The Steubenville Coach Has Joe Paterno Problems

As the case heads for its next phase, questions are stirring from Steubenville and beyond as to whether the long-time football coach did what was right in the days that followed the rape of a 16-year-old-girl after one of his team's games, as well as who he was trying to help, how he used his power to help them, and whether he broke the law.

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Reno Saccoccia is the Joe Paterno of Steubenville, Ohio. The man has been coaching Steubenville High's Big Red football tean for 30 years, he's amassed an 85-percent winning percentage for the program — a glimmer of school pride in a fading former steel country now synonymous with rape — and, according to testimony and evidence presented in the town's high-profile trial last week, his quarterback says he knew about child abuse that his coach failed to report. Paterno lost his job; Saccoccia hasn't. But Coach Sac's days may be numbered: Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has called a grand jury next month to investigate additional charges and indictments, including, DeWine said, failure to report a felony.

"One of the lessons of life is we have to take care of each other, and we have to try to help people and we have to do what's right," DeWine is quoted as saying in a CNN report Tuesday. "And there were precious few people that night that were doing what was right."

As the case heads for its next phase, questions are stirring from Steubenville and beyond as to whether Saccoccia did what was right in the days that followed the assault of a 16-year-old-girl after one of his team's games, as well as who he was trying to help, how he used his power to help them, and whether he broke the law.

A Steel Town's Biggest Winner

The 63-year-old Saccoccia became the head coach at Steubenville in 1983, inheriting a winning team from Bob Hedmond. Before Hedmond, who coached for just one year in 1981, Big Red sputtered through several seasons with a winning percentage around 50 percent — disappointing by Ohio's big-time standards for high-school football. Under Saccoccia, that winning percentage has ballooned to about 85 percent, with his teams winning 311 of 367 games as Steubenville High came to be an emblem for a town with a history of corruption, even as its economy bled jobs and fast. Big Red, it seemed, just didn't lose — that's the 2006 state-championship game pictured at right — at least until they went 9-3 in the 2012 season following the rape charges.

That's why, as Deadspin's Barry Petchesky points out, the man is in the Ohio Coaches Hall of Fame. Petchesky writes:

He's won three state titles. When Saccoccia won his 300th game last year, a sellout crowd of more than 10,000 people packed Harding Stadium—christened "Reno Field" in 2007—and chanted "Reno, Reno, Reno" as he left the field.

Many of Big Red's stars would go on to become some of the best players in Ohio prep history — and many traced that back to their close relationship with Saccoccia. "I treat every kid like he's my son," the coach is quoted as saying in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer last September. "Whatever I would do with my own son is what I would do with these kids,"

The Other Steubenville Standard 

Coach Sac's boys, of course, were not his sons. Saccoccia is a coach, an authority figure — perhaps the authority figure — at a 700-student public school. And he, like teachers and school administrators at Steubenville High, is legally required to answer to Ohio law more than he is any sense of familial football loyalty. Here's the state law, which pertains to both juvenile and adult court, focusing on child abuse and neglect:

No person described in division (A)(1)(b) of this section who is acting in an official or professional capacity and knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect based on facts that would cause a reasonable person in a similar position to suspect, that a child under eighteen years of age or a mentally retarded, developmentally disabled, or physically impaired child under twenty-one years of age has suffered or faces a threat of suffering any physical or mental wound, injury, disability, or condition of a nature that reasonably indicates abuse or neglect of the child shall fail to immediately report that knowledge or reasonable cause to suspect to the entity or persons specified in this division.

As head football coach, Saccoccia would appear to fall under one of two qualifications for the requirement to report:

... school teacher; school employee; school authority; person engaged in social work or the practice of professional counseling; ...

It remains unclear exactly what Saccoccia knew or didn't know — or reported or didn't report — about the rape that shocked his football team, the town, and a country. But it appears from what's gone public so far that he did not report anything regarding the incident to school officials or, on the police record, to local law enforcement. And it appears from the court proceedings in the rape trial last week that his players made him aware of at least a disgusting video related to the assault, at  best a situation Saccoccia said he could control given his influence over important figures in town, and at worst a sexual crime that the coach himself accused his quarterback of committing. If any of those hold up in the legal proceedings to come, Saccoccia may have broken the law. Even if they don't, his career may be in question. In his few public comments since the victim's family reported the assault last summer, Saccoccia has maintained that he knew nothing of the attack or the social-media firestorm that engulfed his program in the many months that followed. He, like many other school officials in Steubenville, have declined numerous interview requests before, during, and after the trial.

