COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee told the institution's largest graduating class that a scandal in its celebrated football program is "but a temporary condition."
As Gee opened commencement festivities Sunday for a record 9,700 graduates and about 40,000 family and friends inside Ohio Stadium, he made a veiled reference to the controversy.
"Let me acknowledge on this day of celebration, in this cathedral of triumph and hope, that many Buckeye hearts are heavy," Gee said. "On rare occasion, this great grand building has been home to disappointment and tumult. That is but a temporary condition."
Commencement speaker John Boehner, the speaker of the U.S. House, did not mention the issue.
The university is grappling with the departure of football coach Jim Tressel and star quarterback Terrelle Pryor amid an NCAA investigation into players' trading of signed equipment, championship rings and other memorabilia to a tattoo-parlor owner for cash and discounted tattoos.
Gee assured tens of thousands of alumni and supporters of the university, as well as its new graduates, that things will improve. Evoking the memories of great Ohio State athletes of the past, including football's Archie Griffin and track Olympian Jesse Owens, he said: "Let no one harbor any doubt that the history of this place is enduring and sustaining. Ohio Stadium stands today as it will ever more."
The crowd roared and tooted horns.
Tressel's 10-year Ohio State coaching career ended in disgrace in May when he stepped down for breaking NCAA rules.
He knew players received cash and tattoos for autographs, championship rings and equipment and did not tell anyone at Ohio State or the NCAA for more than nine months. NCAA rules — and Tressel's contract — specify that he must disclose any and all information about possible violations.
Pryor announced Tuesday he would give up his senior season with the Buckeyes in the midst of the probe, which had already led to a five-game suspension for him.
Fans and alumni have criticized Gee's handling of the scandal since the memorabilia sales first came to light in December. His office received emails questioning the decision to suspend five players, including Pryor, for five games but allow them to play in the Sugar Bowl.
At a March 8 news conference, Gee was asked whether he'd considered firing Tressel. He responded: "No, are you kidding? Let me just be very clear: I'm just hopeful the coach doesn't dismiss me."
Gee was joined on the stage Sunday by the university's board of trustees, which has ultimate hiring and firing power over him and athletics director Gene Smith.
He appeared chipper as the university celebrated its biggest academic moment of the year, posing for photographs and shaking students' hands.
(This version CORRECTS spelling to Jesse Owens, not Jessie.)