SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - Two weeks after vilifying two former ballboys who accused his longtime assistant of child molestation, Syracuse men's basketball coach Jim Boeheim said Saturday he'll campaign against child abuse even though he knows his motives will be questioned.
"We believed in helping kids long before this. I'm sure people are always going to question why you do something, but we're going to do this and continue to do it," Boeheim said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "We don't do it for what people might say."
The comments came a day after a postgame press conference in which a drawn-looking Boeheim apologized in a halting voice for initially disparaging the men who accused Bernie Fine of molesting them as minors. Fine has denied the allegations.
A few people had called on Boeheim to resign or be fired when the accusations first surfaced, and he was criticized as callous for saying the accusations were lies motivated by money.
Boeheim first softened his stance earlier this week. After Fine was fired Sunday, Boeheim released a statement saying he regretted any statements he made that might have been "insensitive to victims of abuse."
Then on Tuesday, Boeheim apologized but said again he didn't regret defending his old friend based on the information he had at the time and said he had never worried about his job status in 36 years.
By Friday, he was far more contrite.
"I believe I misspoke very badly in my response to the allegations that have been made," said Boeheim, who paused frequently during a postgame press conference. "I shouldn't have questioned what the accusers expressed or their motives. I am really sorry that I did that, and I regret any harm that I caused."
Boeheim and his wife, Juli, spent time Thursday at the McMahon/Ryan Child Advocacy Center in Syracuse. He said they want to raise awareness about the pervasiveness of child abuse.
"We're going to try to do this because it's our community, and that's what we're going to continue to do," Boeheim told the AP.
He insists the marked shift in his public statements over two weeks is real and not being scripted by the university's chancellor or other outside forces.
"I think in some ways it definitely is genuine," said Nick Caneo, a 19-year-old sophomore studying economics, said of the center visit. "But on top of it, it definitely is a PR thing,"
Mark Grimm, an adjunct media professor at Siena College, said he was shocked by how unprepared Boeheim was Tuesday night.
"Clearly, he took a radical turn between the Tuesday and Friday press conferences. There's no question. He was in over his head there for a while," Grimm said. "They give him a standing ovation when he walks in the Carrier Dome, but remember, these are hard-core Syracuse fans. The whole other community - many of them are appalled."
University spokesman Kevin Quinn declined comment.
Boeheim is easily the most recognized person in this upstate New York city of 145,000 and the public face of Syracuse University. Forbes magazine puts the worth of Boeheim's squad at $17 million, eighth best in the NCAA, while the industry research group SportsOneSourceGroup says the team probably accounts for $40 million a year in merchandise sales.
And in a city where the economy has faltered along with the rest of the Rust Belt, and where headlines often involve the words, "record-setting snow," there's another reason to support the coach: Basketball is a balm.
That changed Nov. 17, when the allegations against Fine were made public.
One of Fine's accusers, Bobby Davis, now 39, told ESPN that Fine molested him beginning in 1984 and that the sexual contact continued until he was around 27.
A ball boy for six years, Davis said the abuse occurred at Fine's home, at Syracuse basketball facilities and on team road trips, including the 1987 Final Four.
Davis' stepbrother, Mike Lang, 45, who also was a ball boy, told ESPN that Fine began molesting him while he was in the fifth or sixth grade.
A third accuser, 23-year-old Zach Tomaselli of Lewiston, Maine, came forward last Sunday. He said he told police that Fine molested him in 2002 in a Pittsburgh hotel room after a game. He said Fine touched him "multiple" times in that one incident.
The allegations have rattled the Syracuse community, especially so soon after the Penn State child sex abuse case in which former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is accused in a grand jury indictment of sexually abusing eight boys over a 15-year period.
Chancellor Nancy Cantor immediately made it clear in an e-mail to the Syracuse community that the school would not tolerate abuse: "We know that many question whether or not a university in today's world can shine a harsh light on its athletics programs. We are aware that many wonder if university administrations are willing to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing that may disrupt a successful sports program. I can assure you I am not, and my fellow administrators are not. We hold everyone in our community to high standards and we don't tolerate illegal, abusive or unethical behavior -no matter who you are."
Boeheim, who's paid a salary around $1.5 million, is a lifer.
Born and raised in nearby Lyons, Boeheim enrolled at Syracuse in 1962, was a walk-on with the basketball team that year, and by his senior season was a team captain along with Dave Bing.
After graduating, Boeheim played pro ball in Scranton, Pa., then returned to Syracuse as a graduate assistant in 1969. He's been there ever since.
For the city and the university, there are plenty of reasons to protect Boeheim's reputation and the basketball program:
- The Syracuse Convention and Tourism estimates the university pumps $179 million in travel-related spending into the region every year.
- Just two NCAA teams, Syracuse and Kentucky, have drawn an average of more than 20,000 fans per game in each of the past 10 seasons.
- In his 36th season, there have been eight Big East titles, 28 NCAA Tournament appearances, three title games and a national championship in 2003.
Now, Boeheim's trying to shift the focus from his program to child abuse awareness.
Although he and his wife previously raised money for the McMahon/Ryan center, Boeheim said they want to raise awareness.
"We started working with them last summer," he said Saturday. "We met with them the other day, not just to be fundraisers but to bring more awareness to people in this area. In our area there's not as much awareness as there needs to be."
Julie Cecile, director of the McMahon/Ryan Center, said Boeheim spent about an hour at the facility Thursday.
"He was really sincere. He really was," Cecile said. "He's been with us since last year, and I think it's an ongoing education. We just have to really use this as a teachable moment, make people realize that there is a problem, and I think that he's going to be able to do that."
The center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending child abuse through intervention and education.
Boeheim said he was surprised to learn how many child abuse victims don't come forward.
"I don't think people realize how much abuse there is and how much work needs to be done," Boeheim said. "That's what I think I learned from talking to people at McMahon/Ryan house; people don't realize the magnitude of this problem. I really don't, and it's something that needs to be addressed in this community. We have started to now realize we need to do more than ever."