Washington — Gordon Gee, who has arguably survived as many controversies as any college president, had a few words of advice on Sunday for Mark Emmert, the embattled NCAA leader.
“Stay the course,” the Ohio State University president urged his former colleague, who has faced criticism in recent weeks over ethical lapses by the NCAA’s enforcement staff and broader concerns about his management style.
“It’s a very fragile time right now for college athletics,” Mr. Gee said. “Mark is reaping the reward of being very aggressive, and also the whirlwind of being very aggressive.”
Mr. Gee was one of more than 50 college leaders to attend a presidential summit organized by Mr. Emmert in August 2011, where the NCAA chief was urged to take big swings at problems in the game.
“There was a real push to do something quickly,” Mr. Gee said. “But the net result was that we got ahead of our headlights. … We should have listened to the consumer a bit more—the coaches and the athletic directors.”
In his more than two years on the job, Mr. Emmert has advocated a number of controversial changes, most recently a plan to shrink the NCAA rule book and allow institutions greater autonomy over recruiting and other areas traditionally regulated by the national office.
Athletics leaders have chafed at the enforcement missteps and parts of Mr. Emmert’s agenda, renewing speculation that wealthy athletics departments might break off and form their own association.
“I don’t think that is the desire of anyone,” Mr. Gee said on Sunday. “But this is uncharted territory. There is a lot of discomfort about the model.”
The next five years will be critical for intercollegiate athletics, Mr. Gee said: “We have to either develop a different model, or we’re going to have to think differently about the way the governance structure can work.”
Over the next 18 months, Mr. Gee predicted, “I think we will see a resetting, but not a moving away from deregulation.
“The notion of the fault line between coaches and athletic directors and presidents—that gap is going to close. I think you’re going to see more partnerships than adversarial relationships.”
Mr. Gee was in town to accept an award from the American Council on Education for his work as a mentor for prospective future college leaders. Years ago he served as a mentor to Mr. Emmert, who was associate vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of Colorado in the late 1980s while Mr. Gee was president there.