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FALL GUYS
L. Jon Wertheim
November 15, 1999
For assistant coaches, it's an occupational hazard: When scandals hit, they often serve as the scapegoats
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November 15, 1999

Fall Guys

For assistant coaches, it's an occupational hazard: When scandals hit, they often serve as the scapegoats

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According to Oran, Penders, before going on vacation, had instructed Oran to gather Axtell's records from an academic counselor, Curt Fludd, and deliver the documents to Leslie Parks, the secretary in the basketball office. In her deposition Parks testified that Penders called her twice on March 18 to inquire whether she had faxed the documents to KVET as he requested. Bill Schoening, the sports director at KVET (and the radio voice of Longhorns basketball), testified that he was on the phone with Penders, in St. Martin, when the faxed academic reports crossed his desk. Asked whether Penders was aware of the release, Schoening responded, "There's no doubt."

Impossible, says Penders. As he did at the time, he recently denied that he had anything to do with the controversy. He says he never called Parks or Schoening from St. Martin and cites in his defense that he was unable to make outgoing calls from his hotel room in the Caribbean. When pressed, however, he later admitted making calls to the States on his cellular phone. Furthermore, records obtained by SI indicate that on the days in question, Oran placed $144.63 worth of calls to St. Martin.

According to two school sources, university administrators urged Dodds to fire Penders if there was sufficient evidence that he was responsible for the fax. But the university's investigation was stymied when Oran, well-schooled in the role of the assistant coach, took a bullet for Penders. In a meeting with university counsels Patricia Ohlendorf and W.O. Shultz on March 20, Oran told them bluntly: "I did it. I'll take the blame. I could have stopped it."

According to Oran, he went to Penders's house on March 22, where Penders and his wife, Susie, tried to do some damage control by helping him draft a statement saying that he was responsible for the release of Axtell's records. The statement was faxed to media outlets that night from a nearby Kinko's, and a day later Penders called a press conference at his house and reiterated that Oran was the man responsible for the leak and had acted without the coach's knowledge.

Oran says that his taking the fall for Penders was not rooted in martyrdom but in a blind adherence to the assistants' unspoken loyalty oath. "I just felt like if I could save Tom in some way, I would be saved too," says Oran. "That's the code. On the other hand, if I told the truth and said that Tom was behind it, if for some reason they didn't fire Tom, would I have kept my job? Probably not. Then, knowing that I didn't cover for Tom, would anyone else in the business hire me?"

Two weeks after Oran took responsibility, Penders ended his contentious relationship with Dodds and Texas by accepting a buyout offer from the university worth $900,000, including retirement funds and lost television and radio revenues. Shortly thereafter, George Washington athletic director Jack Kvancz hired Penders, a longtime friend, to coach the Colonials for a deal reportedly worth $4 million over six years. When the new head coach announced the staff he'd be bringing with him to George Washington, there was a conspicuous omission. Penders hired his 26-year-old son, Tom Jr., as a bench coach. As his top assistant he tapped Rob Wright, who had worked under Penders at Texas for all of eight months. According to Oran, Penders told him that he wasn't retained as an assistant because "it would have been a step down [financially] for you." Penders, however, told SI last month, "If Eddie Oran had been a loyal assistant, don't you think he'd still be coaching for me?"

After publicly taking the blame for releasing a player's grades, Oran wasn't considered a candidate to replace Penders, and when Puck Barnes was named as the new coach, he arrived with his own staff. Suddenly, Oran was not only out of a job, but his name was also besmirched because of his starring role in the sordid and still murky saga. Oran has applied for numerous jobs over the past 18 months and has been told thanks, but no thanks. "There's no question I've been blackballed," he says. "People's thinking is, Who wants the aggravation of hiring a guy whose name came up in a scandal?"

Penders has not been called to testify in the Axtells's suit, but he insists it is nothing more than an effort to humiliate him publicly. Though a conga line of witnesses has testified in depositions that Penders orchestrated the release of the records, he is sticking to his story. "If I had done anything illegal or wrong, do you think they would have given me $900,000 [to leave Texas]?" he says. "[The lawsuit] is trumped up and bogus." Penders maintains that Oran was indeed the man responsible for Gradegate and that when Oran realized the potential consequences of his mistake, he called Penders in the Caribbean in a panic—hence the phone records—and cried to the coach on the phone. "When Eddie was admitting that he did it," says Penders, "he was telling the truth."

As for the myriad witnesses who have testified that Penders was pulling the strings, the coach has a simple explanation: "All the people who have [testified] have one thing in common. They all count on DeLoss Dodds for their living." Asked about his feelings toward Oran, Penders is unencumbered by guilt. "Let's make one point clear," he says. "Eddie Oran is selling cars because he wants to sell cars."

Chris Nordquist found himself in a situation similar to Oran's when he was a restricted earnings coach at New Mexico State in 1992, making $16,000 a year. His duties on the Aggies staff had little to do with teaching zone traps or drop steps. Nordquist claims that at the direction of coach Neil McCarthy and assistant Gar Forman, his main job consisted of guiding potential transfers through sham correspondence courses at the notorious Southeastern College of the Assemblies of God (SCAG), in Lakeland, Fla. He would also forge players' signatures on school paperwork, furnish test answers and, when necessary, even do homework for the players.

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