Former Ohio State University wrestling coach Russ Hellickson on Wednesday staunchly defended Rep. Jim Jordan, his former assistant coach, who critics say ignored alleged sexual abuse by Dr. Richard Strauss, the team doctor who killed himself in 2005.
“People are hurt. But based on the story that’s coming out about Doc Strauss, they have every right to be. How it’s impacting their relationship with Jim Jordan is personal and emotional, and I can understand it in a way,” he said in a phone interview with CNN, adding that he’s “disheartened” at how the controversy is playing out in national media.
“Athletes who I cherished and a coach who I respect to the highest possible level are being torn apart by semantics. Jim Jordan gave his heart and soul to the athletes … this is being driven by hysteria and politics,” the former coach said.
Hellickson, who arrived at Ohio State in 1986, said he talked to the doctor – whose alleged actions are the subject of a university investigation involving 14 teams – about physical contact with the wrestlers. He described the interaction as a discussion, and denied recent media reports labeling it as a confrontation.
Hellickson said he told Strauss that his wrestlers were uncomfortable showering with the doctor. When Strauss pointed out that Hellickson also showered with the athletes, Hellickson told him, “not for an hour, doc” and to “speed it up.”
Despite his own concerns about Strauss, Hellickson maintained Jordan may not have known about the alleged abuse that several former wrestlers described to CNN.
“We never talked about it, I never brought it up. Maybe Jim never saw it,” he said.
Hellickson said he recently met with Perkins Coie, the investigative law firm appointed by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. “They got everything as graphically as I could tell them,” he said.
Jordan, now a Republican congressman from Ohio, has denied any knowledge of inappropriate behavior during his time as an assistant wrestling coach between 1987 and 1995.
Hellickson said he recently spoke to another person from the same period about this situation.
“So I don’t know what Jimmy – maybe the guy is so focused. We never talked about it, I never brought it up,” the former coach said. I never sat in a coaches meeting and said ‘what are we going to do about Larkins Hall’ (the physical education building where the wrestlers practiced and showered).
“Maybe Jim never saw it. Another assistant can’t recall a situation, so it’s everybody’s perception,” Hellickson said. “I sure dealt with it every day but I can’t get into their minds. I can’t speak for someone else. In Jimmy’s mind, maybe he didn’t see it. He was the most disciplined man I’ve ever known.”
Former OSU wrestler Mike DiSabato said he was groped by Strauss dozens of times and that Jordan knew about the allegations of sexual abuse by the doctor.
“Again, I don’t – I don’t think Jim and/or a lot of folks, coaches, administrators, really understood that, you know, touching a man’s genitals without the need to do so is the definition – is a definition of sexual abuse and sexual assault. Again, in the mid-’80s, that – that term wasn’t necessarily used,” DiSabato told CNN. “However, to now say – to now know that the word does apply to what was happening to us at the time is just – is – is – is just – it’s surprising to me given the fact that Jim has – this isn’t the Jim Jordan I know.”
DiSabato sent a letter to Ohio State last month requesting a meeting with university representatives to discuss a negotiated settlement with alleged victims. In the letter, DiSabato said he and others are looking for closure.
The Ohio State University confirmed it received the letter June 26 and said it has no further comment.
Jordan, who is in the midst of a re-election campaign, is not mentioned in the letter.
Hellickson said he struggles to understand public frustration with Jordan’s recent denials.
“Considering the love and admiration and respect they had for him at the time, no. If these are the guys who feel they’ve been violated, then maybe I understand,” Hellickson added.
“This thing is agonizing because I care about all these guys.”
Hellickson coached at Ohio State from the 1987 season to 2006.
Two former wrestlers told CNN they don’t think Jordan knew about Strauss and they also defended the former coach’s character.
“Knowing that that happened, I just don’t see him not doing anything if he knew,” said George Pardos, an OSU wrestler from 1988 to 1993.