Goodbye, Columbus

Robert Smith, a standout tailback at Ohio State, quit football after accusing his coaches of hindering his premed studies
September 08, 1991

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."

Gee also vigorously defended Uzelac. Gee is closely involved with football at Ohio State—as he was in his previous position as president of the University of Colorado—phoning recruits and traveling with the team. He was instrumental in the hiring of Uzelac this past spring.

Some Ohio State officials seemed less interested in investigating the validity of Smith's charges than in mounting a heavy-handed campaign of leaks to discredit him. Officials floated rumors—anonymously, of course—that Smith "had not been a stranger in the bars on High Street this summer" and that his class attendance had not been sterling.

"That's right, I've been boozing it up and chasing women all summer," says Smith sarcastically. "It's like they're trying to dig up everything they possibly can on me. It's like they never knew me."

Anyone who knows Smith knows of his dedication to his studies. Like many students who are among the first in their families to attend college, Smith is terribly serious about academics—"Too serious," says his academic adviser, Larry Romanoff. Still, university officials seemed unwilling to address Smith's most serious accusation: that Uzelac had told him to blow off class so that he could make practice. One school spokesman dismissed the matter as a misunderstanding. "Robert has no sense of humor," said the official. "I can easily see Elliot saying with a straight face, 'You take school too seriously,' and Robert taking the comment at face value."

Uzelac's track record—he has had two head coaching jobs, at Western Michigan (1975-81) and at Navy (1987-89)—suggests that there was no misunderstanding. A former midshipman who played for Uzelac at Navy recalls that Uzelac discouraged players from enrolling in summer-school courses that conflicted with workouts during two-a-days. Said the former Middie, "If a guy who'd been in class that morning screwed up in the afternoon, [Uzelac] would say, 'You're sitting in a classroom all morning when you could have been out here doing drill work!' "

Upon being told of Smith's complaints, the officer said, "Sounds like [Uzelac] hasn't changed much."

The Aug. 27 edition of USA Today reported that when Uzelac was at Western Michigan, a local businessman, Mike Vredevoogd, helped Bronco defensive back Adam Mial select his courses. Mial wanted to major in business, but the coaches were more interested in keeping Mial eligible and, according to Vredevoodg, changed his schedule card. "It was filled with remedial stuff and physical education courses," Vredevoogd told the paper. "I've never forgotten that."

Smith spent last week cramming for his chemistry final and meeting with Cooper, Ohio State administrators and boosters. Smith's differences with Cooper, however, were irreconcilable: Cooper refused to consider the possibility that Uzelac had told Smith to cut his classes, thereby implying that Smith had lied.

During the week, Smith considered transferring to John Carroll, a Division III university within commuting distance of his home in Euclid, Ohio. But since Cooper has not revoked his scholarship, Smith will remain at Ohio State, at least for now. A former schoolboy 100-meter state champion, he would like to run track for the Buckeyes this spring.

Though he has only one year of college ball under his belt, Smith has not ruined his chances of playing in the NFL. As a true freshman last season he led the Buckeyes in rushing, averaging 6.4 yards a carry and shattering Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin's 18-year-old freshman rushing record with 1,126 yards. However, should Smith decide to play pro ball, the stand he took last week could end up costing him money. NFL scouts might drool over his rushing ability, but obedience to authority is considered a desirable trait in a pro prospect.

"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."

Yet Smith's accusations that Cooper and Uzelac's tougher practices are evidence of their lack of concern for their players' welfare fell on unsympathetic ears. If Smith thinks practices are bad now, old-timers say, he's lucky he didn't play for Woody Hayes. Asked to describe two-a-days under Hayes, linebacker coach Fred Pagac, an Ohio State tight end in the early '70s, reflected briefly, projected a cataract of tobacco juice into a waste-basket and said, "Ever been to war?"

Football coaches have often had trouble differentiating between toughness and foolhardiness. After suffering a severe sprain of his left ankle during spring practice last March, Buckeye guard Mike Huddleston was told by team doctors to stay off the ankle for two weeks. Several days later—three days before the spring game—Huddleston was called into Uzelac's office. "If you're not willing to play with pain," Huddleston recalls Uzelac's telling him, "I'm not sure you can be a starter for me."

"I figured I'd better play," says Huddleston, "even though I was limping and I couldn't run or cut as fast as I needed to." During the game, while Huddleston stood flat-footed, another player rolled into him, spraining Huddleston's right ankle and knee. "Uzelac never even walked over to see how I was," he says.

In the days after the game, says Huddelston, none of the coaches called to inquire about his condition. "I decided I didn't want to play for these people," he says, and quit. Huddleston read in a local paper in early August that he had left the team because of "personal problems."

Why didn't Smith just let Uzelac's verbal abuse roll off his back, as many of his teammates do? "With Elliot," says quarterback Kent Graham, "the trick is to listen to the words and ignore the tone."

Smith doesn't know that trick. As cocksure and accomplished as any 19-year-old you're likely to meet, he expects respect—more respect than Uzelac was willing to give him. For Smith, college is an important, grown-up business. Though he has a free ride at Ohio State because of his remarkable skill at playing a game, he approaches his academic endeavors with a grim determination. "These are supposed to be the best years of his life," says Romanoff. "He should loosen up."

That's easy for Romanoff to say. Smith did not become an honors student and two-time Mr. Football by kicking back. He had too much to overcome. Smith's parents were divorced when he was a child, and he was raised by his mother, Emilie. During high school he moved in with Paul Serra, Euclid's baseball coach, who became his legal guardian.

Smith could be accused of naivetè in thinking that an Ohio State football scholarship represented anything other than a contractual obligation to bust one's butt for the Buckeyes. On the other hand Smith made his goals clear early on. Before visiting Columbus as a recruit, Smith informed the Buckeye staff that he was not interested in touring the weight room, sampling the training-table fare or ogling Griffin's two Heismans. Smith wanted to see the medical school, talk to ordinary students and stroll through the library. No one at Ohio State suggested to him that big-time football and a premed curriculum were incompatible.

Even as he put together a storybook freshman season, Smith bemoaned the 40 hours a week that football required. Smith's displeasure was compounded in the off-season when Uzelac decided to bring him down a peg. Critics of Cooper's hands-off managerial philosophy—"I coach coaches," he says—point out that the first inkling Cooper had that Smith was unhappy came when he quit.

On Aug. 24, Smith addressed his teammates for 15 minutes, outlining his reasons for leaving the team. Virtually all of the players received his message more graciously than did Cooper, who told Smith, upon the conclusion of his speech, "Get out." Some players suggested that if football weren't their meal ticket, they would have said something too. "The difference is," said one player, "Robert's got being a doctor to fall back on."

Most would probably respond as fullback Scottie Graham did. "I don't agree with everything he said," said Graham, also a dedicated student. "I've never had a coach ask me to miss a class, and I'm glad camp is tough—that's what we need. I'll tell you this, though: Something was bothering Robert awful bad for him to do what he did. He is not a liar. He is a man. I respect him to the utmost."

PHOTOAL TIELEMANSSmith, who broke the Buckeye freshman rushing record, is determined to become a doctor.
PHOTODAVID WALBERG[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN BIEVERSmith could play in the NFL even without playing Michigan again. TWO PHOTOSDAVID WALBERGFeeling the heat from Gee (left) and the Buckeye faithful, Cooper (top) brought in taskmaster Uzelac to help whip the troops into shape. PHOTODOUG PENSINGER/ALLSPORT USA[See caption above.]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)