Newly retired Lincoln County legend Larry Campbell had his community reputation sullied a bit when he was arrested and charged with simple battery for angrily defending his son at a school board meeting. Campbell’s lawyer concedes that the 65-year-old ex-coach grabbed the accuser’s shirt and barked at him to “stop making disparaging statements and untrue statements,” but denies any threats were made.
Whatever the eventual outcome of the charges, the 65-year-old Campbell’s retirement will likely proceed without much of a hiccup. Sticking up for his kids through a 44-year career is what helped make Campbell the winningest coach in Georgia history.
Former Georgia head coach Jim Donnan, however, had much more life-altering issues to deal with in an Athens, Ga., courtroom. Winning 40 games in five seasons at the Bulldogs helm lost him his job in 2000. Winning not guilty verdicts on 41 charges stemming from an alleged ponzi scheme gave Donnan his life back.
The hall of fame coach was part of national title teams at Oklahoma and Marshall. At Georgia, he endured the shock of Jasper Sanks fumbling at the goal-line and held his breath on Quincy Carter’s overtime pass in a crushing loss to Georgia Tech in 1999.
But no game-winning kick, Hail Mary pass or other climactic moment on a football field compared listening to the judge say the words “not guilty” with his freedom in the balance.
Donnan reportedly fought back tears as he hugged his lawyers and family after his acquittal.
“Nothing even comes close to approximating that minute when the judge announced the verdict,” Donnan told the Associated Press in a phone interview Friday night. “The apprehension and the anxiety was overwhelming.”
In his relatively brief tenure at Georgia, Donnan didn’t prove to be the coaching genius Bulldogs fans hoped he would be when he took over a struggling program in 1996 from Ray Goff. Despite winning four consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history, he was fired after an 8-5 season in 2000.
Turns out, Donnan isn’t half the businessman Goff proved to be in their post-football lives.
Goff has prospered in the real world, owning a string of Zaxby’s franchises, a home-building business and even had a stint in recycling old wood for new construction. A decade after leaving Georgia to make room for Donnan, Goff said “the best thing that ever happened to me was getting fired.”
Donnan had his own measure of success as an ESPN football commentator when he was let go at Georgia to make room for Mark Richt. But when he tried to parlay his handsome severance and comfortable network salary into major investments, Donnan only upheld the adage of a fool and his money.
Prosecutors claimed than Donnan and his business partner, Gregory Crabtree, operated a fraudulent investment scheme from 2007-10. The West Virginia-based company was called GLC Limited, standing for Global Liquidation Center, and purportedly dealing in wholesale and closeout merchandise.
While Crabtree – who pleaded guilty in April to a single conspiracy charge and could face up to five years in prison – handled the day-to-day operation of the company, Donnan was supposedly the bait. His elite contacts with players, coaches and business leaders through years in football and broadcasting helped entice 94 people to invest more than $80 million.
Some of Donnan’s coaching friends – including former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville and N.C. State basketball coach Mark Gottfried – testified for the prosecution. While they said it was their trust in Donnan that led them to invest money that was ultimately lost after paying initial dividends, most still claim a friendship with the man accused of defrauding them.
This is where Donnan and the prosecution differed – on whether there was intent to commit fraud or just really bad business. Donnan’s all-star attorney team laid out a case for the latter, saying the ex-coach was just as duped as the other investors and even launched his own investigation to attempt to resolve and remedy the situation when things went sour in 2010.
Both GLC Limited and Donnan declared bankruptcy in 2011.
The jury was not convinced by the evidence that fell well short in the burden-of-proof department.
“I just kept thinking day after day the government was going to pull out a smoking gun, and I just didn’t see one,” Artis Ricks, the jury foreman, told reporters after the trial. “I think Mr. Donnan was as big a victim in this as some of the investors who lost their money.”
Donnan said that he never considered making a plea agreement that would have included some reduced jail time, rolling the dice at age 69 that the jury would believe his innocence and spare him from a potential lengthy prison sentence.
“There was no way I could look at my children or my grandchildren or my wife, knowing my innocence, and take something like that,” he said.
Donnan is now free to attend his granddaughter’s high school graduation this week. Perhaps he’ll even land back in the broadcast commentary booth.
“I feel like I’m in the fourth quarter, but I’ve got some time left,” he said.
Here’s hoping both Donnan and Campbell slip quietly into doing all the things that retired football coaches should be doing – playing catch with the grandkids and offering sage advice to their successors. Leave the investing to professionals and let the school superintendent fight his own battles.
Life’s too short to worry about spending it in court.