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USF still has big mess to clean up


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000

It's just one splat of mud from a deep, troubling University of South Florida puddle.

Basketball coach Jerry Ann Winters has been bounced. Resolution is, she dismissed USF player Dione Smith due to complaints about racial discrimination.

Ugly stuff, with far more to come. Smith was the first pebble in a Bulls landslide. Eight athletes have filed federal lawsuits against the university, saying Winters treated them unfairly due to skin color.

At the epicenter of the controversy is USF athletic director Paul Griffin. He heavily supported Winters, even needlessly extending her contract.

"It's fair to criticize some of those decisions," Griffin said Thursday. "At the same time, it is important for me to support our coaches in efforts to bring reasonable control to their teams."

As the Winters case evolved, it became more complex due to a change in USF's leadership. Betty Castor retired as president. Richard Peck served as interim campus leader. Judy Genshaft became USF's new president in July.

Several department heads have been changed by Genshaft, but Griffin remains. He said, "Her support has been outstanding, especially given the fact that President Genshaft has been on board just since July. I feel fortunate she has provided opportunities to review the matter."

Asked if he felt positive about his USF future, Griffin said, "Oh, in the literal sense, yes. In the figurative sense, I think so." But what if the university gets whacked in federal court? "If those outcomes happen, someone else will have to judge."

My guess is, if USF takes much of a lick from the eight lawsuits, Griffin is likely to pay with his job. He should've been more demanding when Winters told the AD she was ejecting a player who had alleged racial unfairness.

"We don't make these decisions in a vacuum," Griffin said, indicating university bosses have been aware through the Winters process. "Our interim president (Peck) was informed. He was supportive of my decision that the player (Smith) should retain her athletic scholarship."

From this ongoing mess, there should be a world of messages. Like how naive it is, as we plunge into the 21st century, for collegiate athletic departments to assume that women's sports are devoid of legal wrongdoings and warped attitudes that for generations have hounded many football and men's basketball programs.

"Things have changed dramatically from my youth," Griffin said, "when rule No. 1 was that the coach is always right. Now that concept doesn't apply. It requires changes from all of us.

"Athletes are different now. They arrive on campus with different sets of expectations. Around the country, there have been some difficult cases in baseball and hockey. Every sport and every athlete deserves equal treatment."

Genshaft has a crowded platter, still being new to USF, working on academic pursuits and a wealth of issues, but she cannot afford to keep the Winters case and its ramifications at the top of her to-do stack.

She must decide if Bulls athletics need extensive reshaping. Are we closer to the end, or the beginning, of this furor? Genshaft must decide, after deep assessing, if Griffin should continue to be in charge.

Being the AD at a large university has become a huge challenge. We're so removed from the ways of the '50s and '60s when has-been coaches would be plopped in the administrative chair and asked to do nothing more complicated than schmoozing with boosters.

Today, it's like running a major corporation, involving multimillion-dollar budgets and a load of regulations. All while being regularly rated by inside and outside sources. Demand for human equality is the highest of AD callings.

USF coaches, Griffin suggested, are now on ultra alert. Seth Greenberg's basketball team had a problem. Altron Jackson, a standout player, had an objectionable exchange with a Bulls staff member. Greenberg thought a suspension was demanded.

"A year ago, Seth would've just done it, then let me know," Griffin said. "But he wanted to make sure full, correct procedure was being followed. It's no small thing to dismiss one of our better players for an important road game against Florida State.

"But this has sent many positive messages. It was important for Altron to understand what is acceptable and what is not. Other athletes took note. It's so vital to set appropriate tones."

In his personal tornado, everyday campus life goes on for the Bulls athletic director. "I'm looking at my calendar for Friday," Griffin said. "I have a drug-testing issue to start with.

"There is a meeting about marketing. One on development. Then comes a Title IX issue. Followed, at last, by a real sports competition in the evening, when our men's basketball squad tries to win at home against Central Florida."

His calendar isn't likely to ease. There will be months, perhaps years, of legal scrimmages involving the eight women basketball players.

Now that Winters has been fired, you wonder if she will be filing suit against USF. Claiming an unfair judgment. Her coaching career is in ashes. If there is guilt, as it appears, the Winters pain is deserved.

For now, it's an open case. Pending. Still, even with no federal verdict, the ousted coach will feel stares almost everywhere she goes, Christmas shopping or theater-visiting or whatever. There will be whispers.

"We live in a litigious society," Griffin said. "Stay tuned."

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