Commentary

Fine has plenty of support in Syracuse

Originally Published: November 19, 2011
By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Jim Boeheim initially said he wouldn't talk about it after the game. But he couldn't help himself.

On Saturday night, Syracuse's head coach continued his defense of longtime assistant Bernie Fine against accusations that the latter molested two former ball boys.

"I'm not going to say anything new. So I'll just repeat: I've been friends for 50 years with Coach Fine. That buys a lot of loyalty from me and should," Boeheim said after his team's 92-47 victory over Colgate at the Carrier Dome.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
AP Photo/David DupreySyracuse coach Jim Boeheim isn't mincing words in his defense of longtime assistant Bernie Fine.

Boeheim said a comment he made referencing Joe Paterno -- "I'm not Joe Paterno. Somebody didn't come and tell me Bernie Fine did something and I'm hiding it," he told the Post-Standard -- wasn't meant to criticize the former Penn State fooball coach. He said he just wanted to reiterate that he's not covering up anything.

Boeheim said the school's PR-types preferred silence from him on the matter, but he questioned whether anyone other than his wife could actually get him to follow through on that request.

"You think anybody tells me when to speak or not?" the 67-year-old Boeheim said.

That level of dominion is what has hindered other programs -- most recently Penn State -- embroiled in similar controversy.

"Who knew what and when" is what Syracuse school administrators and law enforcement officials say they will ask as they move forward with their investigations, one that prompted Fine's administrative leave earlier this week. No charges have been filed.

On Thursday, Bobby Davis and his stepbrother, Mike Lang, said on ESPN that Fine sexually assaulted them when they were minors working for the team. The news emerged a week after Penn State dismissed Paterno, its president and other administrators in the wake of a scandal involving allegations that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky molested minors during and after his tenure with the school.

Syracuse's 2005 investigation into Davis' accusations did not result in any punitive actions because investigators couldn't corroborate his story.

During Saturday's game, players tapped a vacant seat on the bench to recognize Fine's absence, an idea conceived by center Fab Melo. They talked about focusing on basketball and it was clear superiors were determined to avoid the public relations nightmare that beset Penn State.

[+] EnlargeSyracuse
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliThe seat next to Boeheim's was left unoccupied throughout SU's game against Colgate on Saturday.

"We can't think about it right now," Melo said. "There's a season going on, so we just gotta play."

Few will remember that a game was actually played, both because of the margin of victory and the circumstances.

Syracuse, the nation's fifth-ranked team, efficiently dismissed a Colgate squad that desperately needed a midgame trade in Saturday's blowout. The Raiders didn't have the athletes, the size or the prayers to overthrow the Orange.

But 2-3 zones and alley-oops can't stop the off-court questions.

Media members were barred from talking to fans in the stands and instructed to ask questions unrelated to Fine's situation in the postgame press conference.

Nevertheless, Boeheim spent most of his postgame presser talking about it and the prevailing theme around the Syracuse campus Saturday centered on the allegations against Fine.

A few blocks away from the Carrier Dome, the majority of folks interviewed by ESPN.com defended Fine and the program. They refuted allegations against the coach as forcefully as Boeheim had earlier this week and dismissed any similarities to Penn State's controversy.

Others, however, said they believe the allegations may be true and if they are, they believe the school's powerful basketball program might have served as a staunch buffer for Fine's alleged behavior.

But Mary Phillips says she knows Fine didn't do it. Boeheim stopped by a New York City hospital and visited her sister -- twice -- who was stricken with leukemia. He didn't even know her.

A man with that character and kindheartedness, she said, wouldn't tolerate the kind of acts that Fine allegedly committed.

"I don't believe that for one minute. The other one [at Penn State] had more facts," said Phillips, a 67-year-old Orange supporter, as she walked up Irving Avenue toward the Carrier Dome.

Ed Dunn questions the timing. It seems fishy that the allegations came to light days after the Penn State scandal started, he said. And he wonders why the school's internal investigation in 2005 failed to uncover anything.

"Nothing's been substantiated, so is this spillover of the Sandusky thing? I don't know. You just don't know," said Dunn, who's supported the program for 35 years. "I trust [Boeheim]."

Students tried to separate their school from the Big Ten university that's 245 miles south of the Syracuse campus. They cautioned against formulating premature conclusions about the validity of the allegations. They asked for patience as the process plays out. Some even challenged the credibility of the accusers.

"I'm pretty sure they're just trying to get attention," said Jeffrey Kim, a 22-year-old psych major.

But Sigrid Davison knows the numbers. Most sexual assaults -- 60 percent of them, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network -- are never reported, in part because some victims fear they won't be believed, said Davison, a Syracuse instructor who teaches in the school's women's and gender studies department.

She said she's not surprised by the allegations and refuses to suppress the possibility that they're true because of the school's or coach's reputation.

[+] EnlargeSyracuse
AP Photo/David DupreyA crowd of more than 21,000 showed up at the Carrier Dome for Saturday's game.

"I think it could've happened," said Davison, as she stood in front of a campus Starbucks. "If it happened to me, I don't know that I would've told anybody."

Eric Glover, who's pursuing a master's in information technology, said Fine's supporters shouldn't make assumptions based on his reputation.

"You never know what the person next to you really does behind closed doors," he said.

Many connected to the school have clearly taken sides. There is little gray around the Orange right now, as it pertains to Fine.

It is clear this is not Penn State, however. That university's drama unfolded in real time on television and social media, as powerbrokers fell like dominoes. Students rioted and publicly challenged decision-makers.

Syracuse's students have left for the holidays. Parking lots of nearby apartment complexes are empty, just like the student section Saturday.

When Chancellor Nancy Cantor sent out an email about the scandal to students Friday, many had already hit the road for Thanksgiving break. And some of those who remained Saturday confessed their ignorance about the events.

Freshman Matthew Fernandes got a call from his brother in California, who'd heard about the allegations against Fine from a West Coast radio station. Before then, Fernandes was oblivious.

He thinks once the students return to campus after the holidays, though, there will be a buzz among the student body.

"I'd wait a few days," Fernandes said.

As there is now, there will be plenty to talk about among the Syracuse faithful.

Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mmedcalf3030@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN