Fennelly: UCF should be ashamed of O'Leary statue

Former head coach George O’Leary, with QB Blake Bortles, led UCF to a win at the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. He also stood by while a 19-year-old student-athlete died.
Former head coach George O’Leary, with QB Blake Bortles, led UCF to a win at the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. He also stood by while a 19-year-old student-athlete died.
Published Aug. 25, 2016

I've got the tiebreaker if the Big 12 wants to choose between USF and UCF.

Take the school that isn't building a George O'Leary statue.

If only it were funny.

UCF, backed by private donors, has announced plans for a statue to honor its former football coach.

"George helped our student-athletes reach new heights in the classroom and on the field. It's appropriate to recognize those achievements at some point in the future," UCF said in a statement to media.

Fair enough at first glance.

O'Leary, 70, won a bunch of games at UCF, led the Knights to a 2014 Fiesta Bowl victory and helped UCF get an on-campus stadium.

But O'Leary also oversaw a football program that was found negligent in the 2008 death of Ereck Plancher, a 19-year-old UCF player who collapsed and died during offseason conditioning drills.

Have we run out of human beings to build statues to, or just run out of decency?

Some background:

In 2011, Plancher's family won a wrongful death suit against the UCF Athletics Association. A jury found O'Leary and his staff negligent.

Plancher carried the sickle cell trait. The jury decided that O'Leary and his staff initially ignored Plancher's distress and the football program's strict procedures regarding athletes with the sickle cell trait. It awarded the Planchers $10 million.

I wrote about the case in 2013 after a Florida appeals court reduced the $10 million award to $200,000. The court deemed the UCFAA part of a state institution and, as such, protected by a state law that puts a cap on payments for lawsuits against state agencies. Three years later, the Planchers still haven't seen any of the $200,000, according to Tampa attorney Steve Yerrid, who represents the family.

"Not a penny — print that," Yerrid said by phone. "And now they're erecting a statue 200 feet from where this kid died, for the coach who watched him die, who failed to intervene and save his life. Bad ideas ought to go straight to hell, and a statue for O'Leary is a bad idea. It's full of hypocrisy, full of injustice and full of insult for the Plancher family. A real university, a responsible one, would build a statue for Ereck Plancher, not just for him but in the name of all the kids who've needlessly lost their lives in football programs."

Understand: The jury's 2011 verdict has not changed.

Even while reducing the award in 2013, appellate court judge Wendy Berger wrote:

"My opinion … should not be interpreted to condone the egregious conduct of the UCFAA coaching staff. Indeed, as it appears and the jury found, it was both the coaching staff's actions and inactions that led to the tragic death of Ereck Plancher. It is difficult to comprehend how one human being can ignore another in obvious distress or prevent someone else from offering aid to someone in distress, but, inexplicably, that is what happened here."

How O'Leary ever kept his job is beyond comprehension.

And now UCF is building him a statue.

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Yerrid mentioned that he also represented the family of Cal player Ted Agu, who carried the sickle cell trait and who died after a team training run in 2014. The school admitted liability and settled with Agu's family for $4.75 million.

"Not only that," Yerrid said, "Cal made Ted Agu's locker a memorial. Not only did they pay $4.75 million, they implemented protocols and changes throughout the University of California's 11 campuses to protect the welfare of sickle cell trait athletes.

"California was the bright side of the moon. UCF is the dark side of the moon. They should hide in the shadow of that statue. Make it a big one, 80 feet high, so everyone can hide behind it."