Did small, personal gestures from a man named Elwood play a role in there even being a college football season?

One of the pivotal figures in arguably the most pivotal conference sent lots of short, but personal emails and there might be something to learn from that

The first email was sent at 8:34 a.m. ET on Aug. 12. Its recipient was Oklahoma State Athletic Director Mike Holder.

“Just a quick note to tell you that I really appreciated your comments last night in our meeting,” the email read. “I think you nailed it perfectly and with absolute conviction. And, what you said was absolutely directly on point. Just wanted to extend to you my thanks, along with my admiration.”

The next email was sent three minutes later to Texas Tech University President Lawrence Schovanec.

“You chimed in perfectly,” the email read. “I must say that there are no easy answers, nor are there right answers. There are only the best decisions we can make given the information we have. And, I am convinced that no decision or a decision not to play is not in the best interest of our students or our universities.”

Big 12 Deputy Commissioner Tim Weiser received one 12 minutes after that. “Just a quick note to tell you to keep up your good work,” the email read. “These are interesting times, but all of us are trying to do the best we can with the information that we have available. I hope you are doing well.”

One by one, West Virginia University President Dr. E. Gordon Gee – the “E” stands for Elwood – contacted key stakeholders from across the Big 12 Conference that Wednesday morning in August, according to new emails obtained by Out of Bounds, each one offering a short, but personal and seemingly heartfelt message of appreciation or admiration to a colleague for his or her input as the conference tried to find a way to hold a college football season.

In several emails, Gee was quite adamant, going as far as saying in one email, “we need to play.”

Gee declined an interview request from Out of Bounds through a spokeswoman.

The day before emailing compliments and reassurances to Holder, Schovanec and Weiser, Gee had done the same for TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini. “A quick note to tell you that I really appreciated our conversation,” Gee wrote. “I can tell that you have had a rough week. Never easy, my friend. As for college football, we need to play and exercise leadership in doing so.”

The week before that, he sent an email to Baylor University President Linda Livingstone. “I think that we made a prudent decision on our football game number,” Gee wrote to Livingstone. “Unanimity is very important and we worked well together.”

The series of emails from Gee referenced presumably much longer and more consequential conversations, some of which took place on Aug. 11, which was the day the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced their respective postponements, as well when the Big 12 held a Zoom call for its presidents, athletic directors, conference officials, team physicians and a few outside parties, who discussed concerns about the potential heart effects related to COVID-19.

The next day, the Big 12 reaffirmed that it would play football in the fall with a press release that had the headline, “Big 12 to Continue Fall Sports.”

Adding more pieces to the puzzle

In August, I reported on Oklahoma State AD Mike Holder writing to Gee, “Without you and [Mayo Clinic] Dr. [Michael] Ackerman the Big 12 wouldn’t be playing football, or any sports this year.” That newsletter also included highlights from a long phone conversation with Ackerman.

The line from Holder that credited Gee and Ackerman for the existence of fall sports in the Big 12 came in response to an email from Gee, which we now know was part of the series of emails that the West Virginia University president sent to colleagues in early August.

It’s been suggested by some that, at the time in August, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 having postponed fall sports and all sports, respectively, and the ACC and SEC appearing steadfast in their desire to play football, the Big 12 may have represented the deciding vote, for all intents and purposes, about whether or not there would be a fall football season. If the Big 12 had postponed fall sports, then three of the Power 5 conferences would have opted not to play football – at least briefly, if not permanently – and who knows if the ACC and SEC would’ve held on to their ambitions long enough for the other conferences to changes their minds under this hypothetical scenario.

If you take Holder at his word that the Big 12 wouldn’t have played fall sports without Gee and Ackerman, and if you also follow the suggested logic that the Big 12 was potentially capable of tipping the scales for the entire sport, then maybe Gee and Ackerman really were the deciding factors in whether or not college football was played in 2020.

That idea, expressed in the form of a question, was the headline used by 247Sports’s West Virginia site, EerSports, when it picked up my reporting on Holder, Gee and Ackerman in August.

