COLUMBUS, Ohio — The president of Ohio State University on Wednesday lamented that publicity over a football scandal overshadowed the university's many accomplishments last year, then drew more unwelcome attention when he compared the job of coordinating several university divisions to "the Polish army."
In a speech at a downtown athletic club, Gordon Gee called the scandal's disproportional weight "a monumental shame."
"To subordinate the ingenuity of so many to the impropriety of a few seems to me an unjust proposition," Gee said. "In truth, a series of unfortunate events in our athletics program has masked a remarkable year at Ohio State."
The NCAA said last month that the Ohio State football team and new coach Urban Meyer will be banned from a bowl game after next season. The university also forfeited its 2010 season, including a Sugar Bowl win. The punishment followed a scandal in which players sold football memorabilia or traded them for tattoos.
Gee rattled off the university's top accomplishments, including a first-year retention rate for all students of 93 percent and retention rates for black and Hispanic students exceeding national averages for both public and private institutions.
A few minutes later, in a question-and-answer session, Gee referred to the problem of coordinating 18 divisions such as independent schools and colleges.
"When we had these 18 colleges all kind of floating around, they were kind of like PT Boats, they were shooting each other," Gee said. "It was kind of like the Polish army or something. I have no idea what it was."
As nervous laughter arose in the audience of a couple hundred listeners at a Columbus Metropolitan Club monthly forum, Gee said, "Oh, never mind, who did I embarrass now?" A moment later he said: "I'll have to raise money for Poland now."
Gee did not apologize afterward, and stumbled a bit in responding to questions about the propriety of the remark.
"Now if you're going to say I was saying something bad about Poland, I'm not," he said. "I could have used some other term, I guess, then."
Gee, 67, is one of the most successful university presidents in the country and has led five major public and private institutions over the past 30 years, including two stints at Ohio State as well as the head job at Brown, Vanderbilt and the universities of Colorado and West Virginia.
But he has a history of verbal gaffes, such as last March's comment, as the Ohio State memorabilia scandal deepened, that he had not considered dismissing football coach Jim Tressel.
"No, are you kidding?" Gee said at a news conference. "Let me be very clear. I'm just hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me."
In 1992, Gee called then-Gov. George Voinovich "a damn dummy" over higher education funding. Gee also raised eyebrows in the football crazy town when he called the 13-13 tie after the 1992 Ohio State-Michigan football game "one of our greatest wins ever."
Les Wexner, chairman of the Ohio Board of Trustees, was not immediately available for comment, spokeswoman Tammy Myers said.