SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Syracuse men’s basketball is unbeaten and unsettled.
Former longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine is under investigation for child molestation, and coach Jim Boeheim’s future has been called into question in this his 36th season.
Two weeks after vilifying two former ball boys who accused Fine, Boeheim used his postgame press conference Friday to apologize for questioning the accusers’ motives and admitted “this has been a hard time.”
During Friday night’s win over No. 10 Florida, some 24,000 Orange-clad fans packed the Carrier Dome and cheered as always for the man who is the face of the program.
But the allegations have rattled the Syracuse community, especially so soon after the Penn State child sex abuse case in which former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is accused in a grand jury indictment of sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year period. University trustees fired Paterno on Nov. 9, four days after charges were filed against Sandusky, amid mounting pressure that school leaders should have done more to prevent alleged abuse.
“Those 1 million people in this (metro) community, they were traumatized and continue to be watching this unfold,” said former Syracuse mayor Tom Young. “It’s put people on edge, especially people in positions of responsibility pertinent to this case. They have taken a deep breath and they’re allowing the investigation to take its course.”
The cases at the two schools are often compared because they involve long-tenured, iconic coaches in highly successful programs rocked by allegations of sexual abuse against children. But there are crucial differences.
Penn State’s troubles erupted publicly when Sandusky was formally charged Nov. 5.
In Syracuse, the child molestation allegations came out in the media the same day local police opened an investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Secret Service are now leading the investigation.
Two former ball boys told ESPN last month that Fine molested them decades ago. Bobby Davis, now 39, said Fine molested him beginning in 1984 and that the sexual contact continued until he was around 27. A ball boy for six years, Davis said the abuse occurred at Fine’s home, at Syracuse basketball facilities and on team road trips, including the 1987 Final Four. Davis’ stepbrother, Mike Lang, 45, who also was a ball boy, told ESPN that Fine began molesting him while he was in the fifth or sixth grade.
Fine called the allegations “patently false” and has not spoken publicly since. The university fired him last Sunday after a third accuser stepped forward and ESPN played an audiotape, recorded by Davis, of an October 2002 telephone conversation between him and a woman ESPN identified as Fine’s wife, Laurie, in which she says she knew “everything that went on.”
Adding to the uncertainty and anxiety was Boeheim himself.
When the allegations first surfaced, he staunchly, even defiantly, supported his old friend and said the accusations were lies to capitalize on the Penn State scandal and make money off a lawsuit. When Fine was fired after a third man came forward and the tape was revealed, Boeheim changed course, releasing a statement saying he regretted any statements he made that might have been “insensitive to victims of abuse.” Last Tuesday, he said it was wrong to question the motives of the men but said he defended Fine based on what he knew at the time. By Friday night, Boeheim had softened his tone again. In a halting voice, he paused frequently as he fully apologized: “I shouldn’t have questioned what the accusers expressed or their motives. I am really sorry that I did that, and I regret any harm that I caused.”
Michael Yormark, a 21-year-old junior studying entrepreneurship and marketing at the university said there is a sense of anticipation on campus.
“If Bernie Fine did do something, it’s terrible,” he said Saturday. “But you can’t really prove anything until you see it in court, you see the evidence. Until that point, every university has little bits, you know, that they’re not proud of. As a whole I think Syracuse as a university will overcome this.”
As federal agents search Fine’s home, his office and a locker at Syracuse, the public does not yet know the scope of the investigation. There’s no deadline for prosecutors, meaning it could be weeks or even months before the inquiry is finished.
“I don’t think it’s quite on that (Penn State) level. I just think with all those allegations going on at the same time, that it’s just getting blown up,” said fan Clint Dunham as he filed into the dome for No. 4 Syracuse’s 72-68 win Friday. “But I don’t know. It might be. It might be another Penn State.”
The third accuser, 23-year-old Zach Tomaselli of Lewiston, Maine emerged last week. He said he told police that Fine molested him in 2002 in a Pittsburgh hotel room after a game. Tomaselli’s father said he thinks his son, who faces sexual abuse charges in Maine, is lying.
A stream of reporters who have knocked on the door of Fine’s home across the street from Boeheim’s on a well-appointed suburban lane have not gotten responses. But they do pass a small orange sign by his door reading “We Believe in Your Innocence Bernie, We Love You.” A handwritten note on the sign says “We support you 100 percent, dad” signed by his children.
A number of former SU players and staffers who have worked with Fine say they’re having a tough time believing the charges, too.
“You would think that being involved in the program, you know certain things that go on,” said David Bartelstein, a walk-on who played from 1988-1990 and is now an associate at a capital investment firm in Highland Park, Ill. “You know certain things that the public doesn’t know. And if something like this was happening, you would think that guys would talk, there would be little cracks, leaks in the foundation, so to speak, that would trickle down information. Never, ever, ever did I hear or see anything about this.”
Bartelstein said he thinks the allegations against his old coach are false.
“Obviously, there’s a lot more investigation that has to be done and hopefully the truth will eventually come out, and if I’m wrong, I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m wrong,” he told The Associated Press Friday.
Repeated attempts to contact Davis and Lang have been unsuccessful. Lang’s home is still festooned with Syracuse basketball paraphernalia.
Although it’s unclear when federal investigators will release information, SU students and fans said they are taking Boeheim at his word that he had no knowledge of what Fine is accused of doing.
“I thought that Syracuse University and Boeheim handled it well,” said Dan Englean, a freshman. “I feel like it was out of their control, and they just did what they could to respond. I don’t think there’s any reason (Boeheim) should be fired.”
It’s possible a steady drip of more revelations could further damage the reputation of the school and its basketball program. For most of the fans who watched Syracuse improve to 8-0 on Friday night, they thought that possibility seemed unlikely, for now.
“Let’s hope not,” said Steve Zebrowski of nearby Oneida, “crossing my fingers.”
Associated Press writers John Kekis and Meghan Barr in Syracuse and Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.