practice field. It was his second such operation in three months. Uzelac, who was released from the hospital the next day, would not talk to SI. But Cooper defended his assistant, saying, "I have discussed [the allegations] with Elliot, and I don't think Elliot has lied."

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