Call it Keygate at the SeaGate.
The town-vs-gown football controversy we didn’t know we needed.
The key to the city sits on a table before being presented to Michigan's Jim Harbaugh.
Remember back to last week when Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz presented Toledo-born Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh with a key to the city at the downtown convention center?
Turns out, it did not go over so hot.
Not with Ohio State fans, who cheekily wondered why their more successful coach, Urban Meyer, remained locked out of his birth city. And not at the University of Toledo, where it did not go unnoticed that similar recognition eluded coach Jason Candle and his reigning Mid-American Conference champions.
At least one university trustee sent the mayor a scolding letter while Toledo President Sharon Gaber may or may not have ended her subscription to the mayor’s city newsletter because of it. Kapszukiewicz said Gaber unsubscribed to the weekly online offering on Monday, although a city spokesman later said it was not clear when she canceled.
“Because the mayor’s newsletter was being sent to several presidential accounts, it was consolidated some time ago to be sent to one email address,” a school spokesman said in an email. “President Gaber receives and reads the newsletter. ... The University has a great relationship with the City of Toledo.”
In any case ...
“Surprised. Frustrated. I think those are the key terms,” Toledo athletic director Mike O’Brien said of the response from the university community. “There are other words that I can’t tell you.”
Mayor, meet minefield.
With one simple goodwill gesture, Kapszukiewicz found himself caught in the crosshairs of two time-honored forces: the fault lines of our sharply contested football city and UT’s fight for respect within it.
My take: Where’s the eyeroll emoji?
But if this must be a story — and why not!? — I get both sides.
First, context is important here.
Kapszukiewicz did not give Harbaugh the ceremonial key to fete him for his big wins. We know this because that would require big wins to fete. And, well, the Michigan-schooled mayor is not sure how to say this, but ...
“I am among the world’s biggest Buckeyes fans,” he confided.
“One of my warmest memories in recent years was watching the University of Toledo beat Michigan [in 2008],” said Kapszukiewicz, a Marquette grad who earned a master’s in public policy from Michigan in 1996. “I spent that day, as I do every Saturday, rooting against the University of Michigan football team.”
The mayor said the private key presentation had “nothing to do with athletic achievement.” Instead, it was to recognize a public figure with local ties using his stature for good. Harbaugh was at the SeaGate Centre as the keynote speaker for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality and Legal Aid of Western Ohio’s Access to Justice Awards Dinner, which, because of his appearance, raised more than $100,000.
“If you have someone who comes in and raises over $100,000 to help poor people gain access to the justice system,” Kapszukiewicz said, “and if that person happens to be born in Toledo, as difficult as it was for me as an Ohio State and Toledo fan to do so, the job as a mayor is to recognize people who make those sort of contributions.”
Kapszukiewicz anticipated receiving grief from Ohio State fans. But from the ivory towers on Bancroft? “If they really are upset,” he said, “that does surprise me.”
For one, he did not become mayor until a month after the Rockets won their football title. For another, he has been in talks with university leaders about ways to promote the hometown school. He plans to award a ceremonial key to former Rockets star Kareem Hunt — who as a rookie for the Kansas City Chiefs won the NFL rushing title — while his ideas for the fall include flying UT flags in the city parks on football gamedays.
“If there is something to take from all this,” Kapszukiewicz said, “it’s that I love the passion of sports fans.”
Also: UT can be very — how to put this — sensitive.
Look, I understand it.
Toledo can’t play the no-respect card. The Rockets led the MAC in football attendance last year, and between The Blade and the local TV stations, their athletics programs lead the league in media coverage, too.
But regardless of the context, if I was, say, a UT trustee, and saw Harbaugh in Toledo posing with a key to the city and singing “Ay Ziggy Zoomba” — the unofficial fight song of rival Bowling Green — I’m sure I’d be less than thrilled.
We live in an unmatched borderland, where, in the shadows of two Big Ten behemoths, Toledo can feel like a stranger in its backyard. Ohio State and Michigan threaten every fall to swallow the area whole. Look at which schools dominate the scarlet and blue front displays at the department stores. Or the local TV ratings. Or the fan surveys. A few years ago, the New York Times commissioned a ZIP-code-by-ZIP-code audit — based on Facebook likes of favorite teams — of how the nation roots for college football.
One local neighborhood reported: 51 percent Ohio State, 18 percent Michigan, 11 percent Toledo.
Which seemed about right. Until you looked more closely. Zip code: 43606. The address for UT.
Now, those numbers are not scientific, and keep in mind most area fans root for a Big Ten team and a MAC team. Toledo holds its own here.
But it is through the lens of this turf battle that Keygate must be viewed. There is a fight-or-flight instinct at UT to protect its share of land, which, depending on your allegiance, you either appreciate or see as an inferiority complex run wild.
In an email to the mayor obtained through a public records request, Joseph H. Zerbey IV, a trustee and former president and general manager of The Blade, called honoring the Michigan coach “a confusing gesture that embarrassed many people.”
“Too many times [UT’s] value and prominence are ignored or glossed over by leaders such as you,” he wrote. “The city of Toledo should bleed blue and gold for its university. ... UT’s coaches and staff, board, and administration are upset by the perceived snub to your city’s university. You need to be a cheerleader for UT at every instance.”
O’Brien, meanwhile, said he knows Kapszukiewicz meant no disrespect and looks forward to continuing to work with the mayor. Nor does he have an issue with Harbaugh. “He came here to promote a very worthwhile cause,” he said.
From atop this molehill-turned-mountain, O’Brien just wants to remind — OK, shout — Toledo has much to celebrate, too.
“In my position, you would expect me to be fiercely loyal to our school, our teams, our city,” he said. “I think, if anything, it’s kind of the timing of this. If we’d won four football games last year, you’re not writing a column because nobody would care. Everyone knows we won the championship for the first time since 2004, Jason was coach of the year, we won 11 games, and that was a heck of a season. Then you get into the university being a $3.3 billion asset to our community. A third of our grads stay local.
READ MORE: The mayor’s response to Zerbey
“I think it’s important that we stand up for the Rockets.”
The football team’s marketing slogan for the fall: “This is Toledo.”
All they need now is a big glass key to unlock it.
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