It was time for a road trip. Fireworks stores. The enormous cross hinting that the savior is Paul Bunyan.
It was worth every minute of the 16-hour car ride to Missouri just to watch that last-minute Ryan Nassib pass land softly in the arms of the unguarded Alec Lemon, who never broke stride as he headed into the end zone, sealing an upset victory that ensured Syracuse football its second bowl berth in the Doug Marrone era.
Our four-member crew (my two sons and my nephew) were part of a cluster of a few hundred faithful Orange fans in a sea of 63,000 Tiger devotees to witness the Orangemen, powered by the Nassib-Lemon connection, pull off a 31-27 victory on Nov. 17, thereby playing themselves into the Dec. 29 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
In spite of what you might expect—being in such a tiny minority and cheering loudly for a team whose mascot is a fruit while most of the Show Me State was howling on behalf of their team, which goes by the name of a marauding jungle cat—was not as intimidating as I thought it might be. In fact, the Mizzou fans were polite to a fault, and very welcoming.
At a tailgate, which featured deep fried pickles and some very nicely marinated barbecue, on line at the vending booths inside the stadium in Columbia, Mo., and pretty much everywhere someone spotted you in Orange, Missourians had two questions.
How is Syracuse basketball looking this year, was the first. This was usually followed by an expression of concern. “I know they lost a lot of guys last year.”
I would give my best amateur take on the new prospects coming up, and remind them that we still have C.J. Fair, James Southerland and Baye Keita coming back, so the 2012-2013 season could hardly be called a rebuilding year. Even at a football game in a football town, it was clear that the ’Cuse is seen in the heartland principally as a hoops school.
Besides basketball, what they also wanted to talk about was Bernie Fine. This was just days after the feds ended their investigation of SU’s former assistant basketball coach by declining to indict him. One guy ahead of me on the line at the tailgate Porta-Potties was one of many who told me, “I’m glad they got that Bernie Fine thing cleared up.”
"Oh, it’s not cleared up," I answered. “Really?” he replied, clearly disappointed. Then it was his turn and he disappeared into the plastic cubicle.
In the weeks since I made that trip, Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler has said he found the evidence presented sufficient enough to have the coach indicted but for the statute of limitations. This echoed the proclamations to the same effect from District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick, who told the world months ago that he found the witnesses against Fine credible.
Then, in a solemn follow-up that we should all be sure to read and read again, Randi Bregman of Vera House wrote a detailed essay in The Post-Standard in which she outlined the sequence of events that led Bobby Davis and others to come forward, and made it clear that she believed his allegations. It was not a matter of sizing up the credibility of this one man, she offered. It was that she has seen this pattern so many times before.
And here’s the thing I tried explaining to the guy on line for the Porta-Potties: This is not about whether you or I or Bill Fitzpatrick, Frank Fowler or Randi Bregman believe that Bernie Fine is innocent or guilty. The law has decided that the law will not decide this, so each of us is left with our own opinion, based on our own limited experience, information and biases. I tend to side with Bregman, based on her expertise, who finds Davis and Company credible.
If my tailgating buddy had not had other more urgent business to attend to, here’s what I would have said to him. This is not the Bernie Fine scandal. This is the Syracuse University scandal, in which Bernie Fine played a prominent role.
We may never learn much more about Fine, but we do know this: When first confronted with allegations against the coach, SU did not go to law enforcement authorities. Instead they had their own attorneys conduct a slipshod, internal, secret investigation. It was a whitewash. An abused and troubled kid took a major risk by seeking justice and instead he got steamrolled by the biggest entity in town and its attorneys.
Even by the standards of the day, this course of action is appalling. The Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church, to name just two examples, had by that time already adopted much more open standards for dealing with abuse cases. Most egregiously, the university did not even place Fine on administrative leave while that minimal inquiry took place.
Only when the charges were repeated last year, this time with the national media shining their lights on the school, did SU take the first step required to protect young people from abuse. Only then did they place Fine on administrative leave.
Why didn’t they do that in 2005? This is the question that SU has yet to answer, and until SU does, we have no reason to trust that future allegations will be handled any better.
We’d all rather be talking about Nassib to Lemon, or Carter-Williams to Coleman in the post, but until SU comes clean about how it handled the Fine case, the cloud will persist.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.