Coaches accused in bribery scandal wielded outsize authority

Published 9:25 pm Thursday, March 14, 2019

AUSTIN, Texas — Coach Gordie Ernst’s Georgetown University tennis teams didn’t win any Big East championships. At Wake Forest, Bill Ferguson’s volleyball teams struggled near the bottom of their conference.

At Stanford, John Vandemoer’s sailing teams were nationally ranked but competed in a sport that isn’t governed by the NCAA.

All three were coaching lower-tier sports, not the glamorous, big-money ones, basketball and football. And yet, win or lose, these coaches did have something incredibly valuable: the keys that can get students into some of the most exclusive colleges in America.

Email newsletter signup

And now they face criminal charges they leveraged that authority to enrich themselves or their sports programs.

Federal indictments unsealed this week outlined a sweeping college admissions scandal in which coaches allegedly took bribes from wealthy parents to help falsify their children’s sports credentials and designate them as recruited athletes.

Whether it’s football, basketball or “non-revenue” sports like tennis or water polo, private and public colleges with even the most rigorous academic standards for admission lower the bar for student athletes. They do it because they want to win championships at all levels.

“If you are going to pay for it and compete, why would you not want to win?” said Nellie Drew, a sports law expert at the University at Buffalo School of Law. “Stanford has more Olympic athletes than many countries. They are proud of that.”

Coaches of the smaller, so-called Olympic sports get paid far less than their football and basketball counterparts. Salaries for such coaches in the Ivy League and similar private schools can range from $75,000 to over $200,000.

At Texas, 18-year men’s tennis coach Michael Center was paid $232,000 compared with nearly $5.5 million for football coach Tom Herman.

Those salary figures could make a coach of a lower-tier sport more likely to at least think about taking a bribe, Drew said.

“If you think your job is on the line and someone offers you more money than you are going to make in three years, sure, you are going to look at that,” Drew said.

Center is accused of accepting nearly $100,000 to “recruit” a non-tennis-playing student to help get him into school in 2015. Authorities allege that included a $60,000 installment paid in the parking lot of an Austin hotel. Once enrolled, the student never played.

Ernst, who also was the personal tennis coach for former first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters, Malia and Sasha, is alleged to have taken more than $2.7 million in bribes to list 12 applicants as recruits for the Georgetown tennis team.

In many of the cases alleged in the indictments, the students “recruited” had little or no experience in the sport involved and didn’t play once they got into college.

So how does it work?

Coaches are allotted a certain number of slots for special admission for athletes who might not meet the usual academic standards. And generally, when coaches make their pitch for certain students to the admissions office, they get their way.

The total number of such slots per school is set by its conference, and schools decide how to spread them among their programs. The spots are usually considered precious.

That a coach would use one of those for a student who never intended to play is surprising, said Fordham athletic director David Roach, who was also the women’s swim coach and athletic director at Brown University.

“When I coached, you couldn’t give me enough money to give up a slot because I wanted to have a good team,” Roach said. “I’m sure now people are going to be questioned — coaches, when they turn their list in — and say, ‘Give me more information.’”

The sports involved in the bribery scandal typically don’t award full scholarships. Instead, coaches divide scholarships into fractions and spread the money around. In the Ivy League, schools don’t give athletic scholarships but do offer financial aid.

Among those indicted were UCLA men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo and former University of Southern California women’s soccer coach Ali Khosroshahin. Former USC women’s soccer assistant coach Laura Janke, water polo coach Jovan Vavic and athletic administrator Donna Heinel also were charged.

Schools now must address whether they will change internal policies and police their programs on admissions. The NCAA has called the bribery allegations “troubling” and said it will examine whether its rules have been violated.

The charges do not accuse the coaches of skirting the admissions rules to gain an advantage on the field. But the NCAA has rules regarding ethical conduct by coaches.

In a transcript of a recorded telephone call, Center suggested he used some of the money on a tennis facility Texas was building in 2015. Vandemoer’s attorney said that $270,000 in alleged bribes went straight into the sailing program, not the coach’s pocket.

Georgetown officials said Ernst left in December 2017 after an internal investigation found he violated admissions rules. The school said it now checks its rosters to see if students recruited as athletes are still playing.