The Trail of Text Messages

One of the questions central to the Ohio grand jury's work may be whether enough evidence exists to prove that Saccoccia knew the extent of the events of August 11, when a pre-season game for Big Red gave way to a night of partying, during which Jefferson County Juvenile Court has now found a 16-year-old girl was raped by the team's quarterback, Trent Mays, and wide receiver, Ma'lik Richmond. (Richmond now plans to appeal Sunday's guilty verdict.) Text messages sent by Mays (pictured at right) to witnesses and his friends and teammates — and transcribed in court by journalists Don Carpenter and Amanda Blackburn as well as the reporting staff of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer — seem to indicate that the team's star QB had informed his coach within two days of the incidents in question, on August 13, the day before the girl's parents told the police and nine days before the players were arrested by the Steubenville police department.

On August 13, Mays sent this text to Evan Westlake, a fellow football player who filmed the now infamous 12-minute viral video making fun of the victim:

Delete that off You-tube. Coach Sac knows about it. Seriously delete it.

Saccoccia has claimed in media reports that he "didn't do Internet" and had not seen the videos in the case, but this text message from states that Mays believed Saccoccia did know about the incident and the video. On August 13, Mays sent this text to the victim:

Reno (football coach Reno Saccoccia) just called my house and said I raped you

On August, 14 Mays sent this text to a still unnamed friend, acknowledging that Reno was going to "take care of it" if the victim's parents took their case to court:

I got Reno. He took care of it and shit ain't gonna happen, even if they did take it to court. Like he was joking about it so I’m not worried.

As is clear from Judge Thomas Lipps sentencing the two players to at least one and two years in a juvenile rehabilitation facility, Reno didn't really take care of anything from a legal standpoint. Their sentences could have been greater had they been tried as adults, but it was Lipps who decided to try the boys in juvenile court, after Jefferson County prosecutor Jane Hanlin and juvenile judge Sam Kerr both recused themselves because of almost inevitable ties to Sacccoccia's program, which overshadowed almost everything in town until a nation's eyes descended upon Steubenville.

The Untouchable Turf

Despite the abundance of social-media chatter among local teenagers that night and the next morning, no witnesses came forward in the days to come, and they were even harder to come by once the girl's parents reported the crime. Steubenville police chief William McCafferty has said he "begged" for students and parents to provide his deparment with information. At the time and even through the trial, pictures and videos being shared on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube — even if they were since deleted — seemed to outweigh the actual evidence in the case. "The thing I found most disturbing about this is that there were other people around when this was going on," McCafferty told the New York Times. "Nobody had the morals to say, 'Hey, stop it, that isn’t right.'"

Did Saccoccia influence the slow trickle of information? Did he impose some sort of gag order on his players — and, in turn, the town in which they were treated as superstars — that slowed down the collection of evidence? And what if outside critics of Saccoccia and the suspects, such as blogger Alexandra Goddard, hadn't collected the social-media fragments for the world to see? Would a coach's apparent will have kept important details from seeing the light of day, either in court or in public? That's the theory from Deadspin's Petchesky:

The players were convinced they were untouchable because they'd committed the rape on Saccoccia's turf. They were right, for a while. Witnesses refused to come forward for months, and a local blogger covering the case was sued for defamation. If the Times hadn't turned its eyes to Steubenville, and hacker groups not exposed the graphic evidence, it's a legitimate question whether justice would have been done at all. Whether or not Saccoccia took a personal hand in protecting his players, the Steubenville reaction is a symptom of what happens in a football-mad small town run by a deified coach.

The trouble with blaming Saccoccia's influence, of course, is that it's impossible to quantify the will of one powerful sports figure to control a sports-driven place like Steubenville — just ask anyone who's been to University Park, Pennsylvania, where Penn State University was ruled with an invisible hand by "JoePa," and a college town adored him. While surely a young person could be intimidated by the dueling powers of the police and a famous coach, surely text messages that could be interpreted as hearsay — and from a convicted rapist, no less — are not exactly the sturdiest piece of evidence. (Mays was shown, in another text message displayed in court, to have lied at least once to the victim's family.)

