The worst nightmare for every superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy has come true for Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch: an ever-growing cheating scandal and the glare of TV lights.
Dressed in his crisp white uniform on a recent afternoon, the superintendent -- a former Navy football captain -- peered into the cameras.
"I hope that from the investigation that we in fact know how the exam was compromised, we in fact have good information on those who were involved," he told ABC News. And then NBC. And then CNN.
Some midshipmen, faculty and alumni are critical of the 51-year-old admiral, charging that he mishandled the initial probe of charges that advance copies of an electrical engineering exam circulated through Bancroft Hall, the midshipman dormitory.
Investigators with the Navy inspector general's office, which has opened its own investigation, have expressed similar concerns, sources said. But a top Navy official familiar with the IG investigation quickly dismissed such talk.
Still, many in the Navy community are wondering if the cheating scandal in which more than 125 midshipmen have been implicated will stall the career of Admiral Lynch, a rising star since he snapped the ball for Roger Staubach in the Cotton Bowl three decades ago.
Navy tradition holds that the senior officer is ultimately )( responsible for any wrongdoing or shortcomings in his command.
"Obviously, if the Naval Academy did not perform in a satisfactory manner, it would reflect poorly on him," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an academy graduate and a member of the school's Board of Visitors. "But so far I don't think anybody thinks that's the case."
Tom Bates, sports information director at the academy and a strong supporter of the admiral, said, "Some people think it's going to affect him, and some people think it won't."
But one critic of the superintendent, a fellow 1964 graduate, offered a dire prediction: "I think he's finished."
Admiral Lynch declined to be interviewed but did release a statement.
"I feel it is important, now more than ever, that we focus not on personalities but on the mission of the Naval Academy," he said in the statement. "I hope you will put into perspective the compromise of the examination last December and the ensuing investigation. We will resolve the incident -- learn from it, be better for it, and make improvements in our program as we forge ahead."
A native of Lima, Ohio, Admiral Lynch arrived at the academy eager to play football, graduated in the top third of his class and served for four years aboard a destroyer in the Atlantic. He was the first member of his class to become an admiral.
Stuck in a Navy hampered by drug and racial problems and reduced defense spending, Admiral Lynch decided in 1974 to leave the service and join an Atlanta management consulting firm headed by football legend Fran Tarkenton.
But he missed the Navy and returned in seven months to command a frigate in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. He was a top aide to Navy Secretary John Lehman and his successor, Jim Webb, and in August 1990 led the first battle group into the Red Sea after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a key move in blocking a possible southward advance by Saddam Hussein.
The admiral took over at the academy in 1991, the year after the school's image was tarnished by another scandal that drew national attention: A female sophomore midshipmen was handcuffed to a urinal and jeered by male midshipmen.
Since taking over, Admiral Lynch has developed the school's first strategic plan, including a new way to train plebes -- less yelling and push-ups, more positive role models and instruction.
"This guy has a lot of courage and integrity," said retired Vice Adm. William P. Lawrence, who recalled his own share of criticism and scandal when he was academy superintendent from 1978 to 1981.
"This is the price of doing business at a place with high standards," he said.
Admiral Lynch repeatedly has defended the way he and Capt. John B. Padgett III, commandant of midshipmen, handled the initial inquiry.
A senior Navy officer familiar with the IG's probe says the admiral was hamstrung by a lack of evidence. "He was never comfortable with the final results," the officer said.
Some midshipmen, faculty and alumni charge that in the initial inquiry leads were not followed and that some students -- especially football players -- received favorable treatment.
They also say that the administration should have followed the recommendations of the academy's midshipmen honor boards and dismissed 11 of the 28 juniors implicated in violating the school's strict honor code, which says that midshipmen do not "lie, cheat or steal." The academy's top brass, pointing to a lack of evidence, recommended that six be separated.
Those who came forward and told the truth face expulsion, while those who stonewalled got off, the critics complain.
Rodney Walker, 23, one of the six midshipmen recommended for dismissal, is among those who say that many more had the exam. And he charges that the admiral and the administration went easy on the football team.
"He was supporting the football players," Mr. Walker said in a phone interview from his Atlanta home. "I felt like he was trying to protect them."
When the superintendent announced the results of the initial investigation to the 4,200-member brigade last April, he was greeted with jeers from several midshipmen, who chanted a football player's nickname. Academy observers were shocked, calling it unprecedented disrespect.
The inspector general's investigators have also been told by Mr. Walker that a half-dozen football players had access to the exam. Of the 28 initially implicated in the scandal this year, five were football players, and all five were cleared eventually.
But academy and congressional sources strongly dispute charges of favoritism and note that Admiral Lynch even vowed to recuse himself in the case of one football player, although that case never reached his desk.
Academy brass also dispute claims that they were unwilling or waited too long to follow leads, including one instance in which three midshipmen said that they were aware of additional midshipmen who saw the exam.
The academy released a chronology of the scandal during last month's Board of Visitors meeting that showed that Admiral Lynch granted immunity to two midshipmen last June to try to learn more about how the exam was compromised. Academy JTC investigators reopened their probe, but it was put on hold a week later when the Navy IG took over.
Whether the inspector general's inquiry, which is expected to be completed next month, will criticize the academy administration or Admiral Lynch directly remains to be seen.
"When I see what Tom Lynch goes through, I've been there," said Admiral Lawrence, the former superintendent, who recalled drug and sex scandals on his watch. He went on to win his third star.
"You have to take the heat," he said, "and keep the ship going in the right direction."