- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

Never mind the lousy record, the embarrassing spate of on-court brawls, the mounting evidence of off-court malfeasance. When Tom Penders abruptly resigned as coach of the George Washington men's basketball team two weeks ago, the scene was straight out of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" dignified, honorable, downright valedictory.
At a makeshift news conference, Penders insisted the decision to step down was all his, the result of burnout and a desire to see more of his family. GW president Stephen Trachtenberg added that "everybody's going away friends." Athletic director Jack Kvancz even teared up, waxing nostalgic over a three-year association that produced:
A telephone calling-card scandal involving four players.
A total of nine misdemeanor sex, weapon and theft charges against another player.
A series of fights, including a scuffle with Tennessee players at a December tournament in Hawaii.
A sexual discrimination lawsuit filed by a former team trainer.
A 49-42 record, topped off by a 14-18 mark last season, the school's first losing campaign in 11 years.
"There's a man who exudes class and can coach the game of basketball," Kvancz said in the Hatchet, GW's student newspaper. "On behalf of the university, with warmest regards, we wish you the best in whatever you do."
If the whole affair smacked of gushing insincerity the sort of Panglossian whitewash typically reserved for departing presidential administrations well, that's pretty much the point. In sports, as in politics, the awful truth is no match for a graceful goodbye. As such, an athletic divorce just isn't complete without a slew of strained superlatives and a round of facetious fare-thee-wells:
Washington Wizards general manager Wes Unseld, after the team unloaded forward Juwan Howard and his salary cap-strangling $105 million contract: "[The trade] was hard for me. I appreciate the type of player and professional that he is."
Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, after canning coach Vince Tobin (record with the Cardinals: 29-44) seven games into last season: "Vince is a very fine man. He's worked very, very hard here."
Former Washington Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson, after the arrival of Jeff George and a subsequent benching ensured his departure via free agency: "I leave here right now with no hard feelings… . It's been an awesome experience."

The rules of disengagement

Like romantic breakups and international diplomatic disputes, sports splits are all about putting on a happy face. Consequently, they require the willful suspension of disbelief, facilitated by a series of all-too-familiar half-truths (or, in some cases, no-truths):
I wasn't dumped

As a rule, coaches seldom are fired outright. No matter how much they deserve it. Instead, their departures are presented as wholly voluntary, often the outcome of a "mutual decision."
Take the sudden, surprising resignation of former Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton. Before Washington's season-ending loss to Toronto, the rookie coach spoke with reporters about returning for a second season; after the game, he was summoned to a meeting with president of basketball operations Michael Jordan.
More than 2 1/2 hours later, Hamilton emerged and announced his intention to step down. Naturally, he claimed that move was entirely his idea and anything but an about-face.
"This is not the first time I have spoken to Michael about this," Hamilton said, adding that he had informed his wife of his decision just minutes after leaving the meeting. "He was somewhat prepared."
It's not you, it's me

Likewise, teams seldom divulge the real reason for a canning. Even when it's painfully obvious. For instance, Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer said that the recent release of fullback Larry Centers had "absolutely nothing to do" with Centers' refusal to restructure his contract before a March 1 cap deadline even though the cut saved the cap-strapped club $630,000.
"[Centers] is still a great football player," Schottenheimer told reporters. "But it's in our best interest, and frankly his, if we part company."
More best interests: Before last season, the Redskins parted ways with former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, whose unit ranked 30th among 31 NFL teams. Though the rationale seemed clear Washington's defense couldn't stop a Razor scooter with a bazooka then-coach Norv Turner's nebulous, encounter-group take on the matter was anything but.
"Mike and I spent [two days] talking about everything there was to talk about last season, where we are as a football team, as a coaching staff, his situation, the entire team's situation," Turner said. "As we went through the process, we mutually felt it was in everyone's best interest to go in a different direction."
It's just business

As painful (and muddled) as that process may be, going in a "different direction" is never personal. Just ask the Wizards.
When Washington dealt talented-but-troubled Chris Webber for upstanding citizen Mitch Richmond, they violated a pair of league maxims: Never swap young for old or big for small. Nevertheless, Unseld said Webber's off-court woes including an arrest and a reported sexual assault did not play a major role in the trade.
"You always want to bring in good people, but it was not that big of a factor when I made this call," Unseld told reporters. "I tried to get Mitch Richmond from the day I took over as general manager."
Similarly, Turner could take great comfort in the fact that his midseason firing was, in the words of Redskins owner Dan Snyder, "nothing personal" and "all about football."
"I have tremendous respect for Coach Turner," Snyder said. "And his family."
This hurts me more than it hurts you

When sports figures part ways, they're typically a bit broken up about it. Unseld was sorry to see Howard go. And Howard was sorry to leave a situation that saw him get shopped around by the Wizards front office; booed at home, repeatedly; and blamed for every mistake, misfire and miscue of an utterly dysfunctional franchise.
"I have some sad feelings because I leave behind an organization that has been there for me," Howard said of the team he nearly abandoned to join the Miami Heat in 1996. "I'm sorry that I couldn't help bring this city what they've been waiting for for a long time, a championship, a playoff atmosphere, something to brag about."
We can still be friends

Above all, the sports world values a clean, friendly break. Before the 1999 season, Snyder ousted former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly for his inability to get along with Turner.
Fair or otherwise, Casserly took his dismissal in stride, wishing Snyder and the Redskins good luck and claiming that he would continue to root for the team.
"I have no hard feelings," he said. "It's Dan's club. There comes a time when you need to move on. This is my time. I'm looking forward to the next chapter of my life."

