It’s homecoming week at Florida Atlantic University, but there’s not much to cheer about the 2-6 football team that suddenly lost its coach three days before the big game in a stadium likely to be half-empty.
FAU’s ambitious quest for college football glory has been thwarted in recent seasons by accumulating defeats and lost more traction when head coach Carl Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis resigned Wednesday after Athletic Director Pat Chun confronted them with accusations of what he called “illegal drug use.”
Chun would not confirm or deny that the drug was marijuana, but a source at the school said pot was the drug in question. Chun said two eyewitnesses came forward following a social gathering that was not on campus and did not involve any players or other members of the coaching staff.
Chun said Pelini’s 5-15 record in one-and-a-half seasons with the Owls was not a factor in the decision to let him step down rather than discuss a suspension or other form of punishment.
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“If Carl was 8-0 we would be in the same exact place,” Chun said. “As a head coach, he is a mentor, teacher, surrogate parent, father figure. Our coaches set the bar on integrity, they accept that responsibility and are compensated well for it. The standard of conduct is extremely high and he failed to live up to it.”
The 48-year-old Pelini, who earned $500,000 a year, apologized for “poor judgment” after cleaning out his office, turning in his cellphone and being escorted from athletic department headquarters by campus police.
Practice on Thursday as the team prepared to play Tulane was quiet with an undercurrent of anger and sadness, said interim coach Brian Wright, who was offensive coordinator under Pelini. He gave players a word for the day: resilience.
“There’s a lot of young people hurt, a lot of young people upset,” Wright said. “There’s a lot of blank stares and a lot of tears. A lot of guys looking to the ground. I think a lot of players and a lot of us don’t quite know what to think yet, it happened so fast.”
Chun said one person called him Monday about the incident involving Pelini and Rekstis. At first, he didn’t believe that Pelini would have violated the terms of a five-year contract that compensated him so handsomely.
“My first reaction was, ‘No way,’ ” Chun said. “It seemed so far-fetched that Carl would do that and leave $1.5 million on the table.”
But Chun corroborated details with a second person.
“There were no photos, no evidence, but the verbal accounts lined up 100 percent,” he said. “It was if I said to you that the sky is blue and we both looked outside and the sky was blue.”
On Wednesday after practice, he talked first with Rekstis, then with Pelini in what he described as “emotional meetings.”
“I said, ‘This is what we have,’ and they resigned without contesting what we’re saying or threatening a lawsuit,” Chun said. “It’s like a death in the family for us. Two coaches let down 115 guys. Drugs hurt people — that story never changes.”
Under terms of his contract, Pelini owes FAU this year’s salary in addition to the upcoming years.
The negative publicity dragged down the mood at the Boca Raton campus six months after a string of controversies resulted in the resignation of FAU President Mary Jane Saunders, who made $175,000 a year less than Pelini.
One professor, James Tracy, had espoused conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook, Conn., elementary school shooting rampage and the Boston Marathon bombing, saying both tragedies were staged. Another professor, Deandre Poole, was criticized for a classroom exercise on symbolism termed the “Jesus Stomp.”
But what prompted the most embarrassing national headlines was a plan to name the 30,000-seat football stadium after the GEO Group, the nation’s second largest private prison operator.
GEO’s promised $6 million donation triggered student protests and the stadium nickname Owlcatraz before the idea was scrapped. The stadium still doesn’t have a donor name. And FAU’s interim president is now joined by an interim football coach.
“People are tired of negative things happening to FAU,” said Chris Robé, chair of the Faculty Union. “We need this football problem like a hole in the head. It tarnishes the brand.”
The money-losing program’s $6.8 million budget and the coaches’ salaries ought to be reevaluated, Robé said.
The average professor’s salary at FAU is $71,000.
“It’s time for a cost-benefit analysis,” Robé said. “The team is performing poorly. They botched the stadium name. Is it paying off?
“I’m in favor of sports and don’t want to be stingy, but it’s hard to galvanize around a team that loses, and it must be demoralizing to the players.”
Britni Hiatt, 23, doesn’t usually go to the football games, but she might attend Saturday.
“Students like football,” said the women’s studies student. “But they question the large amounts of money poured into it when we’ve had so many cuts to academic funding. What are the priorities and what’s realistic at FAU?”
Howard Schnellenberger, the former University of Miami coach who built FAU’s program from scratch, anchored fundraising for the stadium and coached the team for its first 11 seasons, said he is confident in football’s ultimate success after its survival of growing pains.
“Everyone is human and makes mistakes, and I think it was handled in a first-class way, that Pat had to take a hard stance, and it’s good to get it over with,” Schnellenberger said. “I’m disappointed and dismayed. But this little thing is just a bump in the road for FAU.”