Old friends paint glowing picture of Griffin
By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001
TAMPA -- He writes wonderful letters. Some heartfelt, some hysterical, and all seeming to convey a perfect tone for the intended audience. Invariably hand-written, his letters have found framed homes on the walls of several of his former lacrosse players at Roanoke College.
Those old friends would have a difficult time recognizing the hand that wrote a forced resignation letter this week. It was more memo than letter. Concise, unemotional and blunt. A total of 30 words, or about one for each year of Paul Griffin's career in athletics.
His tenure at the University of South Florida ended Friday in somber fashion. With allegations of a coverup being whispered more loudly every day, Griffin walked away to hardly anyone's chagrin. He leaves behind a career that, before these last few months, was essentially beyond reproach.
"In the time I was president, I never found any basis to question his integrity, his honesty or his motives," said former USF President and current Appalachian State Chancellor Frank Borkowski. "Not once."
Not long ago, two dozen men gathered in the basement of a frat house near the Roanoke campus in Salem, Va. One by one, they stepped forward to tell a Griffin story on the occasion of his induction into Roanoke's Hall of Fame.
Bob Rotanz has a story to tell. He was on Griffin's lacrosse team that won the Division II national championship in 1978 and was later on Roanoke's Hall of Fame committee. The committee wanted to induct Griffin some years earlier, but he would not allow himself to be nominated. Instead, Griffin insisted the committee first consider every athlete who had played lacrosse for Griffin during his 10 years as coach from 1972-81.
"He was basically dictating the terms of how he went in. It was going to be a prerequisite that all of his players be considered before him," Rotanz said. "The committee was pretty unhappy about it. I had to say, "Look, I played for Paul. I know him well. Let's just wait.' But that's how he was. And that's one of the reasons we were successful. You played hard for him because you knew he cared about you."
Prior to his 15-year stay at USF, Griffin worked for five years as the athletic director at Jacksonville University. But it was his tenure at Roanoke that left a long-lasting impression. A Maryland graduate who got his master's at Long Island University, Griffin arrived at Roanoke at age 25 and quickly began assembling what would be one of the nation's top lacrosse teams.
Barely older than the players he coached, he nonetheless was an imposing figure. One former player says Griffin, now 54, looks like a 54-year-old man should. But he also looked 54 in 1975.
"He intimidated the hell out of me," said current Roanoke athletic director and former Griffin player Scott Allison. "He's so stoic, he doesn't smile a whole heck of a lot. He immediately puts you on edge."
John Pirro was the first star player recruited by Griffin at Roanoke. Like Griffin, Pirro grew up in Long Island, N.Y., where he said high school lacrosse was every bit as popular as prep football. Pirro said he might not have graduated from college if not for Griffin. He spent one summer living in Griffin's basement until he got his grade point average up.
But what struck Pirro was Griffin's concern even after his athletic eligibility ran out.
"He asked me what I was planning to do, and I said I might take a couple of classes or not. He looked me straight in the face and said, "You know, I think maybe you shouldn't take any classes. Maybe you should work and go back to Long Island until you're ready to come back here with a little more focus.
"So for that one year, I did that. He knew exactly what I needed. At the end of the year, I was calling, begging for his help. He got me a job as an assistant coach, helped me change to a business major and I ended up that spring getting my degree. He was real big on four- and five-year plans. "Where do you want to be in five years,' he was always asking."
Griffin once asked that question of Charlie Morgan.
While at Roanoke, Griffin was in charge of a program called Upward Bound that helped at-risk high school students get into colleges. Morgan was a teenager in Salem, with few thoughts of a college future.
"Here I was this high school kid and he was taking an interest in me. Not because of athletics, just because he wanted to help," Morgan said. "I had thought about college, but I wasn't sure if I was strong enough academically. Paul Griffin challenged me to do better. He gave me a vision of what would be best for me down the road."
Morgan graduated from East Tennessee State and returned to Salem where he coached a high school basketball team to two state titles.
An African-American, Morgan said he can't fathom Griffin having any role in a racial discrimination suit at USF.
"We used to kid him about stuff like that because he was from the North," Morgan said. "But race was never a factor with Paul Griffin. All he ever asked was that you did what was expected of you."
- Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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