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The astonishing demise of the Irish coach who promoted boxing's richest fight...and world peace

Dan Doyle promoted Sugar Ray Leonard, coached the Irish basketball team and claimed to help bring peace to Northern Ireland. Then it all went wrong.

Former Irish basketball coach Dan Doyle, in an interview he recorded in 2015.
Former Irish basketball coach Dan Doyle, in an interview he recorded in 2015.
Image: Dan Doyle Youtube

IT’S 16 SEPTEMBER 1981, and the 25,000 people corralling the four-sided canvas at the centre of a hastily built outdoor arena at Caesar’s Palace casino in Las Vegas are about to witness the richest fight in boxing history.

The cheapest seat is $50, but it’s really about the television audience. In one hour, 300 million pairs of eyes will follow Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns to the ring.

That’s all a little too soon for Katherine Doyle.

She shuffles quickly down to the ring, arriving breathless and in search of her husband.

She spies him standing behind a tuxedo-clad Howard Cosell; a walkie-talkie in his hand, a television monitor in front of him, and two differently-coloured telephones to either side.

“The press is complaining that the TV camera is blocking their view.”

“So, what? This is a TV fight, not a gooddamn opera!”, snapped her husband in response before setting off to find Lou Rawls before he sang the national anthem.

This flustered outburst aside, Daniel E. Doyle Jr. was not the typical boxing promoter.

WBC & WBA Welterweight Title Bout - Thomas Hearn v Sugar Ray Leonard - Las Vegas Sugar Ray Leonard fells Tommy Hearns in the 13th round of their Vegas bout. Source: dpa

For one, he was one of the very few to come to the business from university: when studying at the University of Connecticut in 1975, he wrote a doctoral dissertation on sports promotion, and then promoted his own sports events. His first, a professional basketball game in Springfield, Massachusetts, turned a profit.

He came to know Sugar Ray Leonard through his lawyer and financial adviser Mike Trainer, and in 1977, as Doyle was flying to Washington for Jimmy Carter’s inauguration ceremony, he read in the New York Times that Leonard was turning pro.

He phoned Trainer once he got off the plane and told him he wanted to promote Leonard’s first fight.

He struck a deal, and went on to promote Leonard’s first fight with Hearns and also handled the close-circuit promotions for Leonard’s fights with Roberto Duran along with the title fight between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes.

His boxing success is quintessential Doyle: an interest founded on intellectual rigour made real by soaring ambition and a remarkable ability to connect with the right people.

He didn’t stop there.

His talents took him beyond just making money from sport, and soon he conceived not just a different role for himself within sport, but for sport itself. 

This wasn’t sport as a money-making machine; this was sport as a vehicle for peace.

The righteous path he laid for himself wended toward Ireland, and he made an impact on Irish sport, culture, and society.

The latter he clung to as his greatest success, claiming to have played a role in the Northern Ireland peace process.

He transposed these ideas across the world to the point that former US Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that “Dan Doyle and his team are on a historic mission for world peace”.

Then, operatically, it all went wrong.

**********

Although boxing proved his potential, Doyle’s sport was basketball.

 In 1968, he was part of a New England All-Star team that toured Europe, and reflected on it in a 2011 interview with Leaders’ Magazine as a formative experience at a time when Americans were “not looked upon as welcome visitors as much as intruders because of the Vietnam conflict”.

We had to walk through a picket line for one of the games we played. But it was enlightening to see how sport brought everybody together.I knew then that sports had this effect on people that went well beyond the court.

When coaching basketball at Trinity College (Connecticut), Doyle took a team to Cuba over Christmas 1980, claiming that it was the first tour by any American team since the revolution of 1959. On the trip, Doyle decided he would leave coaching, and instead enrolled in the course at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University.

It was basketball that first took him to Ireland.

At the beginning of the 1980s, basketball in Ireland was starting to boom. An influx of professional players from America brought a bombastic kind of brilliance, which pulled unprecedented numbers to dowdy parish halls.

This made glaring the absence of a national stadium and other shabby facilities, so Basketball Ireland looked across the Atlantic for funding.

 Doyle’s arrival is chronicled in Kieran Shannon’s Hanging From The Rafters, the definitive account of basketball in Ireland.

 Then CEO of Irish Basketball, Noel Keating, met with Irish ambassador Sean Donlon in the States in 1980 in a bid to drum up some financial support among Irish-Americans. To do so he needed the right kind of person, and a year later, he found him.

