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Downey weathering storm at UC

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- UNLESS INVESTED in a particular team, sports fans enjoy a good fight.

Sometimes literally. Most of the time, though, figuratively.

We want to see athletes and teams claw and battle. We want to see Rafael Nadal sweat and toil through a break in an extended fifth set against Novak Djokovic to win on the clay.

Sometimes, however, the battles are not enjoyable to watch. Sometimes they are not fun at all, especially for those involved.

Such is the case with the battle of University of Charleston men's basketball coach Mark Downey.

This past week, Downey returned from a vacation to South Carolina, which experienced remnants of Tropical Storm Andrea.

It was the second storm experienced by Downey of late.

At the end of April, Downey and his family were at the Ruthlawn baseball field for a Little League game involving son Bryce.

When the cell phone chirped.

It was assistant coach Mark Richmond with news that UC's best player from the previous season - Terrell Lipkins - had been arrested for robbery. Ditto the team's third-leading scorer in Robbie Dreher and fifth-leading scorer Quincy Washington.

"It was a shock," Downey said. "I had no idea at all. Quincy Washington and Lipkins had never been in trouble before. They were quiet kids. Robbie [Dreher] too, although he'd been in trouble and gotten out of it.

"Mark said they'd arrested Lipkins and took his car. Then I got a call from the police asking me to come down [to the station] and help sort it out, look at pictures.

"I had Robbie and Quincy turn themselves in the next day."

Immediately, UC divorced itself from the players. They were evicted from the campus and tossed from the basketball team.

Yet there were arrows shot at Downey. Dreher had pleaded guilty in the past of second-degree assault and battery. A female at Winthrop University had accused Dreher and a fellow then-teammate of sexually assaulting her when she rejected their advances.

"People were questioning me," Downey said. "But all three were vetted. We took a second chance with a kid [in Dreher]. We've done that a lot with success in regard to players, in regard to degrees."

Not this time.

"Personally, it was hard," Downey said. "People don't look at the past, the games won, the graduations. They think I brought in kids for the wrong reasons. I understand that."

Downey said he also understood the remaining UC players would also suffer, despite no wrongdoing. He pointed to guys like Xavier Humphrey. He hailed Tino DiTrapano as a fine student, a "success story," and a better team representative.

"You know, here I was building a team around Lipkins and Dreher," said the coach. "I was moving Lipkins off the ball. Dreher had come on the last five, six games. I thought those two would have really good seasons this year. I felt if we just could find a point guard ...

"Now, beyond being hurt image-wise, our team has to recover."

Downey paused.

"Almost every day I'm reminded of what happened," he said. "I wanted to visit the people hurt in the [robbery]. That was frowned upon. It was thought maybe it would be taken the wrong way.

"I remember back on Jan. 15. We'd beaten No. 1 West Liberty. We were breaking into the national rankings. We'd won 26 of our last 30 games. We were the hottest team in the conference, if not the nation.

"Then we fell off to finish 7-7. I was still thinking, 'Hey, if we just get the right people in here ...' Then this happened."

That storm.

"All of a sudden our program was labeled," Downey said. "And it's not that way. A few made bad decisions. I haven't tried to hide that. I've been very open with recruits. We hit [the situation] head-on. We got rid of those guys.

"Yes, I felt sorry for myself. But after two days of that, I said, 'That's long enough.' I jumped into recruiting."

Downey said all 17 seniors he coached at Arkansas Tech were graduated. He said at UC, he's 9 of 11 and "wearing out" the other two to finish.

There has been support for Downey, including from UC president Ed Welch.

"Even he said this [kind of incident] has never been in my background," said the coach. "This has never happened before on my watch. The new [recruits] are going through a pretty extensive background check though. We have a new list of values and guidelines to follow, although most we already did. We want student-athletes to know what we're about and what we do."

Downey said he was also "overwhelmed by text messages and Facebook messages."

"It made me feel good that people know me," said the coach. "It really helped me. They told me to keep my head up and things will work out. I think it will."

Indeed, every storm eventually passes.

Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, mitchvingle@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.


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