Teamwork the key during a crisis
NORMAN, Okla. -- Last Saturday, Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione was the convivial host to 84,000 people at the Sooners' 31-7 football victory over Oregon.
The night before, Castiglione was up to his thinning black hair in a joyless-but-vital aspect of collegiate athletic administration: crisis management.
The news shouted from the top of the front page -- that's the front page of the paper, not the sports section -- in Saturday morning's Daily Oklahoman: senior defensive tackle, team captain, honor-roll student and All-America candidate Dusty Dvoracek had been kicked off the team. It's the kind of thing that, unfortunately, happens routinely in college athletics. But it less routinely happens to a player of Dvoracek's stature -- and when it happens at a fishbowl program like Oklahoma, the result is regional pandemonium.
Around 1 p.m., OU issued a release saying that it had suspended Dvoracek indefinitely and stripped him of his captaincy. The action had been implemented by coach Bob Stoops a couple of days earlier, but it wasn't made public until the day before the Oregon game.
The impetus had been Dvoracek's involvement in an alleged altercation with a high-school friend the Saturday before. The friend had come to visit Dvoracek from his home state of Texas, and watched the Sooners' 63-13 rout of Houston -- then the two went partying, and the party turned bad. According to local media reports, the friend arrived at a Norman hospital unconscious and wound up in intensive care for five days. (He's since been released.)
Dvoracek had already been subjected to undisclosed discipline after an incident last March, in which he allegedly punched an OU student at a bar and broke his nose -- though the victim did not press charges and Dvoracek reportedly apologized and paid the man's medical bills. This second violent incident forced Stoops to take a harder stand against one of his most popular players and suspend him.
"We were basically reacting to information that we thought was all of the story," Castiglione said.
The school was prepared for the news to create a sizeable ripple across the state, starting with the evening newscasts. But the situation didn't end there, with the university's release and a canned statement from Stoops. In fact, it was just heating up.
Around 5:15 Friday afternoon, OU assistant athletics director for media relations Kenny Mossman called Castiglione in his office at the McClendon Center, on the north end of Memorial Stadium.
"I need to see you right away," Mossman told Castiglione.
Mossman had been fielding calls from reporters on the Dvoracek situation. One, from a Dallas Morning News reporter, escalated the crisis: he had information about another alleged Dvoracek assault, this one at a party in Addison, Texas, in 2002, that did not result in any charges. There also were additional inquiries from three other papers -- the Oklahoman, the Tulsa World and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram -- including queries about a 2002 police investigation of an alleged sexual assault complaint against Dvoracek in Oklahoma, which also did not lead to charges against the player.
|“||"It's always the same with Joe. There's zero dwelling on what happened. It's 'How are we going to handle it?' ”|
|— Oklahoma SID Kenny Mossman on AD Joe Castiglione|
As the new information trickled in, the image of Dvoracek had gone from a kid who had lost his temper a couple of times to a guy with a pattern of violent behavior. The situation was becoming a much bigger problem -- too big for a simple suspension to solve.
After Castiglione talked with Mossman, he called Stoops and "brought him up to speed" on the new information. Castiglione then called upon representatives from several different branches of the athletic department to discuss the situation, including Stoops, who came in after practice and before attending later team functions.
This was also deemed important enough to keep school president David Boren apprised via telephone.
"To say he was in the loop would be putting it too lightly," Mossman said. "He was kept in constant contact. The president and Joe work together very closely."
Castiglione wasted no time with hand-wringing.
"It's always the same with Joe," Mossman said. "There's zero dwelling on what happened. It's 'How are we going to handle it?'"
Deciding what to do was dicey for two reasons: all these allegations and incidents resulted in zero police charges against Dvoracek; and he was so highly regarded off the field as an academic All-Big 12 player with a 3.4 GPA in business.
"There was some real apprehension because of the kid we were having to discipline," Mossman said. "This is a young man we all know very well."
But maybe didn't know as well as they thought. As the information came in and the Sooner brass laid it on the table, it all pointed in one direction.
"Regardless of fault, there's sort of a common thread that there are incidents that involve one person," Castiglione said. "This pattern of behavior gave us great concern. From Day 1 we have instilled the notion that no one person is bigger than the program. We try to live to the essence of the team concept."
Thus the decision was difficult but fairly clear: Dvoracek had to go, although he has the option to remain in school and on scholarship. Stoops, the man in charge of the program, made the call. The news was relayed to Boren, and then it was time to disseminate to the media.
But there also were other functions pulling at some of the principals: Castiglione had to leave to host Orange Bowl president Keith Tribble and other members of his committee, who were in town for the game; Stoops left to join his team at a movie and then at the team hotel.
Stoops also made the decision not to inform the team Friday night. Instead, according to some of the players, they found out by reading the Saturday morning papers, watching TV or fielding calls from those who had heard it from various media sources.
Castiglione's right-hand man, executive associate athletic director Larry Naifeh, and Mossman stayed behind at the office to finish dealing with the issue. Mossman, who had called several media outlets to advise them that further news was forthcoming, crafted a release that went out at 9:30 p.m.
It was a bare-bones release, stating that Dvoracek had been dismissed and including another canned quote from Stoops. It almost instantaneously became the talk of the state.
By morning, when the full story was laid out in the papers, Sooner Nation was shocked but largely supportive of the action. As Daily Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel wrote in Saturday's paper, this was a firm signal that discipline matters to Stoops -- something most Oklahoma fans want to hear, with the embarrassment from the outlaw-program days of the late 1980s still remembered by many. When your starting quarterback winds up on the cover of Sports Illustrated in handcuffs, as Charles Thompson once did, it's not real good for the image.
"The public reaction turned out to be pretty positive," Mossman said.
Beating Oregon, 31-7, helped change the subject, but Stoops was inevitably asked about the decision after the game. He was less than thrilled by the questions.
"I'm not going to rehash," Stoops said. "I made our statement and I don't feel it's appropriate to keep talking about it. ... Our team understands that in some situations this needs to be done. We have to keep moving, we have to go forward."
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.