The lead prosecutor in the rape trial, Marianne Hemmeter, said a news conference after the verdict on Sunday that the influence of the hacking collective Anonymous has "put enormous pressure" on the victim — but also on investigators, to collect "a lot more" for the prosecution's case. How much more they got, well, it may have been too late in the days between the crime and the reporting of it, and in the days that followed — especially as some things were deleted and some people never spoke out. But that's what the grand jury is for: a second chance to ask the questions that haven't been answered.

DeWine, the state attorney general, said on Sunday that investigators — the team combined his office, the local police department, the county sheriff's office, the FBI, and more — had eventually recovered 13 cellphones, with 396,270 texts, 308,586 photos, and 940 video clips. But still 16 people had refused to talk to the authorities, and that seemed to be part of the reasoning behind DeWine's calling the grand jury, which the city manager who was so critical of Anonymous and outside critics has said she accepts, "to make sure that everyone that was involved is held accountable." A petition to the district school board calling for Saccoccia's dismissal has more than doubled in its signatures since the verdict on Sunday.

Coach Sac's Connections

As we reported Monday in a grand-jury preview, many of the players inside Steubenville's legal system are connected to the football team somehow. Saccoccia, by way of the Juvenile Probation Department, has been linked to Fred Abdalla Jr., the chief probation officer for Jefferson County Juvenile Court and the son of the Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla. According to the so-called "Steubenville Files" collected by Local Leaks, the WikiLeaks-style site associated with Anonymous that amassed tips from unnamed and uncorroborated sources about the case and disseminated them online, Saccoccia and Sheriff Abdalla are good friends.

Many critics of the case have long cited the unverified connections between Saccoccia, the cops, the school board, and the county prosecutor's office as evidence of a cover-up. Before the trial, DeWine addressed these concerns: "There's no evidence that the prosecutor is involved in a cover-up, and there's no evidence that the police are involved in a cover-up," he told The New York Times.

But there remain questions about why Mays was "not worried," and what that confidence may have had to do with the web of power in Steubenville (click image to expand):

What Now?

Saccoccia has, as he has since the case erupted locally and then nationally in the fall, remained largely silent in public ever since, even if he's known to be an outspoken coach and visibly angry figure. When a reporter pressed him, in November, on whether he was still aware of the videos and photos circulating after the parties on August 11, Saccoccia butted noses with the Times reporter, saying, "You're going to get yours. And if you don't get yours, somebody close to you will." But if Saccoccia did fail to report a crime, that could be a fourth-degree misdemeanor, which carries a sentence of up to one month in jail — not exactly the harshest penalty in the book of Ohio law.

Meanwhile, the sun has long set on Ohio prep-school football season, with Easter vacation approaching for Steubenville High next week and a potentially explosive grand-jury session shortly thereafter. The disappointing season has long faded in the dark glow of a national spotlight, but lost in the shadow is the criticism Saccoccia faced for not disciplining his Big Red squad in the incident*: "Two players who testified at a hearing in October were not suspended until eight games into a 10-game regular season," reports the Plain-Dealer, which adds that Saccoccia has maintained that he did not discuss the incident with his players. (Update, Wednesday: The Steubenville Board of Education released the first public statement by local school officials since the arrest of Mays and Richmond: "To the best of our knowledge, everyone associated with Steubenville City Schools students and employees – have cooperated, as we have encouraged them to do," the statement read. The school board added, "it was impossible not to ask what we might have done differently to prevent this horrible event from occurring.")

After news broke of Jerry Sandusky's history of pedophilia in and around the Penn State football program in March of 2011, large swaths of a town overlooked true and disgusting crimes long long enough to defend its legendary football coach, and then watch him go — Paterno was fired eight months later, in November, just three days before the Nittany Lions hosted their final home game of the season. The board explained that Paterno was fired because he did not do enough with the knowledge of Sandusky's transgressions. If you're counting, it's been around eight months since the Steubenville rape was reported, albeit three days late and a lot of evidence short. Nobody may ever really know why, but the grand jury is expected to convene around April 15. Saccoccia, who told the Plain-Dealer on Friday that he was "expecting" to testify in the rape trial but did not, may finally have some answers to offer out loud, or at least on the record.

*Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Saccoccia was criticized for not punishing any players while in fact the criticism had been about the delay in punishments.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.