STATE COLLEGE — Ten members of Penn State’s fencing team stepped up Wednesday to defend their ex-coach, who was fired last month for violating a policy designed to protect employees who report wrongful conduct.
At a hotel news conference, several fencers said they joined the Penn State team specifically because they like the 73-year-old Emmanuil Kaidanov — Coach K, they call him — who emigrated from the former Soviet Union and has coached the university’s men’s and women’s fencing teams for three decades, winning 12 NCAA team championships.
They expressed shock at the abruptness of his ouster and charged that he is being treated unfairly.
“All (Kaidanov) wanted was to find the truth,” said Kane Gladnick, a varsity fencer who played an indirect role in the events leading up to his ouster.
The case is unfolding at a time when Penn State officials, still struggling to repair the university’s image more than two years since the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal began making national headlines, are in proactive mode when it comes to reporting misconduct.
The coach’s problems began in February, after his administrative assistant reported on a confidential university tip line an allegation that Gladnick, a junior from the Philadelphia suburbs, had marijuana. She was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing and voluntarily submitted to a drug test, which she passed. On Wednesday, Gladnick explained that she had been holding a rolled-up piece of medical tape, which the coach’s assistant apparently mistook for a marijuana joint.
What concerned university officials more was the fact that Kaidanov questioned the assistant about her handling of the allegation and told her she should have reported it to him first and that he would report it to the administration. The coach said Wednesday that he did not threaten her.
“It is not in my character to do that,” he said in a separate telephone interview.
University officials responded by firing Kaidanov on Aug. 20 on grounds that his comments to the assistant were retaliatory and violated a 3-year-old policy that defines retaliation as “any adverse action” taken by university faculty members, staffers or students against someone who reports wrongful conduct. Kaidanov said he had no idea that he was about to be fired when he went to the meeting with Athletic Director David Joyner and other officials.
“I was shocked,” he said.
Jeff Nelson, a spokesman for the university’s athletics department declined to discuss the case Wednesday, calling it in an email “a confidential personnel matter.”
In a Sept. 3 letter to the university’s general counsel, the coach’s lawyer, Alvin F. de Levie, said the university’s handling of the case “an overreaction” that is not supported by the facts and unfairly tarnishes the coach’s reputation.
“It would send a terrible message to students, especially student athletes, coaches and the entire university community that the administration believes it is immune from criticism and dissent,” the lawyer wrote.