A meeting with Doyle was arranged for the summer of 1981, with the mercurial American stopping off on his way to Prague. Doyle sold Keating a vision much greater than the one idling in Keating’s mind.

Rather than persuade a million or so Irish-Americans to part with a couple of dollars in support of the game back home, Doyle dreamt bigger.

He proposed they exploit his contacts and the lineage of so many basketball coaches on the East Coast and send the Irish national team on tour.

In strictly sporting terms, the first tour was a farce. Players often slept on gym floors in lieu of hotel rooms, rising early to catch a bus to the airport so they could catch a bus to that night’s game before doing it all over again.

In another respect, however, it was a success. Aer Lingus sponsored the first tour in 1981, with Budweiser coming on board as well the following year.

The 1982 tour raised more than $80,000, and was buttressed with 17 fundraising dinners hosted by cabaret comedian, Hal Roach.

Then-PRO Sean O’Sullivan’s reflections on the success of these dinners are recorded in Hanging From The Rafters.

“Every place we went he’d tell the same jokes in the same sequence, every time. It was my job to mind the obnoxious bollix but the Americans loved him.

“‘And Murphy says to Flanagan…’ Hilarious! And I’m thinking, ‘This is great!’

First you’d have Doyle, Liam McGinn and myself giving them the grá mo chroí line about how basketball in Ireland is a 32 county sport, how Protestants and Catholics don’t ask each other on the court what religion they are, and how the sport is a way of keeping inner-city Irish kids away from drugs. Then Roach comes along and has them laughing and clapping and getting their photographs taken with him. They’d paid $150 a head for a chicken dinner and as far as they were concerned it was worth every penny. Everywhere we went we heard the same jokes every night and ate the same chicken dinner every night, all the while the team were eating McDonald’s.

 Doyle was the driving force behind the successes…and he recognised his value. It’s at this point his intentions became clouded.

After the first successful tour, Doyle told Irish Basketball that he would need the profile of head coach of the Irish national team to make it work again.

The authorities gave in to Doyle’s request, and incumbent Danny Fulton was jettisoned.

“He wanted to coach Ireland for his reasons”, remembers Tim McCarthy, then an Irish international. “Not for the good of Ireland; he wanted to do it for his own internal reasons.”

It was a brutal fate to befall Fulton, a coach of such renown that he will be inducted into Basketball Ireland’s Hall of Fame in May.

Danny Fulton Danny Fulton (left) with his son Adrian in 2011. Source: Cathal Noonan

“Danny Fulton was an exceptional coach, and he didn’t deserve to be shafted by Dan Doyle at the time”, says McCarthy.

Doyle took charge of the Irish team in 1982, and McCarthy was unimpressed. 

“He was very charismatic but in a coaching sense, he was just average.

“I remember on one tour, he would have an offensive line-up and a defensive line-up, like in American football. So we’d have the ball and he’d have five of us on, and when we’d lose the ball he’d take the five of us off and send on others to play defence.

“It was the first time I’d ever seen it…I thought it was illogical.”

Doyle was only in charge for a brief time, and left the role before the 1983 tour had ended. Fulton resumed charge after the tour, and Doyle hasn’t been involved with Irish basketball since.

Away from the court, McCarthy remembers Doyle as a “fascinating” man.

I found him a fascinating individual. He was a big name, and people said he was Sugar Ray Leonard’s promoter. He was a big personality. He really impressed me as a fundraiser. He had dinners set up for us with people who had invested in the game, and invested in clubs in Ireland, and that was obviously a success.

That word crops up too in the testimony of ex-basketballer Kevin Greaney, whose 1983 stint with St Vincent’s in Dublin was partly facilitated by Doyle.

“To me, he was a fascinating character. I was always fascinated by his vision. He had a great vision, and he could see what things were capable of becoming. And he was very good at fundraising. He was very good at getting people to donate to his cause”.

Pete Strickland – former player-coach with Neptune and recently-retired Irish head coach – worked with Doyle for a brief period upon his return to the States from Cork in 1982…and his testimony tallies with others, too.

“Dan’s focus was different to mine”, he tells The42. “He was a businessman. I was moving on with my coaching career. He was a guy with a business sense, and a business focus. He didn’t have a great touch with folks, but he could be charming in a smaller group.

“I could never fully figure out [if Doyle’s involvement with Irish basketball] was just to make money. I could never figure it out. Not in a bad way. He was pretty tunnel visioned. But then you’d introduce him to someone, he’d have a fine way about him.

“Even though he had this vision, I’m not sure how much of it was about money, and how much of it was about seeing the sport grow here. But maybe there was more to it than I saw.”

