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Wrongful death verdict leaves UCF with $10 million liability, big questions about O’Leary’s future

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After more than three years of grief, the parents of late Central Florida running back Ereck Plancher took a step toward some sense of closure Thursday night, courtesy of an Orlando jury:

A jury ruled the UCF Athletics Association was negligent in the 2008 death of football player Ereck Plancher and awarded his parents $10 million.

The group spent about five hours deliberating Thursday night, the 14th day of the Plancher wrongful death trial.

Attorneys representing UCFAA and Plancher's family completed closing arguments Thursday afternoon. The six jurors began deliberation at about 5:30 p.m. Once the group determined UCFAA was negligent and failed to do everything possible to save Plancher's life, it entered the amount of damages it believed should be awarded to Enock and Gisele Plancher, Ereck Plancher's parents. The total was $5 million apiece.

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After two weeks of dramatic, occasionally contentious and largely contradictory testimony, the jury declined to find UCFAA guilty of gross negligence, which would have added further punitive damages to the Planchers' award. The association is also responsible for the family's court costs, which could be up to $1.5 million. But a university spokesman confirmed that UCFAA will appeal the jury's decision, and "strongly believe[s] that this will be a quick process because it's very clear that this was the wrong decision."

That process will likely also postpone any answers on the other question buzzing around the trial like a persistent fly: What does the testimony and subsequent verdict mean for George O'Leary's status as head coach? Within weeks of Plancher's fatal collapse at the end of a workout overseen by O'Leary in March 2008, accusations emerged from teammates who charged O'Leary with singling Plancher out for a lack of effort and cursing at him as he struggled through drills. Testimony during the first week of the trial supported that narrative, with multiple players — including a former team captain — telling the jury that O'Leary not only cursed at Plancher but ordered water and trainers off the field before the drills. According to former receiver Anthony Davis, "It felt like he was punishing us."

O'Leary, taking the stand as a would-be villain, vehemently denied those charges last week, and was backed up this week by three current and former players and an assistant coach who all insisted water and trainers were available throughout the workout. Against an autopsy and a cardiologist who testified that Plancher died of sickle cell trait, a genetic disorder generally thought to be responsible for the deaths of multiple Division I football players over the last decade — and for which UCF tests, to identify at-risk athletes — the defense produced a hematologist who argued on the stand that sickle cell trait can't kill you. When the jury found for the plaintiffs, it was essentially a statement to the university, and to O'Leary in particular, that "We don't believe you."{YSP:MORE}

Up to that moment, UCF has had every reason to stand by its head coach. Not only has he won — the Knights just took their second Conference USA title on O'Leary's watch, upset Georgia for the first bowl win in program history and finished in the top 25 for the first time — but O'Leary's innocence in Plancher's death was one of the pillars of the university's defense. The nature of the case required UCF to stand by its man. And with an appeal looming, it may have to continue standing by him for the foreseeable future.

Now that a jury has found against them, though, UCF finds itself with a head coach who (fairly or not) has been legally connected to the death of a player, based largely on the testimony of other players. The same coach who arrived in Orlando with a history of abuse claims at previous stops, and watched another running back leave a workout with acute kidney failure less than a year after Plancher's death. By comparison, the scandal that nearly ruined O'Leary's career — the infamously falsified resumé that bounced him from his dream job after a few days at Notre Dame — doesn't even rate. Recruits and their parents don't care about a line or two on a resumé, or even about minor probation. They do care that their sons aren't going to be ridden into the ground by a drill sergeant who thinks it's 1952.

Other coaches have endured similar player deaths — at Northwestern, Florida State and Missouri, for starters — without any notable calls for their jobs. But none of them had O'Leary's checkered past, and certainly never faced anything like the accusations the jury heard over the past few weeks. Obviously, O'Leary still has his defenders. Once it's past the appeal, though, UCF has a lot of thinking to do about how long it can keep up the defense.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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