A scandal hurts recruiting, and the reputation, of a program hoping to rise
In late January, the University of Central Florida Golden Knights football team finally found itself where it aspires to be: in the national media spotlight.
Yet to the chagrin of Golden Knights boosters, that spotlight focused not on the team's heroic efforts against big-time foes, but on criminal charges involving Coach Gene McDowell and more than a dozen players who ran up cell-phone charges illegally.
While awaiting completion of the criminal investigation, UCF officials have frozen their own review to determine whether the players violated the university's Code of Conduct. "Any student athletes that are implicated will face our own judicial process," says administration spokesman Dean McFall. "We can't have a renegade, wrong-headed athletic program."
So far, the federal case has ensnared McDowell; a former Seminole County Deputy Sheriff, David L. Smith; Patrick Brinson, a former UCF player; and Nikisha Bronson, a former AT&T Wireless customer service representative and the daughter of Orange Circuit Judge Theotis Brown. And Richard Jancha, of the U.S. Attorneys Office in Orlando, says there could be more.
Last fall was to have been UCF's breakout season. The team had publicly vowed to earn its first bowl bid in 1998. Rather than witness the kind of scandal that regularly humbles big-time college-football programs [see "Spend Zone," Sept. 12, 1996], local boosters looked ahead to a program that finally would generate the excitement and publicity associated with competition in Division 1-A, to which UCF finally had ascended. In fact, dismissing the cell-phone scandal as a mere "black eye," and serving up evidence of the community's high hopes, Orlando magazine last month named the UCF team as its Orlandoan of the Year for 1997.
But in late January, ending his 13-year stint as the Golden Knight's head coach, McDowell resigned after being charged with lying to federal investigators and a federal grand jury. Next week, the coach is scheduled to plead guilty in federal court as part of a plea bargain in the case that mushroomed after the coach -- tipped off by the deputy -- advised his team's captain to warn players that the feds were investigating the illegal use of cell phones provided by Brinson.
McDowell is not expected to be sentenced for another two months, dragging out UCF's public-relations headache. Already it has undercut recruiting efforts. Only 10 of 19 football scholarships offered by the university have been accepted by incoming players, and new Coach Mike Kruczek has confirmed that competing colleges used the controversy to sway hot prospects that had been considering Orlando's lone four-year state university.
Asked how UCF planned to counter the continuing adversity, McFall says, "You try to get a bad situation behind you as quickly as possible, get in new folks and get on with your lives." This will be difficult as the investigation continues.
On Monday, Smith -- a father of current and former UCF players -- pleaded guilty to lying to Secret Service investigators about his knowledge of the investigation, which he shared with McDowell. Following a pre-sentence investigation, Smith will be sentenced in about two months. On March 12, Brinson, is to be sentenced on one count of defrauding AT&T Wireless of more than $30,000 by arranging free service on about 30 cell phones. And Bronson, the judge's daughter and an AT&T Wireless customer-service representative at the time, is to be sentenced in late April for helping Brinson.
U.S. Attorney Jancha would not comment on the status of cases against other players, including some of the team's top offensive threats.
The episode began last fall, when -- according to a court affidavit -- federal investigators and AT&T officials tapped into a cell phone call made illegally using an access number obtained from the company's computer systems. Placing the call was Brinson, a 5-foot-11-inch, 196-pound player who caught four passes for 52 yards last season before leaving the team after a knee injury. A former AT&T technical support worker, Brinson was able to activate the codes while bypassing the billing department. During subsequent phone taps, investigators listened as Brinson helped someone set up free cell-phone service, and as he later walked Bronson, the AT&T representative, through the process.
The probe reached UCF after investigators determined that seven of the 36 fraudulent numbers were used in Lincoln, Neb., on Sept. 12 and 13, the same weekend that the football team battled valiantly against the nationally ranked Cornhuskers -- ending the first half trailing just 17-14 -- before succumbing 38-24. Investigators determined that 12 players had used the phones to call their home numbers.
On Oct. 11, players were photographed by agents of the Secret Service (the federal agency charged with investigating fraud cases involving the use of access devices) with cell phones outside the locker room at the Citrus Bowl. On Oct. 21, the agents deduced from watching the players prepare for practice on the UCF campus how best to search for the phones and related documents. And on Oct. 29, while the team practiced, the locker room was searched by federal agents.
Meanwhile, according to court documents, McDowell was learning of the investigation from Smith, warning his team and lying to federal authorities. The tip-off in itself was not a federal crime; according to those court documents, McDowell crossed the line when he told investigators that he learned of the investigation from a woman in a parking lot. Later he lied to a federal grand jury, documents show, when he denied knowing how the players had learned of the investigation.
In hopes of resuming its lofty trajectory, UCF moved quickly to emphasize its dark view of the scandal. "Actions speak louder than words," McFall says. "Gene's gone. He's gone for a reason." Also, Athletic Director Steve Sloan and coach Kruczek have been instructed to instill in their athletes a set of values that will protect them from scandalous behavior. In this way, UCF administrators hope to prevent the team from again falling victim to temptations that are readily available to those in the business of promoting a successful Division 1-A football program.
"That's always a possibility," McFall says. "You have to protect against it by seeing that those who violate the rules and cut corners inappropriately suffer consequences."
Clearly the administration hopes McDowell's departure will return the program to the business of winning games and positive national publicity.
"We look at this as a human tragedy. We don't think it's a systemic problem," McFall says. With so much invested, the community has little choice but to agree -- and keep its fingers crossed.