 Nonetheless, Doyle’s involvement in Irish basketball ceased in 1983.

The National Arena in Tallaght would not be opened for another ten years.

He retained involvement in other parts of Irish life, and in 1999 Doyle chaired a literary festival on the Aran Islands that featured Edna O’Brien, Roddy Doyle, Frank McCourt, and US Poet Laureate Joyce Carol Oates, among others. 

36th American Film Festival - Fair Game' Screening Joyce Carol Oates, pictured in 2010. Source: ABACA/PA Images

Oates read a poem called The Dollar Sign, which she had dedicated to Donald Trump, and according to the Irish Times, gave an address in which she dwelt on human weakness, greed, and loneliness.

Doyle wasn’t to know, but Oates was adumbrating the themes of his future.  

**********

In November 1982, sociology professor John Sugden was less than two months into his new job at what is now the University of Ulster in Jordanstown when bleak and brutal reality intruded.

While he was teaching, a bomb exploded in a nearby building on campus. It had been planted in the roof of a classroom by the Provisional IRA, and killed three RUC members during an RUC lecture.

Sugden coached football at the university, and could see in his teams a glimpse at an altogether more banal, happy future as players from opposing communities clubbed together in the name of sport.

His ideas were formalised by events across the Atlantic Ocean. On 26 May, 1987 at Trump Tower, Manhattan, Dan Doyle held the first Board of Directors meeting for his new, philanthropic non-profit organisation, titled the Institute for International Sport.

Doyle was ratified as Executive Director.

The Institute’s first sport-entwined philanthropic project was entitled Sport Corps, which sent volunteers to Ireland, Burundi and Czechoslovakia.

In Belfast they found Sugden, and in 1989 a project called Belfast United was born. Sugden was its founder and co-ordinator, with Doyle’s Institute providing funding and a network of contacts in the U.S.

Catholic and Protestant teenagers were recruited from the most entrenched and underprivileged communities in Belfast, and brought together to train and play matches on a university campus, which Sugden believed to be the most neutral setting available.

The aim was not winning, but team-building.

Among its most successful components was a tour to New England, during which the squad stayed with American families with a Catholic and a Protestant player assigned to each house.

In his book, Sport and Peace Building in Divided Societies, Sugden spins a yarn to accentuate its success. With a Belfast United squad of 15 and 16-year-olds trailing 1-0 in the final few minutes of a friendly game against an older, varsity XI from the University of Rhode Island, it all kicked off.

Belfast’s 5’ 8” right-back made a lung-busting run in which he found himself one-on-one with the 6’ 2” URI goalkeeper. He slightly overran the ball and the big keeper scooped it up, only to find himself barged to the ground by the onrushing full-back, who himself was upended by the outrushing and now-furious custodian. The two players squared up. Punches were thrown and then all hell broke loose as both teams – including occupants of both benches – converged on the URI penalty box to fight. I looked on with a mixture of horror and pride as Protestant and Catholic boys from East and West Belfast fought side by side against their Yankee hosts.

“As the melee subsided, URI’s head coach ambled over to me and said, ‘Well John, whatever else, I guess this shows your project’s working!”

A few weeks later, the full-back was offered a scholarship to study and play football at URI.

Doyle was bombastic about Belfast United’s success, telling  Leaders Magazine in 2011 that “when peace was declared in Northern Ireland six years later, Belfast United was one of the first programmes mentioned in speeches and news releases as something that had a profound effect on the thought processes of kids from both sides of the divide.”

Sugden is more reserved about the project’s success, although does term it the “world’s first formally researched and documented sport-based peace building programme” and says it might have helped to pioneer a larger movement known as the Sport for Development and Peace, which has had backing from the EU and the UN in recent years.

Sugden, for his part, also had reservations about Doyle. He couldn’t fully disentangle his intentions. 

“I was quite suspicious of him” he tells The42. ”He was quite oily; he could smooth his way into different spaces.

“He was using Belfast United as a flag-bearer for his regime, which was very disappointing for me.

“There was no obvious malevolence in him. But he was oily…I just didn’t trust him. You meet these people who get involved in charity things and you ask, ‘Are they doing this for charity, or are they doing it for themselves?’”

**********

Both Sugden and Doyle took their experiences in Belfast elsewhere. Sugden replicated the project among Jewish and Arab teenagers in Israel, while Doyle took a huge stride to fulfilling deep-seated ambition.

