PHELPS CASE TAKES UNFORTUNATE TURN

Bishop O'Dowd of Oakland boys coach pleads innocent to charges. He's not the first prominent boys basketball coach in the state to face similar allegations, but it may be more difficult for Phelps to come back to his job.

Russell Otis is now coaching once again at Dominguez High in Compton. Will we be ever able to say that about Mike Phelps at Bishop O'Dowd of Oakland?

Just a few weeks after Phelps officially became the state's winningest coach for a career, he was charged last week on two counts of lewd and lascivious acts with a minor under 14. The 57-year-old pled innocent in Alameda County Superior Court, but TV cameras and newspaper photos captured him walking in handcuffs with bailiffs surrounding him.

It needs to be mentioned right up front that Phelps is being charged for something he allegedly did 36 years ago. He wasn't even a high school coach at the time -- in fact he was barely 21 years old -- but he was coaching youth teams and the charges stem from a relationship he had with a boy who was 11-years-old at the time. That boy is now a 47-year-old adult and came forward last May. An eight-month investigation by the Alameda police department ensued.

The administration at Bishop O'Dowd placed Phelps, its coach for 24 years, on paid administrative leave on January 8 as the case reached a critical stage. It was at first reported as being done for "personal reasons." Since he was not replaced as coach and remained the school's coach of record, Phelps continued to be credited for wins as this year's team flourished.

The official line from here at Cal-Hi Sports, which exclusively compiles all state records in California, is that Phelps' final career record, and whether he'll remain as the state's winningest prep coach ever, is entirely up to the school. The school could hire a new coach, and Phelps' record would stop right where it is -- which was 837-205 as of last Friday -- or it could hire a new coach and declare that that coach's tenure retroactively started when Phelps was first put on leave. If that happened, Phelps' win total would fall back behind the previous state record holder, Lou Cvijanovich, the retired head coach at Santa Clara of Oxnard.

The Phelps case, as disturbing as it is, still in some respects is not as bad as what faced Otis, who guided Dominguez to four CIF state titles from 1987-2000, including one mythical national title. Otis was initially placed on paid leave prior to the 2000-01 season because he did not yet have a teaching credential. Then came shocking allegations of inappropriate behavior with a former player. He was charged with two felony counts of sodemy and oral copulation and a misdemeanor count of child molestation. Otis faced nearly 10 years of prison if he had been convicted on all counts.

Dominguez went on to win another state title with Steve Singleton as head coach. The program was led last year by former ABA star Mack Calvin. The Otis case, meanwhile, went to trial and the coach was acquitted on all charges.

After spending one year teaching at Gardena High, Otis was able to return to Dominguez this season after Calvin resigned only four games into the season. The Dons' aren't the powerhouse they were before the charges were brought, but there's signs that Otis has things moving in the right direction.

Since Phelps won't be back in court until March 7, and a trial will have to be held, t's extremely doubtful he'll be coaching at any point this season at O'Dowd. What happens after that, of course, depends on what would happen in the trial. If Phelps is convicted, his coaching career is certainly over. But what if Phelps is found innocent and is somehow exhonerated completely? Would O'Dowd be able to keep him?

While Otis has been able to come back, he's done so at a public school. Phelps is at a private, Catholic school and his case -- even if he's not guilty -- may just be too sensitive for church leaders to ignore, especially with all of these recent cases against priests that have turned out to be true.

Complicating matters further are statements that Phelps made to investigators in January that have been published in the local media. According to the Oakland Tribune, Phelps admitted in one of those interviews that "there was hugging and kissing" with the victim. He also reportedly told investigators that "for a number of years he would feel an infatuation with kids, but that he would not go out and do things with kids."

By publicizing the case in such a way, the Alameda County District Attorney's office is hoping that perhaps more victims will come forward. If that doesn't happen, and there doesn't appear to be any other witnesses to the alleged incidents, the case may come down to Phelps' word vs. the victim's.

Phelps' team, meanwhile, hit the court last Friday at home against Moreau Catholic of Hayward. It was the first game since the charges were announced. School officials prevented any TV cameras from going inside the gym and the players and students were kept off-limits, too. Assistant coach Pete Morales, who's been primarily in charge of the program since Phelps was put on leave, did tell one reporter earlier in the week: "We never thought it would go this far."

It's strange that a case 36 years old could have more of an impact on a coaching career than one less than a few months old, which was the situation with Otis. But the schools are different and any publicized admissions the two coaches made were different.

Then again, with the sensation-starved media the way it is today, with parents and schools so sensitive to inappropriate behavior, maybe it's going to become impossible for any single, unmarried man to become a coach unless that coach wants to become subject to gossip and inuendo.


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