Georgia Tech Coach Under Fire

Wednesday, October 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) — Standing 6-foot-7 and weighing 314 pounds, Dustin Vaitekunas is an intimidating figure on the football field.

But the Georgia Tech lineman says his size didn't matter when he was forced to stand alone against four teammates running at full speed as punishment for missing blocks.

Coach George O'Leary ordered the drill on Sept. 25, leaving Vaitekunas sprawled on the ground for several minutes, gasping for breath.

``I wanted to show what a speed rush looks like from the quarterback's standpoint,'' O'Leary said. ``I didn't expect those guys to tackle him. That was my mistake. I should have communicated better. But we never tackle the quarterback in practice. I was surprised it happened.''

O'Leary defended his actions Tuesday, saying it was simply a breakdown in communication and that he would never do anything to harm one of his players.

``I think the whole thing is getting blown out of proportion,'' he said. ``I coach hard, but I coach fair.''

Vaitekunas left Georgia Tech a day after the pummeling, vowing never to return. His mother is threatening to pursue criminal charges against O'Leary.

``I see this as assault and battery. I want O'Leary arrested,'' Wanda Charpring told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a story published Tuesday. ``He tried to kill my son.''

The incident occurred at the end of a routine evening practice. Vaitekunas, a second-string offensive tackle, was having trouble with his blocks. O'Leary called the player up in front of the team and handed him a ball.

O'Leary put four defensive linemen in their stance about 6 yards away and blew a whistle. At least two of them hit Vaitekunas at full speed, sending him to the ground. His mother said he was severely bruised and in pain for almost two weeks.

``I was injured physically and mentally,'' Vaitekunas told the newspaper from his home in Chapin, S.C. ``But to tell the truth, maybe more mentally.''

The case comes after Bob Knight lost his basketball coaching job at Indiana — his troubles beginning when he struck a player in the neck — and NHL veteran Marty McSorley was convicted of assault for whacking an opponent with a hockey stick.

An official at the Georgia Tech police department, who refused to give his name, said no charges were filed by Vaitekunas' mother as of late Tuesday afternoon.

Charpring also sent letters to Georgia Tech athletic director Dave Braine and David Thompson, the Atlantic Coast Conference's assistant commissioner for NCAA compliance.

Braine conducted his own probe of the incident and found no reason to discipline O'Leary. The ACC is still investigating.

``George is not a brutal coach,'' said Braine, adding that he watches at least two practices a week. ``He did not intend for that kid to get hurt.''

At first glance, the incident seems tame in comparison to the harsh treatment doled out by old-time coaches such as Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes and Vince Lombardi. But times have changed. Coaches are expected to treat players with a degree of civility and respect. Blatant physical punishment is off limits.

``You can't put George O'Leary in the same league with Bobby Knight,'' Braine said. ``He's never had anything like this happen before. He's never had a complaint.''

Vaitekunas said he thought the drill was an attempt to make him quit the team because he wasn't playing up to O'Leary's expectations.

``You expect to get hit,'' Vaitekunas said. ``What (O'Leary) did was over the line, when you're just standing there and four guys are ordered to crush you.''

Defensive end Greg Gathers was one of the players who took part in the drill. He said O'Leary yelled at the last second for the defensive linemen not to hit Vaitekunas, but only two of them — Felipe Claybrooks and Nick Rogers — had time to pull up. Gathers and Merrix Watson went through with their hits.

``He just stood there,'' Gathers said. ``I don't know if he was fatigued or what. But he didn't protect himself.''

Offensive tackle Chris Brown said Vaitekunas was simply a disgruntled player who couldn't cut it with the Yellow Jackets.

``He was a very soft person. He didn't have a lot of heart,'' Brown said. ``It was nothing excessive. He hasn't been practicing very well or playing very well. It was just a little discipline thing.''

Gathers was more sympathetic.

``He's a human being. Some people are probably going to look at coach O'Leary and say he's a sick man,'' Gathers said. ``But that's not the case. Coach O'Leary said to pull up, and some guys pulled up.''

O'Leary pointed out that Vaitekunas wasn't the only offensive lineman who took part in the drill. Another backup tackle, Jason Kemble, faced the same four rushers, but only after they were told explicitly to avoid any contact.