A headline in the January issue of Blue & Gold Illustrated, an independent newspaper devoted to University of Notre Dame football, read "Fans Will Be Leery of O'Leary." By the time that issue reached subscribers, however, George O'Leary was no longer the team's new head coach — his UND career having lasted two fewer days than the weeklong search the school had just conducted to fill its coaching vacancy.
In hindsight, athletic administrators should have been the leery ones. Soon after introducing the former Georgia Tech head coach as a "perfect fit" for the Notre Dame family, university officials learned that O'Leary had neither lettered in football at the University of New Hampshire nor received a master's degree from New York University, as his résumé claimed. Consequently, O'Leary would never lead the Irish onto the field in South Bend, either.
The stunning episode spawned widespread sinking feelings and obvious questions: How does erroneous personal background information pass institutional muster in the first place? Do such errors warrant an individual's immediate resignation? Are there more coaches or administrators with misleading profiles currently holding positions in college athletics?
While the first two questions are open to debate, an answer to the third came quickly. Less than two weeks removed from the O'Leary fiasco, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exposed the bogus biography of another coach with state ties — a men's basketball assistant at the University of Georgia. By the first week of February, the director of football operations at Iowa State University and the defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech (hired subsequent to the Journal-Constitution probe) had resigned over biographical inaccuracies. Meanwhile, another Tech football hire with erroneous credentials was allowed to remain as receivers coach on new head coach Chan Gailey's staff when an institutional investigation determined the assistant had made past attempts to correct the mistakes.
Whether the list ends there is unclear. "Is it rampant? I don't think so," says Pete Moore, associate director of athletic communications at Syracuse University and president of the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA). "But as long as there have been published bios, there probably have been some miscues along the way." At least this much is obvious: If institutions and individuals are to be spared such well-publicized embarrassment in the future, credentials of current and prospective athletics employees need to be reviewed with a more critical eye.
CoSIDA members, in particular, have been abuzz over the rash of inaccuracies. "It certainly has caused many of us to look at our current procedures for getting that type of information and ensuring its accuracy," says Moore, who admittedly takes a somewhat biased stance in placing blame. "My view on these occurrences is that the problem does not reside in the SID office. Verification of credentials is something that commonly takes place in a school's human resources office or whatever department oversees hiring." The ultimate responsibility, Moore adds, falls upon the individual whose biography is in question. "The fault lies with the person who's providing the misleading information."
Nevertheless, Mike Stamus, Georgia Tech's director of sports communications at the time that school's bio bombshells exploded, immediately went on record as accepting at least some responsibility. According to Stamus, who has since been demoted to associate director, a policy implemented in 1998 gave the university's business office responsibility for conducting background checks based on a standard employment application. Unfortunately, Stamus didn't take the extra step of verifying information he had gathered from the coaches' previous employers against information being filtered by the business office. "We are now doing that," he says.
Additional changes at Tech include expanding background checks beyond criminal records to include academic credentials, and presenting a biography draft to new hires, who must now sign off on what the sports information department writes before it is published in press releases or media guides. Sometimes, the resulting half-dozen or so paragraphs aren't even based on an actual résumé, since not every coach submits one, Stamus says. Instead, he has the individual complete a one-page staff questionnaire, which asks for such basic information as the individual's full name, birth date, hometown, places and dates of previous positions held, academic degrees, honors received and family status. Receiving information from previous employers is still a starting point of the profile-assembling process, Stamus adds, but that information will no longer be accepted on its face as fact.
"You would like to trust people," says Steve Buzzard, sports information director at Oklahoma State University. "We obviously can't do that anymore."
Oklahoma State, which unwittingly passed on erroneous information to Georgia Tech regarding receivers coach Tommie Robinson's academic accomplishments, is currently following a mandate from its athletic director to doublecheck all academic claims against a transcript. As for an individual's extracurricular history, OSU now contacts the institution where that individual reportedly played sports, ensuring that he or she is listed as either a past participant or a letter winner. "We will do some digging," Buzzard says. "Trust me, those things will be checked at Oklahoma State."
At Syracuse, where O'Leary served as an assistant coach under a partially inaccurate bio from 1980 through 1986, the practice has been to gather background information only after a coach has been hired, then to circulate published bios among coaches for an annual review and update. Does that leave the door open for coaches, having already secured their jobs, to remain silent if bio inaccuracies enhance their image. "Is it a possibility? Sure," says Moore, whose job duties focus primarily on Syracuse basketball. "Over the years, we've been giving these people the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they're not misleading us. Do we have to put in new procedures to combat that. That's kind of scary, but that's what we're talking about now. Do we now need to have a disclaimer that includes a signature from that individual verifying the information as accurate. That might be the next thing."
After his fall from grace at Notre Dame, O'Leary managed to land on his feet, joining the NFL's Minnesota Vikings as defensive line/assistant head coach. And then there's Rick Smith. The day he stepped down as Georgia Tech's defensive coordinator — a resignation prompted by the discovery that his profile incorrectly credited Smith with having played baseball and football at Florida State — Smith told the JournalConstitution, "I've basically been ruined."
Can such a harsh fate be considered fair? "It really depends on the case," Moore says. "Whether or not George O'Leary played college football was not part of the criteria for the job he applied for here. If it's a situation where, in order to have that job, you need your doctorate degree, and you really don't have one, then I think you do have to be terminated."
Stamus, who joined the Georgia Tech sports information staff in 1983 and served two years as director, agrees. "If you're claiming an academic degree that you don't have, that's looked at a lot more seriously than if you claimed to have competed in a sport in college and actually didn't."
Public opinion appears evenly split on the issue, at least as it pertained to the fates of Tech's Smith and Robinson. Of 6,779 individuals responding to a JournalConstitution poll question — "Do the Tech assistants deserve to be fired for the false info on their bios?" — 3,389 said yes; 3,390 said no. Of 2,027 responding to another question — "Should Chan Gailey retain coaches with false info on their bios?" — 1,024 agreed with the statement, "Yes, it's just football," while 1,003 chose, "No, it's about credibility."
How saving face also plays into this depends on the prominence of the institution and visibility of the individual, according to Kathleen Hessert, president of Sports Media Challenge, a Charlotte, N.C.-based consultancy. "Can someone who lied intentionally or unintentionally on a résumé be a leader of student-athletes being asked to adhere to a school's high standard? At Notre Dame, I don't think they could have done anything different" regarding the O'Leary situation, Hessert says. "In crisis management, we say, 'Go for the quick hemorrhage, not the slow bleed.' Every crisis will go away; it's how you make it go away that's critical."
Hessert adds, "Right now, all schools should be determining — in the event that something like this happens to them — how they are going to respond and what their criteria are for taking action. If schools don't do that now, they have not learned the lesson that Notre Dame has learned."
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