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Fine scandal at Syracuse another dark cloud, but it's not Penn State

The Penn State thing. It hovers over Syracuse University today. The scandals at Penn State and Syracuse are completely unrelated and inextricably linked.

This isn't fair. The accusations against Bernie Fine are very similar to the accusations against Jerry Sandusky, but the accusations against Syracuse are not similar to the accusations against Penn State.

Penn State is accused of covering up eyewitness accounts of sexual molestation. Nobody has alleged that at Syracuse. Boeheim said dumb things to support his friend, and he deserves heat for it. But Penn State officials allegedly heard about specific incidents, shortly after they occurred, from independent observers, and did nothing. That is an enormous difference.

And yet ... well, this could become a Penn State thing, in nationwide sentiment if not in the legal system. The wave of public opinion can rise up and drown careers.

Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor knows that. She saw another school president, Graham Spanier, lose his job when the Penn State thing hit. She won't let it happen to her. That was evident in the first six words of Syracuse's statement Sunday night:

"At the direction of Chancellor Cantor, Bernie Fine's employment with Syracuse University has been terminated, effective immediately."

At the direction of Chancellor Cantor. The wording was surely intentional. Syracuse just cut off Boeheim's right-hand man, and the university administration is already distancing itself publicly from its head basketball coach. Fine was Boeheim's guy, not Cantor's, and she wants the world to know it.

Three men have accused Fine of molesting them. Forget Boeheim for a moment. What do you think of that sentence? What are the chances of three men concocting a false accusation of that magnitude, against a famous coach, and attaching their names to it? It's important to note, the legal system will ultimately determine if these accusations have any merit, but public opinion will go a long way in determining the fate of those associated with Fine.

When the first two accusations came out, Boeheim lashed out at the accusers. He said they were lying. Maybe they were. I don't know and you don't know. Point is, Boeheim didn't know either. But he said he did.

Then ESPN reported the third accusation. And ESPN reported that in a phone conversation, Fine's wife, Laurie, said Fine "needs help" and "thinks he's above the law."

Now Boeheim is on an island with an accused pedophile, and he is desperately trying to swim home. He says he "deeply" regrets his previous statements that Fine's accusers were out for money. He says he is "personally very shocked because I have never witnessed any of the activities that have been alleged." In public perception, Fine belongs to Boeheim, which means Boeheim belongs to Fine.

He also said they were out for money, which fed the worst perceptions about accusers. It was totally wrong, and he deserves criticism for it.

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But understand: Boeheim knew the accusations were several years old, that they had been investigated by the police, Syracuse University and two media organizations, and no charges were filed and no reports were published. Then, in the wake of the Sandusky allegations, the old accusations against Fine came back. Boeheim and Fine had been close friends for decades. Can't we at least understand why Boeheim reacted the way he did, even if we disagree with it?

Boeheim built the Syracuse program, just as Paterno built Penn State's. Like Paterno, he seemed un-fireable. Fine was his No. 1 assistant coach for decades, just as Jerry Sandusky was Paterno's top assistant.

Boeheim did what he has always done, what so many coaches do: He fought. It's a ruthless business, and Boeheim lasted this long for a reason.

The irony, for Boeheim, is that this seems like a Penn State thing precisely because he didn't want it to seem that way. The smart move was to shut up, or issue a short statement that couldn't haunt him later. His bold support of Fine now looks like a cover-up.

More details will emerge. But based on what we know, here is the difference between Penn State and Syracuse:

In 1998, a woman told Penn State police that Sandusky had showered with her 11-year-old son. He allegedly said afterward, "I was wrong. I wish I could get forgiveness ... I wish I were dead."

Then, in 2002, Penn State coach Mike McQueary witnessed an incident between Sandusky and a prepubescent boy in the shower. According to the grand jury report, McQueary saw Sandusky raping the boy. We don't know exactly what McQueary told Paterno or athletic director Tim Curley. But we know that Penn State acted deplorably afterward.

Now, compare this to what Bobby Davis, Fine's first accuser, told ESPN. This was after Boeheim vehemently defended Fine and said Davis had told "a bunch of a thousand lies."

"How does he know what happened at Bernie's house at night?" Davis said.

"Maybe he thinks he knows Bernie like a lot of other people do," Davis said. "They don't know Bernie ... How do they know this wasn't happening? How can they tell people he didn't do that to me? I don't know how when you weren't there."

Again: We don't know what else will emerge. But Fine's accuser says Boeheim didn't know Fine was a pedophile.

Boeheim needs to be contrite about his previous statements, keep saying he is sorry, and admit that he really doesn't know what happened. It's the right thing to do. It is also his only chance to survive.

Syracuse is learning a lesson from the Penn State thing, a lesson that every university and major institution needs to learn: When an accusation like this hits you, don't hit back. And the best way to protect yourself is not to look like you are protecting yourself at all.