The judge who sentenced the former UCF football coach discovers conduct doesn't count amongst the tailgaters
Last week U.S. District Judge Anne Conway sentenced former University of Central Florida football coach Gene McDowell for his string of lies to federal agents, prosecutors and a grand jury about the cell-phone scandal within the UCF football team.
Many will regard McDowell's two years' probation and $2,000 fine as just another example of a rising football program and its coach going wrong in search of the cash and glory in big-time intercollegiate athletics.
In the courtroom on Thursday, the prosecutor and the federal judge suggested otherwise. Both argued that there were too many people around Central Florida and around the world of college athletics who didn't seem to understand what happened in this case. Too many think that McDowell had done nothing wrong, and that now somehow he is a victim. That McDowell was simply trying to protect his players and his university.
These views, appearing in the local media and in letters to the court, prompted Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Collazo to point out that McDowell not only lied, but he repeatedly lied, and then after admitting he lied, he went before a grand jury and lied again. If that wasn't enough, McDowell then ordered his players to lie in order to save his job and keep himself out of jail. For a coach with enormous influence over his players to ask them to perjure themselves seemed to Collazo to be the ultimate crime committed in this case.
After pointing out to McDowell that the court was going easy on him, that it could have increased both the charges and the penalties, Judge Conway said she was troubled by some of the letters submitted on his behalf. One of these came from Florida State head coach and state icon Bobby Bowden, who offered McDowell his help and wrote, "You didn't do any more than what a lot of us coaches would have done under the circumstances."
The next day Bowden issued a statement that he did not endorse breaking the law, and that the letter was sent before he knew details of the charges or of McDowell's guilt.
That might have been the end of it but for the fact that Judge Conway is a graduate of the University of Florida. Football fans, being who they are, jumped all over Conway, assuming that she was more of a Gator than a judge. She was accused of intentionally smearing Bowden and FSU, and of being harsh on McDowell because he was the coach of a potential Gator rival.
The unfortunate reality is that the atmosphere around intercollegiate sports is so poisoned that all human actions, and especially any negative action toward a coach, is interpreted only in terms of the booster mentality. The fact that McDowell had violated federal law and then repeatedly lied about it somehow got lost in the public reaction that reduced it all to the level of football rivalry.
That the judge might have a reaction based on respect for the law and ethical human behavior seemed, in the minds of the boosters, to be beyond credulity. This is a sickness that runs deep in the corrupt world of intercollegiate athletics, and it is a mentality that stifles all hope for genuine reform of the system.
But there is another sickness in evidence, for the case also illustrates the tendency for the coaching fraternity to stick together under adversity and shill for one another. Billy Packer on CBS or Lee Corso and Dick Vitale on ESPN are masters of this form of apologetics. They routinely excuse coaches for the behavior of their players, dismiss as insignificant any number of NCAA transgressions, and find coaches' on-court boorishness and childish behavior or aggressiveness toward players, press and fans to be completely acceptable.
The accountability of coaches is nearly nonexistent except in the win-loss column. Within just the past two weeks, UCLA was placed on three years' probation for violations in its basketball program. The person deemed responsible for the violations, Jim Herrick, was fired more than a year ago. At the time, UCLA was criticized heavily by the shills. Herrick since has gone on to become head coach at Rhode Island, over the objections of the faculty there.
Herrick took his team to the NCAA tournament this year and was praised by those at CBS and ESPN. The network analysts said that UCLA obviously had made a major mistake. Indeed, on the very day that UCLA's penalties were announced, a story ran that Herrick was considering several potential jobs in the NBA. Herrick reaps the rewards and UCLA the penalties.
Both Herrick and McDowell lost their jobs, and therefore did not totally escape punishment. But Herrick is back working and enjoying great success. And with the court's help, McDowell's rehabilitation already may have begun.
What Judge Conway didn't seem to understand was that she was operating not in a court of law, but out there amongst the tailgaters, where it isn't the nature of your conduct that counts but the school colors you wear.
Richard C. Crepeau is a history professor at the University of Central Florida who comments on sports for the Sport Literature Association and who formerly could be heard on WUCF-FM.