The Institute, meanwhile, took off. In 1993, it reached the apotheosis of Doyle’s planning with the inaugural World Scholar-Athlete Games, held at the University of Rhode Island.

1200 elite scholar-athletes were drawn from 109 countries across the world to come to the games and play sport together.

“The ideal combination would be for a Croatian to pass the ball to a Bosnian during a basketball game”, said Doyle at the time. “These kids will leave here with an established network of international friends. Shrinking the globe, that’s what the games were set up for.”

The games were gilded with some high-profile names. Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave an address while Arethra Franklin sang at the Games’ closing ceremony.

Aretha Franklin funeral Bill Clinton speaks at the funeral of the late Aretha Franklin. Both appeared at the World-Scholar Athlete Games, piloted by Dan Doyle. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Doyle’s genius for fundraising helped to make it happen, and said that the ‘93 Games were funded through private donations along with an $800,000 federal grant along with money from the state of Rhode Island. The University of Rhode Island, meanwhile, provided the athletes with dorm rooms.

There were four more editions of the Games, and they kept on getting bigger. Doyle called the 2001 edition that year’s largest sporting and cultural event; five years later Bill Clinton gave the keynote address; Colin Powell assumed the same role five years later.

August tributes flowed freely.

“Extraordinary! I wish there had been a Scholar-Athlete Games programme during my youth” declared Clinton. Senator George Mitchell said he knew of “no organisation that does more to help young children on a worldwide basis than the Institute for International Sport”.

Powell, meanwhile, announced that “Dan Doyle and his team are on a historic mission to world peace”.

Powell took to the pulpit in 2011, and that year’s edition of the games proved to be significant for two reasons.

They were the first not to be held at the University of Rhode Island.

And they were the last.

**********

Doyle’s relationship with the University was beginning to come under some scrutiny.

As far back as the founding meeting at Trump Tower, there had been a formal relationship between the Institute and the university, with the university’s President and Vice President for Business and Finance appointed as Directors.

Through the Institute, Doyle had two buildings erected on the campus: in 1996, the philanthropist Alan Shawn Feinstein pledged a million dollars to the construction of the ‘International Scholar-Athlete Hall of Fame’ on the campus, to be known as the ‘Feinstein Building’.

In October 2005, he then pledged more money to the construction of a second building, to be known as the Leadership Building. Doyle also secured a state grant worth $575,000 for the construction of the building.

Feinstein Building The fully-constructed Feinstein Building on the University of Rhode Island Campus. Source: WPRI News

While the first project was completed, the second was not, which attracted suspicion.

In 2007, concerns were raised with the state’s Speaker’s Office that the building was still unfinished.

Where had the money gone?

In September 2011, the State’s Auditor-General, Dennis Hoyle, investigated. Three-and-a-half months later, he completed his audit and found that the Institute could account for just just $163,400 in construction costs for the Leadership Building. Of that sum, $44,000 had been spent before the $575,000 grant was awarded by the State of Rhode Island.

This was only the beginning.

**********

From the beginning of 2012, Doyle’s philanthropic empire began to crumble. In a blog post, he said that he had “visited places in my in my mind I had never been before”.

When Hoyle returned his grant report, the Rhode Island State Police and the State’s Attorney-General launched a further investigation into the Institute’s finances.

This led to a Grand Jury investigation which saw the subpoenaing of Institute documents.

It returned explosive allegations.

The Grand Jury returned an 18-count indictment of Doyle, claiming that he had embezzled money from his non-profit Institute, essentially using it as his own personal piggy bank.

It claimed that Doyle personally obtained $1 million in unauthorised salary payments, loan repayments and bonuses, and used Institute funds to pay for personal expenses which included his children’s tuition fees, cosmetic surgery and groceries.

After the news of the alleged embezzlement broke, Doyle took to his blog. “At the two-month mark [after the story first broke], my lassitude abated to the point that I began to heed Nietzsche’s salient observation, ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.’”

Doyle pledged to turn his “umbrage into productive purpose…healthy outrage.”

He claimed that these payments were authorised, that his fourth amendment right to privacy had been violated by the Grand Jury, and lambasted media coverage of the indictments, claiming that it denied him the right to a fair trial.

Doyle promised to launch a ‘Media Ethics Programme’, in which he collated all reporting of the story, and would then hand it over to a School of Journalism to inform future better practice.

