Building a monument to insensitivity: UCF plans George O'Leary statue
O'Leary is a pillar of UCF football, but also has a muddled history
UCF can go to hell.
Those are not my words, but the words of Tampa, Florida, attorney Steve Yerrid moments after he found out the University of Central Florida is building a statue of former football coach George O'Leary on campus.
"They're going to erect a statue for George O'Leary?" Yerrid said, incredulous. "It makes me, if not physically nauseous, but emotionally nauseous."
O'Leary won 81 games at UCF, but he was also arguably negligent in the death of one of his former players. Technically, it was UCF's athletic association that was found negligent when Ereck Plancher collapsed and died in 2008.
But it was O'Leary running the practice, designing the drills. A jury didn't flinch in awarding the family of Ereck Plancher $10 million in 2011. Plancher died during a 2008 offseason practice because of complications from sickle cell trait.
Yerrid continues to represent the family. On appeal, the award was limited to $200,000 because it was determined the University of Central Florida Athletic Association fell under state sovereign immunity guidelines.
The death. The award limit. A statue erected to their son's coach who, parties testified at trial, may have withheld water from players.
To date, according to Yerrid, the school has yet to pay the Plancher family a dime. UCF spokesman Grant Heston says "the insurance company is prepared to pay the $200,000, but is waiting a final judgment from the court based on issues raised by the plaintiff's attorneys."
"They ought to erect a statue to Ereck Plancher," Yerrid said. "Instead they're erecting a statue to the coach who watched it? Pitiful."
According to some court documents, O'Leary more than watched. No one can deny he had the whistle that could have stopped the practice when Plancher began struggling. At least four former UCF players in attendance testified that team trainers did not respond when Plancher showed signs of distress.
One said the drill during which Plancher collapsed was meant as "punishment."
Yerrid's outrage could not be contained Tuesday when I reached him by phone.
"[We will] pursue justice until the last ounce of energy we have," he said. "I tell you what, '[UCF] can go to hell.'
He added, "Let me tell George O'Leary something through you. When a 19-year-old wonderful black man loses his life, nobody wins. [O'Leary] is nothing more than a fool. Put one [statue] of Erick Plancher up. That's what a man does.
"I'll come up there and whip all their asses in court again."
A tweet from the Orlando Sentinel's sports and entertainment editor stated the statue was "a good idea and well-deserved."
The statement reflects at least a portion of the community that regards the 70-year-old O'Leary as a transformative figure. Private donors put up the money for the statue.
UCF, in a statement to CBS Sports, explains that "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."
But UCF officials had to know what kind of stir it would cause when they were approving its presence on campus. Or maybe they knew and just didn't care. The statue will stand within a few hundred feet of where Plancher died.
The Knights, after all, named their baseball field after a former coach who was fired in 2008 after being accused of sexually harassing a male equipment manager. The coach denied the charges.
Look, nobody says the accomplishments of these men shouldn't stand on their own. But there is a lack of common human decency involved here.
The only reason O'Leary was at UCF is he lost the job of his -- or any other coach's -- life by fibbing on his resume at Notre Dame.
The momentum generated from O'Leary's winning helped build Bright House Networks Stadium.
Plancher's death also set the NCAA on course to clean up the offseason training scourge. UCF's negligence is part of the reason the NCAA now mandates schools test for sickle cell trait.
Since 2000, 32 NCAA football players have died. Twenty-six of those have been of the non-traumatic nature (largely offseason practices). Nationally, 2016 has already reached the average for NCAA football deaths per year -- two. It's only August.
O'Leary coached a first-round draft choice in Blake Bortles while leading the Knights to a Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor in 2014. But another statue of a coach who's not only living but also still working? Hasn't anyone learned, especially after Joe Paterno?
No, I'm not comparing O'Leary to the Penn State mess. But I am saying the bar has been set low.
I'm saying that Bill Snyder, Gary Patterson and Nick Saban -- all with their own statues -- have to live up to their bronze-encased legends.
I'm saying we are a society invested in the cult of celebrity. In the middle of Big 12 expansion, someone at UCF needs to understand the bad public relations of this. The school is erecting a monument to insensitivity.
It's complicated when already-flawed humans are rewarded with immortality while living. Among O'Leary's lesser sins was quitting on his team in the middle of an 0-12 season last year.
"It wasn't until that man, who'd been disgraced at Notre Dame and lost [all those] football games in 2015, that the University of Central Florida noticed something ought to be done," Yerrid said. "It had nothing to do with the welfare of the student athletes."
At the very least, UCF has to own that one of O'Leary's players died on his watch. That fact (initially) cost his employers $15 million (there was an additional $5 million in attorneys fees).
Yerrid is an accomplished trial attorney, a hall of fame litigator and a winner of more than 250 verdicts and settlements north of $1 million.
It takes a lot to upset him. That's because there is at least another way to go about these things.
Yerrid also represented the family of Ted Agu. Cal admitted negligence in the death of the former Bears' linebacker who died after a strenuous workout in 2014. Agu had been diagnosed with sickle cell trait in 2010.
Eventually, the school settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $4.75 million. Agu's locker has become a memorial saluting his life. Training protocol has been changed so medical personnel must always have a line of sight to players.
Yerrid now says he is running into opposition in trying to change the Florida state law capping such payouts at $200,000. He suspects the opposition is from UCF.
"That shows the absolute lack of judgment and callousness whoever is running that deal out there ...," Yerrid said. "[UCF] took the Planchers to hell and back."
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