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For La Salle, tough sacrifice will leave school better off

AS HER COACH, he thought he was protecting her. He thought her privacy was paramount.

This was his code, and after 18 years at La Salle University, he thought it was the right way to handle his players.

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"She did not want any of this to become public at the time," La Salle women's basketball coach John Miller said about the player who came to him in April about allegedly being raped.

"I feel a coach is also a counselor, and my players always know my door is open and if they close the door, they can rest assured I will keep things in confidence if they want them kept in confidence," he said.

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This explains why Miller decided not to report the alleged rape - even though it was allegedly committed by a member of the La Salle men's basketball team.

Miller never told any of his supervisors. Neither did Billy Hahn, the former University of Maryland assistant coach who became head coach of the La Salle men's team in 2001.

Maybe the coaches thought: Why harm this young woman, or bring scrutiny to the alleged suspects, or cast our programs in a terrible light? Nothing's going to change what happened, anyway.

In a statement yesterday, Miller said he urged his player at the time to seek counseling for the sexual assault she was alleging. Miller said he would do anything for her. But why make a public issue out of a private matter that has already caused pain? Here's why: A year ago, when the president of St. John's University fired the coach of the school's Big East men's basketball program, he told his theory about what happens when leaders avert their eyes from behavior that is anti-social or, worse, illegal.

"Cultures develop on a team. And I'm not talking about ethnic culture or religious culture. It's the way people interact and what they think is acceptable or not acceptable," Father Donald Harrington told the New York Daily News.

Now it's another school in another basketball-crazed city that finds itself in a collision between acceptable and intolerable.

Yesterday, both basketball coaches at La Salle University were allowed to go - cut loose, expendable in the face of a serious problem that La Salle doesn't want to see become part of its institutional culture.

Imagine that? A big-time basketball college, La Salle competes in the same conference as St. Joseph's, another small, private, Catholic school that gave us the NCAA Player of the Year (Jameer Nelson) and NCAA Coach of the Year (Phil Martelli.) Still, did La Salle have to act so swiftly, so decisively? This wasn't Bill McCarthy, Rick Neuheisel or Gary Barnett at Colorado, where years of predatory and abusive sexual practices in the football program were such a part of the culture that alleged rape victims knew better than to talk to the coach.

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"At Colorado they're majoring in b.s. The denials have piled up like cordwood. You show me a coach who maintains he's unaware of recruiting parties featuring paid strippers, of four alleged rapes, of sexual harassment claims by one of his players against other players, and I'll show you a coach who is hell-bent on not knowing," Sports Illustrated writer and Colorado alum Rick Reilly wrote.

At Colorado, Barnett coaches on, refusing to acknowledge the scandal despite the convening of a grand jury on Friday, which means criminal charges could be forthcoming.

At La Salle, no one has ever suggested that anything as blatant or depraved as what took place at Colorado was happening. But this is where the coaches made a mistake. They failed to consider in those stressful, distressing moments: The ethical standard at La Salle would prove much higher than at Colorado or Nebraska or Oklahoma State, or any of the other campuses where collegiate athletes and sports programs have been protected at the expense of sexual assault victims.

At La Salle, there's no such thing as wiggle room. That's clear, now that Miller and Hahn have been let go. That's what's stunning - although not stunning for the usual reasons college coaches lose their jobs.

In fact, there's nothing earth shattering in general about college coaches getting fired or resigning. Plenty are ousted every year - and not just for losing too much.

Some go for NCAA violations that occur during their tenures, such as Eddie Sutton at Kentucky; Jerry Tarkanian from Long Beach State to Nevada-Las Vegas to Fresno State; and Jim Harrick from UCLA to Rhode Island to Georgia.

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Some are bought out for having papers written for players or grades fabricated, such as Minnesota's Clem Haskins.

Some get fired for paying players, such as Ohio State's Jim O'Brien.

Some are forced out for imitating frat boys gone wild at a keg party. That was Iowa State's Larry Eustachy. This month, Cincinnati tapped Oscar Robertson as interim coach while Bearcats coach Bob Huggins is on leave after being convicted of DUI.

At Baylor, Dave Bliss resigned amid a myriad of charges, not the least of which was attempting subterfuge in a murder investigation after one of his players was shot to death, allegedly by another one of his players.

But none of these situations parallels that at La Salle, which yesterday made public a startling and ethically reaffirming conclusion: It's better to sacrifice two good basketball coaches who used poor judgment than fudge the line on what's right and what's wrong.

If it wasn't such an ugly incident, we might even call for a round of applause.

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This is not to incriminate the coaches. The president of La Salle made that point.

"This is a complex situation and not a judgment on the personal character of the coaches, but the university's policies and procedures are clear," Brother Michael J. McGinniss said yesterday.

"When it comes to the safety of our students and our community, there is no room for personal interpretation of our rules."

The coaches who were there to protect students and uphold the rules failed. They failed the player, failed their teams, failed their school. It's a tough sacrifice, letting them both be held accountable - until you consider the alternative.

Today, La Salle sure seems to be a much better place to send your son or daughter off to school than a place like, say, Colorado.


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