8:25 PM EDT, June 28, 2011
In football terms, the Ereck Plancher trial is three yards and a cloud of legal wrangling and conflicting testimony.
It only took one Tuesday afternoon in Courtroom 12-D of the Orange County Courthouse to know this beyond a shadow of a doubt:
We will never know.
We will never know about the death of Ereck Plancher.
When it's all over – after the opposing attorneys have issued their one-zillionth objection and the clashing witnesses have given six different accounts of the same event — you will believe what you believe. UCF fans will believe their school really did nothing wrong. And the George O'Leary haters will believe the UCF head coach drove Plancher to his grave.
UCF just started presenting its case in the trial Tuesday and took a significant first step toward trying to mount a massive legal comeback. For UCF and O'Leary, the Planchers' attorney, nationally renowned trial litigator Steve Yerrid, has become the legal version of former USF coach Jim Leavitt. In other words, Yerrid is from Tampa and his goal is to make UCF look as bad as possible in the eyes of the public.
Yerrid did his job masterfully during the first several days of this unprecedented trial. He called a variety of witnesses, including a handful of former UCF players, and painted O'Leary as a profane, tyrannical football coach who physically and mentally abused his players.
That's why this case is unique and unprecedented — because this isn't just some anonymous strength and conditioning coach who is being accused of contributing to a player's death. It's O'Leary — a nationally recognized college football head coach. Over the last decade, players have died during offseason workouts at both Florida and Florida State and you never once heard the names of former coaches Steve Spurrier or Bobby Bowden connected with those deaths.
There's a good reason for that: unlike O'Leary, Spurrier and Bowden were not running the drills in which their players died. In fact, they weren't even present at those fatal workouts. It might sound strange, but an argument could be made that O'Leary is in this massive public-relations predicament because he is a more involved, hands-on coach than both Spurrier and Bowden.
I've said this time and again: I think O'Leary is mainly guilty of one thing in this case. He's guilty of being a football coach — a hard-driving, tough-talking football coach. Personally, I don't believe he did anything much different than the macho strength and conditioning coaches at every other big-time school in this country. The difference is a player died under his supervision.
UCF could have done everything perfectly and Plancher might have still died; the problem is UCF did not do everything perfectly. Far from it. Head trainer Mary Vander Heiden testified that she did not have written documentation or a clear remembrance if she ever told Plancher he had sickle-cell trait. Robert Jackson, the only trainer who was there when Plancher collapsed, testified that he didn't know Plancher had sickle-cell trait.
And this is why UCF attorneys need a Hail Mary. How do you convince a jury you followed proper protocol in treating an athlete with sickle-cell trait when the trainer on hand didn't even know the athlete had sickle-cell trait?
It is believed somebody must be lying in this case, but isn't it possible everybody is telling the truth — the truth as they see it? Plancher family witnesses say O'Leary withheld water from the drill in which his player died. UCF witnesses say it is common practice in football drills to discourage drinking water until after a specific drill has been completed.
The family's witnesses say Plancher showed clear signs of distress; UCF witnesses say that, yes, Plancher was winded and fatigued, but many players at many practices get winded and fatigued. The family's witnesses say Plancher collapsed during a drill and that should have been a warning; UCF witnesses say Plancher simply tripped and fell and it was no big deal.
UCF witness Rocky Ross, a former wide receiver, labeled teammates who "went outside the circle" and spoke to the media about Plancher's death as "liars and cowards." Meanwhile, attorneys continuously hurled charges at one another.
"Each side has accused the other of everything except being the child of God," Circuit Judge Robert M. Evans told the testy legal teams after Tuesday's proceedings.
Three yards and a cloud of distrust.
firstname.lastname@example.org Read Mike Bianchi's Open Mike blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/openmike and listen to his Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9 a.m. on 740-AM.
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