A stunning fall from grace

Published July 27, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - The rest room is located in a square building that sits beneath two trees in the shadow of a flag pole off South Broad Street. Inside are two urinals and two wooden stalls. Worn cocoons hang from the corners of the ceiling and the walls.

For sure, it is a humble place. And if the police report is to be believed, it most certainly bore witness to the end of Antonio "Tony" Vasquez's coaching career.

Yet two days after the newly-hired Hernando boys basketball coach allegedly propositioned and exposed himself to an undercover police officer, leading to his arrest and resignation, not everyone is ready to condemn him to the seventh layer of hell.

"I consider Antonio a friend," said Leopards baseball coach Donnie Whitehead, also a Hernando graduate. "This doesn't change that."

"Sex" and "teacher" and "scandal" are fun buzz words, particularly in this 24-hour-a-day world. The reaction is always a visceral one, fueled largely by an incessant barrage of stories pairing educators and their pupils in less-than-honorable situations.

But every situation is different, and before making any judgments, we must carefully consider each.

The alleged interaction involving Vasquez - police say he casually propositioned an undercover male officer in a park bath room, then exposed himself - occurred with another adult, off school grounds, in a setting that, at the least, had the reputation for consensual sexual encounters. The charge is a misdemeanor. Vasquez's lawyer, Larry Moriarti, says he will meet with the state attorney's office next week. Moriarti won't comment further, but you can bet the word "entrapment" and its derivatives will be used.

Those are the facts.

And it's upon those facts judgments must be made.

If the allegations are true, Vasquez made an egregiously poor decision and conducted himself in a manner wholly unbecoming of a person whose job is to help mold young boys into men.

All teachers and coaches have morality clauses in their contracts. And regardless of the legal ramifications of the incident, exposing oneself in a park rest room appears to violate that clause.

"Anyone that deals with kids, there is a morality issue," said Brent Gaustad, an assistant principal at Springstead who was the athletic director at Hernando when the Leopards hired Vasquez in May.

Still, when Gaustad hired Vasquez, he was convinced they were hiring a moral person.

"I've known him for years, and he was always very professional - you can talk to the referees - he was very hard working," Gaustad said. "Everybody will tell you that he did a great job for him. He's a Hernando guy who is still up on the board as one of the best players in the history of Hernando High."

Vasquez has run into controversy before. His six-year tenure as head girls basketball coach at Pasco High came to an end in 2006 after two incidents in which he cursed at another school employee. His personnel file with the Pasco County School District paints the picture of a man in dire need of anger management classes, which, he told the Times in May, he had taken.

Gaustad insisted at the time the incidents at Pasco were isolated, and he continues to believe the Vasquez's past had no bearing on this current allegation.

"It's neither here nor there," Gaustad said. "It has nothing to do with it."

On Wednesday morning, immediately after Vasquez's resignation, I spoke with a Hernando player who likely will enter the upcoming basketball season as a starter. He said Vasquez had instilled new life into the program, that there was no evidence he was wrestling with any demons that might lead him to the alleged events of Tuesday afternoon.

"That's the shame of it," Whitehead said.

In the early 1970s, Ernie Chatman coached the boys basketball team at Brooksville Junior High now Parrott Middle School, that went undefeated two straight seasons. On the squad was a young guard who finished his high school career as Hernando's all-time leading scorer.

His name?

Antonio Vasquez.

"I'm shocked," Chatman said.

Regardless of the facts, and judgments, and eventual legal process, that seems to be one thing on which all can agree.

David Murphy can be reached at dmurphy@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1407.