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Euphemize, but realize, Griffin is gone

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001

He resigned, they said.

Resigned. It is a quick word, a kind word. When you couple it with 15 years of service and 54 years of age, it conjures up friendly little images of gold watches and fishing trips and going-away parties where old friends raise a glass and tell a story. It is a conscious choice leading to a warm goodbye from appreciative bosses who recognize a completed journey.

And if you believe any of that had anything to do with the way athletic director Paul Griffin's career at the University of South Florida concluded Friday, then you are full of the school's mascot.

Which is, of course, bull.

The truth is harsher. Under pressure from a discrimination scandal he allowed to turn into quicksand, Griffin agreed to get out of the way.

Call it what you will. Say he left. Say he was forced out. Say he moved on to other opportunities in other fields. Pick your semantics and sweeten them however you wish. Or say he was canned.

It all means the same. King Paul is gone. The university asked him for his resignation, and he gave it. And those who criticized Griffin, and those who defended him, can agree upon this. In the final days, a man who loved USF could only help the university by walking away from it.

In the end, Griffin had to go. If he had not jumped, sooner or later, the pushing would have begun. That's how badly Griffin had botched the investigation of charges of racism against the women's basketball program.

This was the only way for a university with a tarnished image to attain closure. When Griffin dealt inadequately with the problems of the athletic department, eventually, he came to personify those problems. Each day those problems continued, it became more and more evident, to prospective students and prospective donors, that it was going to take someone else to lead the Bulls out of the sludge.

"USF must have confidence that its athletic department leadership nurtures a strong environment for diversity," Judy Genshaft, USF president, said. "The university must have confidence that this leadership can take us beyond this controversy."

The implication is clear. Genshaft did not have confidence that Griffin was the right man in either case. Instead, the school will start a nationwide search (the guess here is it begins, and perhaps concludes, at Lee Roy Selmon's house). As for Griffin, he gets several more days to clear out his desk, and two years' worth of salary.

Griffin wasn't even in the room when it was announced, in a hasty news conference, he had abdicated. All that remained was a terse, 30-word resignation that was included in a media packet, and the question to Genshaft of what had taken her so long.

If there is a lesson, it is the way problems can fester when they are ignored and covered up. All Griffin had to do was take seriously the charges of racism against ex-coach Jerry Ann Winters. All he had to do was pass them along to the Office of Equal Opportunity Affairs. All he had to do was lead, the basic charge of an athletic director.

Why didn't he? Did Griffin really believe if he ignored the problems long enough, they would go away? Was he that determined to protect Winters, an unsuccessful coach? Did he resent the presence of an outside agency determining the future of one of the coaches in his fiefdom? Or did he never grasp the seriousness of a group of players charging that their coach treated them differently because of the color of their skin? And what athletic director wouldn't consider racism a serious charge?

This was Griffin's undoing. He would not pass the charges along to places where they carried weight, and they did not carry sufficient weight with him. Ask yourself: If an independent study engaged through the school quickly found "probable cause" of problems, why didn't Griffin?

Throughout the past few months, more and more players made charges, and more and more allegations arose suggesting Griffin had covered up the investigation and mishandled his responsibilities. Instead of softening his stance, Griffin came across as arrogant, defiant, combative, unyielding. And it led to this "resignation."

Resignation? Oh, come on. This is no time to mislead anyone about what really happened. Griffin admits this wasn't exactly his idea. In any meaning of the word, this comes across as a firing. Take the two years of pay the university says Griffin will receive. According to his contract, he gets that if he is "terminated." To say Griffin resigned is like saying Jack Woltz agreed to cast Johnny Fontaine in his movie in The Godfather. Both agreements had a significant "or else" implied. Griffin had all the choices of a man who steps out of an airplane. All he could do was take the fall.

To many, Griffin will be remembered for the final chapter of his career. But to a man in the back of the room at the news conference, a man with a crack in his voice and water in his eye, there is a different picture.

"As a teacher and a coach, this is the hardest thing I've ever done," said Bobby Paschal, an assistant to the athletic director and former USF basketball coach. "In my opinion, he was a man of the utmost integrity. I don't understand it. Paul Griffin did more for USF athletics than anyone."

That much is true. Because of it, some are likely to see Griffin as another victim in this mess. There will be those who suggest that it was USF that did not do enough for Griffin instead of the other way around.

All of that, of course, only adds to the shame of the situation.

At USF, there is still a "this-is-none-of-your-business" attitude. There is still trouble with providing a direct answer to a direction question.

This time, as Genshaft looks for a new athletic director, she needs to be certain that whomever she hires will be the moral and ethical leader of the athletic department. She needs to find someone who believes truth doesn't have to be prettied up by comfortable phrases.

Otherwise, the university might as well resign itself for this to happen again.

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