Given Gee’s previous position as the president of Ohio State University, some college football fans took notice of his status as one of the administrators who paved the way for the Big 12 to play sports in the fall and they contrasted the Big 12 with the Big Ten, which had recently made the decision to postpone fall sports. Regardless of your personal feelings regarding Gee’s tenure or exit at Ohio State, or the Big Ten’s earlier decision to postpone fall sports or the Big 12’s decision to play, there might be something to learn from Gee’s managing of communication, relationships and egos, whether you view the emails he sent as those written by someone who was simply a private supporter of colleagues or more of a quasi-puppet master.

As Gee wrote to Baylor President Linda Livingstone, “Unanimity is very important,” and that was arguably the Big Ten’s biggest downfall in regards to its public image and its messaging since last August. Think how different August, September and the fallout since would have been for the conference if there weren’t reports of three dissenting votes regarding the decision to postpone fall sports or if players’ parents didn’t protest outside of the Fogo de Chao in Rosemont or if Nebraska football players didn’t sue the conference.

Even Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott has hammered home the importance of showing a united front, even if it has arguably been to the detriment of his conference’s athletes at times. After the athletes behind the #WeAreUnited movement published their demands on The Players’ Tribune, Scott emailed the conference’s athletic directors, saying, “We speak with one voice.” While it never would’ve happened, imagine the potential chaos if one or two schools or administrators had publicly supported the athletes.

When the Pac-12 followed the Big Ten’s lead to postpone competition, it held a press conference that featured Scott, plus representatives from multiple Pac-12 schools, whereas the Big Ten sent Commissioner Kevin Warren alone onto the airwaves of its own conference network, where he faced some challenging questions from host Dave Revsine despite the friendly confines.

For better or for worse, what’s done is done, and what’s done is an FBS football season in which the decision to play was nearly unanimous, as 127 of the 130 FBS teams suited up and played at least three games. Elwood Gordon Gee is part of the reason why, whether he deserves a very small percent of the credit (or blame), or a big percent.

Even though Gee wrote to Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec that “there are no easy answers, nor are there right answers,” the day before, he had written to TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini, “we need to play.” So, according to Gee, there were no right answers, but he left little room for doubt that he felt not playing football was the wrong answer.

If Gee received credit in August and if he gets a nod in January for being a central figure in making the Big 12’s football season possible – and as a result, potentially making the season possible for the entire sport – then the inverse would suggest that someday, if doctors, scientists or historians conclude that playing football in 2020 was harmful to the players or that the football season contributed to the spread of the virus, then some of the potential blame could theoretically fall on Gee’s shoulders, too.

History will decide how wise the decision, or how safe the execution, was to play a 2020 college football season.

There’s a sliding scale of measurability in terms of potential negative consequences from the football season, such as the understood ones like potential heart effects for the players, to more immeasurable impacts, like if the season created large gatherings across the country and resulted in the spread of the virus that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Is there a chance that the mere existence of college football in 2020 provided a potentially dangerous sense of normality that then caused some Americans to not take the necessary precautions in other areas of their lives?

I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone truly knows. But whatever is the ultimate answer, it probably won’t be cut and dried, and neatly packaged into a box that everyone can agree upon or accept.

That’s potentially the topic of a newsletter that someone can publish on Substack 4.0 in 2050. We probably have no business trying to make a definitive conclusion right now.

But in the here and now, any coach, manager, and yes, maybe even a university president, might be able to learn a thing or two from Gee when it comes to interpersonal, professional relationships and the value of positive reinforcement and small gestures, or the benefit of having side conversations that support the major ones.

The Big 12 was united. Gee quite literally expressed the importance of that in writing, and he left a paper trail of his efforts toward achieving unity.

In the moment, we may not have known or realized the potential impact of a series of digital pats on the back and cyber handshakes, after the pandemic had made real ones impossible, and it might take years, if not decades, to begin to quantify their final legacy, whether positive or negative.

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Recap of the last newsletter

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“Roughly 75 percent of the emails obtained by Out of Bounds that were sent by Iowa stakeholders to Barta, Ferentz or Doyle backed the current and former Iowa football players who made the allegations against the program’s culture or specific members of the staff. Those emailers asked for some kind of strong action to be taken in response to the allegations – at a minimum, a thorough, independent investigation into the program and at most, the emails called for multiple coaches to be fired, including Ferentz.”

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Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at andrew.wittry@gmail.com or on Twitter.