The price of nice

Why take the high road? For starters, it pays. Rather handsomely, in fact.
For example, Casserly embarked on the "next chapter of his life" roughly $1 million richer. His settlement with Snyder reportedly was worth more than the two seasons at an estimated $500,000 a year left on his contract.
Similarly, Penders said that GW "honored every part" of his contract, which ran for three more years and was believed to be worth between $300,000 and $400,000 annually.
"I'm more than pleased with what they have decided to do for me," Penders said.
Other satisfied customers? Try disgruntled former Wizards guard Rod Strickland, who pocketed a cool $2.5 million in his recent buyout and was waived in time to sign with Portland for the remainder of the season. Or consider these recently ousted college football coaches, whose severance packages are best described as lottery-like:
Paul Hackett, Southern California: $800,000.
Mike DuBose, Alabama: $1 million.
John Cooper, Ohio State: $1.8 million.
Jim Donnan, Georgia: $2.1 million
Hal Mumme, Kentucky: $1 million, plus $30,000 in legal fees and the use of two cars.
"Every time I hear 'My Old Kentucky Home' I will recall the great moments we shared at this fine university," said Mumme, who resigned in February under a cloud of multiple NCAA violations. "My hopes, best wishes and prayers are with you all."
For a truly lucrative leave-taking, however, it's hard to top former Louisville men's basketball coach Denny Crum. Despite feuding with athletic director Tom Jurich while leading the Cardinals to a 12-19 mark last season, Crum insisted that he would remain at the school through the end of his contract in 2002-2003.
Shortly thereafter, Crum announced his retirement. Why the sudden change of heart? Perhaps it had something to do with his whopping $7 million buyout $5 million more than the school would have owed Crum had it simply fired him before June 30.
"This is my decision, and I feel really good about it," Crum said at a news conference, holding back tears. "Nobody's pushing me out of here. This is really what I wanted to do. I feel great about it."
Money aside, sports figures have another reason to part on good terms: Ugly breakups leave lasting scars. Consider the Chicago Bulls' spectacularly hamfisted detonation of their Jordan-led dynasty, which came back to haunt the club last summer.
Despite being millions under the salary cap, Chicago failed to land a single free agent of consequence. Tracy McGrady, Eddie Jones, Tim Thomas and even the remarkably mediocre Austin Croshere all spurned the former champions, who were left signing leftovers Ron Mercer and Brad Miller.
Chicago's reputation took a similar hit in April, when Utah guard John Starks accused team management of dishonesty. After being traded from Golden State to Chicago midway through last season, Starks said the Bulls told him they would try to deal him to a contending team before the trade deadline.
Instead, Chicago released Starks after the league playoff roster deadline, leaving him high and dry.
"What happens is players talk to other players," Starks told the Chicago Sun-Times. "And if you get a bad rap from another player, it's going to make it tough to get a quality free agent."
By contrast, Louisville's generous treatment of Crum helped the school lure a top-notch successor, Rick Pitino. Similarly, Johnson was rewarded with a starting job in Tampa Bay after playing the good soldier in the Redskins' season-ending victory over Arizona.
Perhaps hoping for a similar opportunity, Centers was almost nonchalant about his release.
"Surprisingly, [being cut] didn't sting," he said. "I just had to get over the fact that I was being kicked out. It's all good, though. Maybe someone out there will want my services."

Making up

If recent Redskins developments are any indication, chances are good that someone will. Such is the power of a kind word and a kinder contract that even the nastiest of sports splits can be papered over. Preferably with an encyclopedia's worth of euphemisms.
Last September, kicker Brett Conway was effectively cut by the Redskins for suffering a strained quadriceps. Adding insult to injury, he learned about the move from his agent and not from the team.
"I think there's some problems here," Conway said in the lobby of Redskins Park, accusing the club of "bad business." "I don't know how they could blame me… . It's a shame it had to go like this because I had a lot of loyalty to this team."
Six months and one $2.1 million contract later, the loyalty and the love was back. Conway signed a three-year deal with Washington in March, a move that prompted a bit of sunny revisionism by his agent, Jack Reale.
"Brett always liked the Redskins organization," Reale said. "I think his problem was with the departed personnel director [Vinny Cerrato] or the coach [Turner] because they would not wait for him to heal… . With Marty in there now, I think Brett is really excited."
As is Schottenheimer, whose arrival in Washington completed one of the greatest verbal turnarounds in recent athletic memory. After Turner's exit in early December, Schottenheimer said during an ESPN broadcast that his management style couldn't coexist with Snyder's a notion apparently shared by Bill Parcells, Steve Spurrier, Dick Vermeil and Joe Gibbs, all of whom declined the opportunity to coach the Redskins.
"If a player has the sense that the head coach is not the one they're ultimately accountable to, if they feel there is an alternative in the owner's box, it becomes very difficult to manage and coach that player," Schottenheimer said in an ESPN commentary.
Schottenheimer sang a different tune in January, signing a four-year, $10 million contract to coach the Redskins. At his introductory news conference, Schottenheimer lauded Snyder, noting that "I obviously didn't have enough information about [him]."
It was a remarkable about-face and proof positive that the only thing in sports more inevitable than a goodbye smooch is a wet-and-sloppy hello.
"When the opportunity to sit down [with Snyder] presented itself, I wanted to do that," Schottenheimer said. "[Snyder's] passion for football is very evident … qualities became quite obvious. All of a sudden I said, 'Hey, that sounds like me.' "
Added Snyder: "I think I'm pretty hands off."
Kiss and make up.


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