BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Rick Crawford has paid a high price for what may have been an incomplete confession to his involvement in providing doping products to professional cyclists in the early 2000s, as he was removed from his collegiate coaching job on Monday.
It may also mean a lifetime ban for a coach who has supplied his services to an honor roll of American cycling at different points, including Levi Leipheimer, Lance Armstrong, Tom Danielson and Chris Wherry, among others.
Crawford confessed to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency earlier this month that he had doped two riders, Leipheimer and Kirk O’Bee, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He kept his job at Colorado Mesa University as coach, a move that was equally criticized and applauded. Former U.S. Postal Service rider and staunch anti-doping advocate Scott Mercier was brought on to oversee Crawford as the CMU team’s director, an unpaid position.
But skepticism ran high immediately after Crawford’s confession went public. Two riders? Could that really be it for Crawford?
It doesn’t seem so. But without the full-light of identity, it’s hard to know for certain.
“A former teammate of mine sent me a Facebook message that said, ‘Hey, I don’t think Crawford’s telling the truth,’” Mercier said. “I was hoping he was. What’s tough about this is I really like [Crawford] a lot as a friend. I don’t wish him any ill will.”
Mercier decided to sniff around, pursuing the lead his old teammate, whom he refused to name, gave him. Ultimately, the athlete in question, who Mercier would not name and only said was a pro rider sometime between 2000-2006, spent upwards of two hours with the CMU attorney, and was found to be “credible,” according to Mercier.
Mercier then went to Crawford, a friend and tremendously successful college coach. “To his credit, he’s like: ‘I don’t even want to go down this path. People are going to think what they’re going to think,’” said Mercier. “I want to believe him, right? But I don’t want to discount what I’ve learned, either… It’s just sad for me. It really sucks.”
Crawford, Mercier said, has denied doping involvement with this other, unnamed rider.
With that, Crawford was relieved of his post. In an open letter to his riders and others, Crawford wrote that he was “moving on.”
“My past transgressions have caused too heavy a burden on CMU and the cycling program, and it is best for all that I am no longer involved. It is my wish that we can all forgive and move forward and make the transition as seamless as possible,” he wrote. “I except (sic) full responsibility for my missteps. I hope you will learn from this and never be in this situation. Always be honest and follow the rules. I am sorry that I have allowed my past to disrupt the team’s operations. I know that many of you are loyal to me and I appreciate that very much, but it is important to learn and move forward, and not dwell on this situation. There are way too many great things going on to get stuck on this.”
Crawford has not responded to requests for comment on Tuesday. USADA, for its part, wouldn’t comment at length.
“We are aware of this new information and we are investigating it. As in every case, we will respond further at the appropriate time,” said Annie Skinner, the agency’s media relations manager.
Mercier said he believed the rider that spelled the end for Crawford’s tenure at CMU — whoever it is — wouldn’t come forward because he was “scared.” Asked if the allegation stemmed from the performance enhancing drug EPO, which Crawford already admitted to supplying Leipheimer and O’Bee, Mercier indicated the banned substance in question was not EPO.
And while Crawford’s confessed misdeeds took place outside of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s statute of limitations, meaning he could not be officially sanctioned, he signed a pledge with USADA that if he were involved in an additional case, including those stemming from the past, he would accept a second-offense lifetime ban. That now seems imminent.
“It is incredibly disappointing,” said Colorado Mesa University president Tim Foster in a release. “It is just too bad, but our commitment remains to support our student-athletes and to giving them the most positive college experience possible.”
The CMU team is about 50 strong, and is the nation’s top-ranked division II collegiate team for 2012-13. Its student-athletes are hurting, Mercier said. The team is conducting a national search for a new coach with “impeccable” credentials.
“They understand, but they don’t like it. I’d be mad, too. If I was a 20-year-old kid, I’d be mad, too,” he said. “I told them, I like Rick as a friend. But my allegiance has to be to the team and to the program. And to you guys.”
For Mercier, who walked away from the sport during its darkest days because he didn’t want to dope, the news was more sad than anything. But nothing, it seems, is surprising anymore.
“I suppose I wasn’t shocked, but I was sad. That’s probably the best thing I could say. I didn’t want it to go that way, but it did,” he said. “I think that we need to be forgiving. But we also have to be honest.”