If you follow the football programs at either the real-world Our Lady of Good Counsel in Olney, or the fictional Dillon High on Friday Night Lights, then you’ve come across a similar story line: Rich guy gives lots of money to the football team quarterbacked by his blue-chip son—and makes enemies along the way.
Bernie Dancel, the benefactor behind the powerhouse Good Counsel team, says he’s nothing like Joe McCoy, the fictional and wholly unlikable Mr. Moneybags of Dillon. But he can understand the comparisons. “I watch the show,” he says, laughing. “And my son is the quarterback.”
Good Counsel now plays at Dancel Field, a state-of-the-art turf facility that opened last season thanks in large part to Bernie’s $800,000 donation. Through his family foundation, Dancel also pays tuition for several players on the football squad. He declines to say exactly how many kids on the team he bankrolls, but pooh-poohs the idea that anything untoward is going on.
“My foundation has contributed to kids who have needs of a serious financial situation,” says Dancel, who also serves as Good Counsel’s running backs coach.
Heading into the 2010 season, Good Counsel is ranked 14th in the country in the MaxPreps national poll, higher than any school in this region. Last year, the squad finished at No. 15 in the same poll. Over that span, the squad’s quarterback has been Zach Dancel, in the same role J.D. McCoy fills at Dillon.
The younger Dancel’s first season as quarterback was Good Counsel’s best season ever. The team’s only loss came in the regular season to archrival DeMatha. Between 2004 and 2008, the Hyattsville school beat Good Counsel in five consecutive title games of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC), the top local sports league and among the best in the nation. But in a postseason rematch before 7,000 fans in Annapolis, Zach led Good Counsel to a 14-7 win and the school’s first league championship. Recruiting services now rank the rising senior as the top quarterback prospect in all of Maryland. Bernie Dancel has been investing in his family’s football efforts well before he wrote a check to Good Counsel. But success has complicated some of those investments. Since his days in peewee, Zach had gotten personal quarterback training from Chris Baucia, who runs an operation called the QB Factory. Baucia also happens to be DeMatha’s offensive coordinator. After Zach and Good Counsel beat DeMatha, Baucia stopped working with Zach, posting the following disclaimer on the QB Factory website and on applications to his summer camps, which were held this week in Bowie: “No Player may be accepted or attend this program if they attend a WCAC Private School. DeMatha Catholic HS has deemed this a conflict of Interest and will not allow Coach Baucia to train a player that attends a WCAC high school.”
“Zach’s been training with Chris since he was very young, and he’s a great coach, an upstanding guy,” says Bernie Dancel. “It’s a shame that that had to stop, for whatever reason.”
But while nobody would put a real name to any slurs, anonymous posters on local message boards patronized by prep football obsessives began slamming Bernie Dancel and his role at Good Counsel. A typical comment on DCSportsFan.com’s message board: “So GC is the best team money can buy,” said the poster “Stoneyjack,” who added some sophomoric profanity before slinking off.
“Beating DeMatha turned it up a notch,” Bernie Dancel says. “People from [other WCAC schools] now are saying kids are coming to Good Counsel on athletic scholarships, which are illegal. The people who are saying these things don’t know that I’m also helping kids at DeMatha, St. John’s, at schools in Baltimore. All they know is my son goes to Good Counsel, and Good Counsel wins a championship.”
Dancel made his fortune in the credit repair industry. According to a 1997 profile in The Baltimore Sun, he hit pay dirt in the early 1990s by operating credit-counseling and debt-collection businesses. Consumer watchdog groups quoted in the story said the dual services constituted a conflict of interest. Dancel is now CEO of Ascend One, a company he founded that also provides education and credit-repair services to debtors.
However he’s made his money, Dancel has long given huge amounts of it to football programs. In fact, it was Dancel’s belief in the power of, well, Friday night lights that launched him as a football philanthropist: Living in Howard County—where local high schools once played most games on Saturdays because their fields were unlit—he got behind a community push to raise $1.1 million for lights. His own contribution was $100,000.
By the fall of 2005, every school in Howard County had lights.
“High school football should be played on Fridays under the lights,” Dancel says. “That makes it better for everybody: For families who don’t have to compete with soccer on Saturdays, for the kids who get to play before bigger crowds, with scouts watching them, where a lot of college scouts can’t make Saturday games. It’s worked out incredibly for the county.”
Dancel’s philanthropic portfolio is massive. He’s on the board of the United Way of Central Maryland, Howard Community College Educational Foundation, and the Columbia Festival of the Arts. In 2006, Dancel and his wife made a $750,000 contribution to help build two gyms and a therapy pool at the Howard County YMCA, which is now known as the Dancel Family Center Y. The couple also gave $250,000 last year to the Howard Hospital Foundation to pay for an on-site gym for cardiopulmonary patients.
But the most attention-getting gifts have involved football.
“Howard County was ‘Soccer Town USA,’ everybody just played soccer,” says Dancel, a Hawaii native whose own gridiron career ended at Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, Del. “But I like football.”
That money had made waves before.
Dancel and Howard County officials, for example, squabbled in 2004 after he offered to donate $500,000 for artificial turf fields. The disagreements came over whether the public fields would also get lights: Dancel wanted them, officials didn’t. He ultimately kept his $500,000 but helped county officials campaign for the public funds needed for the durable fake grass.
And in 2003, Dancel accused leaders of Columbia Bulldogs, an established youth football organization, of misappropriating his $90,000 contribution. The missing money didn’t stifle his urge to grow the game. Dancel eventually worked out a settlement in which all of the Columbia Bulldogs assets, including uniforms and shoulder pads, were turned over to a new league he created and ran, the Columbia Ravens.
Dancel then kick started an event called the Maryland Youth Football Championship, a day of title games at M&T Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens, and at Towson University. The 2009 tourney had 160 teams from across the state. “At the start I just asked the Baltimore Ravens to let me use the stadium for one day a year and I’d take care of the rest,” he says. “They were very cooperative, and pretty soon it got too big for one stadium, and now it’s too big for two stadiums.”
The Columbia Ravens, incidentally, were among the winners of state titles in the early years of the tournament. Their quarterback: A much younger Zach Dancel.
So, for all the similarities between the flesh-and-blood Dancels of Maryland and the unreal McCoys of Friday Night Lights, there’s at least one big difference, too: The McCoy kid never won a championship. cp
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