He wrote a protest song called ‘The Gran Ole’ Jury’, a section of which went like this:

When appearin’/Before the Gran’ Ole Jury/ I thought of a line/ From Jimmy J [James Joyce]/ Cuz the white hat /Was smilin’ like a Saxon /Dead certain he’d /Get his way /I had no idea /This was a set up /Only one side /Gettin’ to be present /A farce of justice /That few understand /And one that should cause /Strong dissent”

Doyle maintained his dissent. He said he would make a documentary, tentatively titled, “No Judge, Just A Rope” on the perceived injustice of the Grand Jury system, and in June 2016, he went on a three-day hunger strike, over what he claimed was the University’s refusal to release documents which would prove his innocence.

He announced it in a blog post in which he spoke of his empathy for Northern Irish Catholics, “who, in varying degrees, expressed their outrage over what they rightly perceived as oppressive practices of the British government.

“While they were not wrong in their opinions, those of us who ran Belfast United made clear that they were wrong in thinking that violence was the solution.

“During this long process, while I came to develop great empathy for the plight of Catholics, I also came to understand that I would never truly understand their rage….

“…One of many stand out issues is a reporter who actually questioned our accomplishments over more than two decades work in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Several weeks ago, my rage with the State of Rhode Island and the reptile element of the media brought me to a decision I would never have considered before this witch hunt was launched in late 2011 by a small group of misguided officials, aka ‘Othello Fellows’. I decided to engage in a series of protest fasts over what I allege to be the obstructionist tactics of the State of Rhode Island and the University of Rhode Island regarding public information I have requested months ago.

Doyle’s efforts culminated in a court hearing as to whether to dismiss the case, but it found that there was “not even a hint of any prosecutorial misconduct in this case”.

The trial went ahead, and became one of the longest-running in the State’s history.

**********

During the course of the trial, prosecutors produced evidence that Doyle had taken $750,000 in unauthorized salary and loan payments from 2005 to 2011, and alleged that Doyle used institute funds to cover $150,000 charged to his personal American Express card, $100,000 in tuition payments, $120,000 in expenses for his outside businesses, and $22,000 to fulfill a personal donation Doyle pledged to his alma mater, Bates College. 

A series of witnesses testified to multiple examples of forgery. Eighty-five-year-old David Etsy, a combat veteran and cancer survivor who accepted an invitation from Doyle to sit on the Institute’s Board in 1999 and stood down in 2005, testified that he was unaware of a 2002 document shown in court claiming that he was the Institute’s Secretary and Treasurer.

When he was shown this document, Etsy exclaimed, ““I am astonished…wow…that’s me? I never knew…I never performed any secretarial or bean counting in the operation…I’ll be damned.”

There were reams of testimony to Doyle’s good character, but ultimately Doyle could not be saved.

In the end, an unflinching, phlegmatic Doyle sat before the jury and heard the word ‘guilty’ bounce off the courtroom’s walnut walls fully 216 times.

He was convicted on all eighteen counts.

On 10 August, 2017, Doyle was sentenced to 15 years in prison, with seven to serve and the rest on probation.

Judge Melanie Wilk Thunberg was unsparing.

She began her remarks by quoting from a book written by Doyle himself, The Encyclopedia For Sports Parenting, “No fair-minded person likes a cheater. Never go along with others who cheat or play dirty.”

“How a man who wrote such thoughtful and inspiring words could so easily descend into moral bankruptcy is bewildering”, the judge said. “In short, Mr. Doyle, you played a dirty game. You discarded your own book of rules and abandoned your principles. And now you must endure the penalty.”

The energetic, authoritative man that barked orders at the edge of the centre of the world 36 years earlier rose morosely. In a final, sick twist, this was a TV event.

Source: Guest Youtube Account/YouTube

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin said that Doyle had “bilked honest and admirable individuals out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and destroyed the mission and purpose of the International Institute of Sport, which he founded, in order to sustain a lifestyle he felt he was entitled to.”

His lawyer issued a brief statement to the assembled media.

“Don’t forget the good he has done.”

**********

Dan Doyle is now 69, and is a resident at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston until May, 2024.

In an interview with the Providence Journal, he said he intends to appeal, and assured anyone still listening that he was as energetic as ever. He intends to write a book or arrange a documentary on his time behind bars and has been mentoring younger inmates and encouraging them to write autobiographies.

He prays the rosary every day.

“The intent was good”, reflects Greaney.

“The Institute, and what he was trying to accomplish for that, was all good. Through the medium of sport, and trying to bring people together. With all of the problems in the world, Dan had good intentions.”

The true nature of Dan Doyle’s intentions are open to debate.

Either way, they have paved a way to his own, personal hell.

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Gavin Cooney

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