Orange-faced: Second coaching legend may be undone

Eric McErlain Sports Blogger
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How many more nauseating sports stories can November 2011 produce?

The start of the month saw Penn State University shaken to the core after criminal charges of sexual molestation were filed against Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator of the school’s football team and long-time lieutenant of coaching legend Joe Paterno. By the time the whirlwind had passed through Happy Valley, Paterno had been fired and a good chunk of the school’s senior leadership, including university president Graham Spanier, had been shown the door.

Now the focus has shifted from rural Pennsylvania to upstate New York, where Syracuse University is now enduring a nightmare that threatens the very existence of another storied college athletic program. It was on November 17 that former ballboy Bobby Davis accused long-time assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine of sexually assaulting him.

At the time, Syracuse head basketball coach Jim Boeheim vigorously defended his long-time assistant coach:

The Penn State thing came out and the kid behind this is trying to get money. He’s tried before. And now he’s trying again. If he gets this, he’s going to sue the university and Bernie. What do you think is going to happen at Penn State? You know how much money is going to be involved in civil suits? I’d say about $50 million. That’s what this is about. Money.

Boeheim stood fast behind his old friend, but was forced into an embarrassing mea culpa over the weekend when ESPN aired an audio tape of a conversation between Davis and Fine’s wife, Lauriea tape that ESPN had in its possession for almost a decade. In that conversation, which Davis recorded, Laurie Fine admitted to knowing that her husband had molested Davis while also revealing that she had sex with the former ballboy once he turned 18.

That was too much for Syracuse. Fine, who had previously been placed on administrative leave, was fired by the school yesterday. As for Boeheim, the school issued the following statement under his name along with the news of Fine’s dismissal:

The allegations that have come forth today are disturbing and deeply troubling. I am personally very shocked because I have never witnessed any of the activities that have been alleged. I believe the university took the appropriate step tonight. What is most important is that this matter be fully investigated and that anyone with information be supported to come forward so that the truth can be found. I deeply regret any statements I made that might have inhibited that from occurring or been insensitive to victims of abuse.

So what comes next? While the statute of limitations on criminal charges against Fine in New York State has expired, it’s clear that Davis — more than likely along with his stepbrother Mike Lang, who has also accused Fine of sexual assault — could take the school to court seeking damages that could run into the tens of millions of dollars.

As for Boeheim, he’s in for the toughest season of his career. While Paterno will likely ride out his life far from any critics in rural Pennsylvania, Boeheim is still the coach of Syracuse’s basketball team, and he’ll still have to sit on the sideline well within earshot of fans unafraid to take him to task for the alleged sins of his former assistant. At a minimum, he’s in for years of media scrutiny along with unknown amounts of legal wrangling. One wonders whether the powers that be in Syracuse, like those at Penn State before them, might decide that clearing the decks is necessary in order for the institution to survive.

Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.