Virginia basketball Coach Terry Holland came to the defense of his starting center, Olden Polynice, today, denying charges made on campus that Polynice avoided expulsion on cheating charges only because he is a star athlete.
"I do not think Olden Polynice was cut a break because he was an athlete," Holland said at a press conference this afternoon. " . . . A lot of people have insinuated that the athletic department somehow had a hand in this. I seriously doubt that any of you who knows what goes on here would believe that anyone in the athletic department would try to influence the outcome of the case."
Holland's remarks came one week after it was revealed that Polynice, a sophomore, was cleared Nov. 18 following a 20-hour campus hearing on allegations of breaking the school's honor code. Polynice admitted during the hearing that he turned in another student's paper last spring after failing English composition during the fall semester.
If the 12-member student jury had found that Polynice violated the honor code, he would have been expelled. Polynice, who wasn't aware of the charges against him until September, is retaking the course this semester.
Polynice, Holland and the Virginia basketball team were in Hawaii when the story appeared in last Wednesday's editions of The Washington Post. Upon returning, Polynice, contacted by the student newspaper here, refused comment.
Today, Holland said he would suggest to Polynice that he speak publicly about the incident, but said he thought it was unlikely that Polynice would do so. Later, it was learned that Polynice has been advised by his attorney, John Lowe, to maintain silence.
The incident has caused an uproar on campus. Many letters to the student newspaper and to Holland have accused the coach and athletic department of manipulating the case and have expressed outrage that a student who admitted to cheating was allowed to remain in school. Other students have suggested boycotting home games.
Today, Holland denied suggestions that the athletic department paid for Polynice's defense. "Absolutely not," he said. "When Olden was advised by his (law students) counsel to get an attorney, we told him who might be available, and we informed him of the NCAA rules in such a case and told him he or his family would have to pay for the lawyer."
Holland also denied trying to influence the outcome of the case. "I was called to testify to the facts as I knew them and that's what I did," he said. "That's completely different from trying to influence the outcome." Then, Holland added, "I don't think anything has been done from an athletic department standpoint or from a personal standpoint that we should be ashamed of."
Holland, who consulted with Lowe about what questions to answer, said the incident has upset Polynice and the team.
"One of the disadvantages of being a public figure is that you are subject to things that others would not be," Holland said. "That is the price you pay . . . Olden was disappointed when the story got out, but he knew this was a possibility."
Holland said he expected Polynice to receive "a reception" at road games. Virginia will open its Atlantic Coast Conference season at Duke in 10 days. Duke students are notorious for riding opposing players who have gotten into trouble.
"We know when we go down there they're going to be on somebody," Holland said. "At least now, we know it'll just be one guy."
Asked if he was concerned about reaction to Polynice by students here, Holland said, "I would be concerned if it occurred, but I can't imagine that it would be a problem. But this is something Olden is going to have to go through. The trouble is, right now, because of the confidentiality of the honor code, you are only hearing one side."
On the broader topic of how this incident might affect his team, which split two games in Hawaii, Holland said, "Any time something as upsetting as this happens, it has a negative effect. It's been a major distraction in recent days, as you might expect, but we try to look at that saying, 'That which does not destroy me only makes me stronger.' In the short run this will hurt, but it has a chance in the long run to make us a better team and, hopefully, it will make Olden Polynice a better person."
Holland conceded that the critical letters he has read hurt him. "My immediate reaction when I read where people said I should be fired was, 'Wait a minute, after 10 years don't people know me better than that?' " he said. "But then someone pointed out to me that with students, you have a 25 percent turnover every year and they might not be that aware of what you've done."
In 15 years as a head coach, five at Davidson and 10 at Virginia, Holland not only has won games -- he has a 307-139 record -- but has a built a reputation as a coach who recruits good students and sees to it that they graduate.
He is 42 and people have wondered if he might get out of coaching since he has, at times, questioned whether he should remain in the business. Holland is entering the last year of his contract, but today said he will be back at Virginia next year.
"When things like this come up, the question you ask is how would it help for you to turn tail and run," he said. "It might solve a personal dilemma, but that would be it.
"(Athletic Director) Dick (Schultz) and I have had a verbal agreement for a new contract, but we just haven't gotten around to sitting down and working out the details. I think we both want to get it done pretty soon."
Holland smiled. "At least he wanted to a week ago."
Holland said he will instruct other members of his team not to comment on Polynice's situation. "It's hard enough to explain your own actions without explaining someone else's," he said.
As for Polynice, Holland described him as "stoic," and added, "Right now he's putting up a good front." Holland paused a moment and smiled. "I guess the best way to sum it up right now is just to say it's an impossible situation and we're all doing the best we can."