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Archive for Saturday, June 25, 2011

UCF coach O’Leary’s legacy on line

June 25, 2011

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University of Central Florida football coach George O’Leary finally testified in the wrongful-death case involving one of his former players, Ereck Plancher.

He kept his composure during all of the lengthy and legal yada-yada that went on Thursday afternoon. He has not been charged with any crime. The UCF Athletics Association is the defendant. But he is the face of UCF.

It is his legacy that’s in question. His reputation. His future.

Is he a good football coach? Is he a compassionate man? Can the two coexist without butting heads?

That seems to be the bigger picture in this case. Perhaps the culture of college football should be on trial.

This isn’t just about two grieving parents filing a lawsuit against the UCF Athletics Association. It’s about Florida, Florida State, Miami, Alabama, USC, Ohio State and every other program in the country.

It’s about the obsession with these Neanderthal “mat drills.” On the surface, strenuous agility drills would seem to serve a using training purpose. But in reality, “puke drills” — if you will — serve no meaningful purpose, other than a coach imposing his will on a player.

You don’t see much of this in the NFL. They’ve invested millions in players, and it would be foolish to try to break them down during practice. You don’t see much of this in high schools, because coaches are dealing with younger kids and there is a greater sensitivity.

But colleges are a different story because trainers don’t have a strong voice on practice principles. All the power belongs to the coaching staff.

Plancher died during an offseason conditioning workout on March 18, 2008. Some former players labeled the workout one of the “toughest” they’ve experienced. O’Leary said it was “non-taxing.”

Label it whatever you want.

“Of course I care about the student-athlete,” O’Leary testified at one point.

I truly believe he does. But the culture of college football is so demanding that common sense and compassion can sometimes get mucked up in the macho-man syndrome. O’Leary probably didn’t do anything out of the norm of what goes on other college campuses.

And that’s the problem.

Here’s a fact that isn’t in dispute: Ereck Plancher never was pulled out of any activity on the day he died. The fact that he had sickle-cell trait upped the need for intervention. Whether UCF officials followed proper protocol will be decided by a jury.

All the annoying, frivolous gamesmanship by the attorneys in Room 12D of the Orange County Courthouse never will bring Plancher back from the grave. But there is still a chance his legacy will resonate throughout college football if it takes notice as the wrongful-death case plods along.

Regardless of the verdict, this isn’t a “case-closed” deal.

“Not guilty” certainly absolves the university and O’Leary, but there is no such closure for Ereck’s parents. They buried a son. Their grief has no expiration date.

“Guilty” leaves the university in a quandary. It is not as simple as cutting a check to the family. UCF President John Hitt either can draw a deep breath and stick with O’Leary, or decide that he is too much of a liability to keep around.

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