Back in March of this year, on the 18th to be exact, University of Central Florida (UCF) freshman wide receiver Ereck Plancher died after a conditioning workout, continuing the ugly trend of amateur and professional athletes dying on the fields they love.
Many stories have been written about Plancher since his death. The 19-year-old from Naples is described by those close to him as a loyal son, a great friend, and a hard worker. In short, Ereck Plancher was loved by many—and for all the right reasons.
And while it would never hurt to write another story about this remarkable young man, I will not attempt to do that. Words and memories—which the Orlando Sentinel has graciously chronicled in written and video form—from Ereck Plancher’s friends are much more meaningful.
Sadly, this will be about Plancher’s coach, George O’Leary.
If you have not seen this story, there are several issues at play surrounding Plancher’s death. But these are the two items that seem to loom the largest.
1.) Plancher came to UCF with a diagnosed case of sickle-cell trait, which hampers cells from carrying oxygen.
2.) Ereck Plancher was gasping for breath and staggering moments before his collapse and eventual death.
UCF at first denied knowing about Plancher’s sickle-cell trait. Unfortunately, it turns out they did.
Second, O’Leary and his coaching staff have gone on record saying the workout the players went through the day of Plancher’s death was not rigorous. Speaking anonymously, several UCF players have insisted much to the contrary. The players claim the workout was extremely intense—and that Plancher was visibly and clearly unable to keep up with his teammates.
Call me crazy, but I tend to believe the players, especially with the way O’Leary and UCF have handled—or perhaps mishandled would be more appropriate—the situation. The entire scenario doesn’t add up, and it makes UCF look foolish and terribly afraid to admit the facts.
UCF wants national exposure, but not this kind.
And George O’Leary is leading the charge, making things worse with each passing minute.
Like any good paper, the Orlando Sentinel did its own investigation into Plancher’s death. Because so many questions simply were not answered by UCF, the paper published a handful of critical columns—and rightfully so.
To show his disdain for the paper’s writers, O’Leary stubbornly refused to speak with any representative from the Sentinel at last week’s Florida Sports Writers Association media days.
While I disagree with his actions, I am not trying to paint O’Leary as some sort of Jack Nicholson-like Colonel Jessup ordering “Code Reds” to his platoon leaders and then covering up dirty details.
On second thought, maybe I am.
O’Leary is no stranger to controversy, but this situation is unlike anything he has ever faced—and it appears the coach is not equipped to manage it.
Not only is O’Leary refusing to speak to the only paper that actually knows his program well, he has also banned any UCF players from speaking to the Sentinel.
The question is: Why? What is there to hide?
Why drag family and friends into this even further? Why carry on this painful and emotional memory? Why invite—heck, practically beg for—lawsuits?
Regrettably, with all the attention the story has received, people are likely going to lose their jobs.
But not O’Leary.
Perhaps George O’Leary forgets that not too long ago, he wasn’t such a big deal.
After the embarrassing Resume Gate fiasco at Notre Dame, no big program would dare to touch him. Desperate for a big-name and a better football team, UCF took a chance on O’Leary.
And since then, the school has backed their coach on nearly every issue possible.
They supported him when UCF professors protested O’Leary’s hiring and gigantic salary. They backed him when O’Leary posted a winless (0-11) first season. They were patient as he built the team into what he wanted, and they supported O’Leary’s wish for an on-campus stadium.
O’Leary no doubt ruffled some feathers along the way—nothing new for big time college coaches—but for the most part, UCF’s belief in O’Leary has paid off, as the team and its fan base are both much improved, and much more a part of the national landscape of college football.
But now it’s time for UCF to take a stand.
It is time they order O’Leary to make peace with the hometown paper that covers his football team. It is time they insist O’Leary make a public acknowledgement of his seemingly insensitive mishandling of the situation.
And it’s time UCF itself sets the record straight once and for all about what happened on March 18th.
After all, this isn’t about college football, or George O’Leary’s ego, or even about the University of Central Florida.
It’s about respecting the memory of Ereck Plancher—a good kid who died way too early.