AUSTIN, Texas – Federal investigators arrested dozens of people in connection with a college admissions scam, including the men’s tennis coach at the University of Texas at Austin.
- Dozens of people involved across US
- Documents unsealed in federal court
- UT Austin coach among those charged
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, dozens of people were involved in a nationwide scheme from 2011 to 2018 that facilitated cheating on college entrance exams and the admission of students to the universities under the pretenses that they were recruited athletes.
Federal agents arrested those believed to be involved in multiple states and charged in documents that were unsealed on Tuesday, March 12 in a federal court in Boston. The incident involves a total of $25 million to bribe coaches and college administrators.
“We're not talking about donating a building, so that a schools more likely to take your son or daughter, we're talking about deception and fraud. Fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs bribed college officials,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling of the District of Massachusetts.
Michael Center, the men’s tennis coach for the University of Texas at Austin, was included on the list released by the U.S. Department of Justice. Center is charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. On Wednesday, the University of Texas at Austin announced Center has been immediately dismissed and that Associate Head Coach Bruce Berque will continue as the interim head coach of the Longhorns.
"After working with campus leaders to review the recent situation with Michael Center, we have decided to relieve him of his duties as our men's tennis coach," University of Texas Vice President and Athletics Director Chris Del Conte said in a statement. "It's a very difficult decision, and we are grateful for the years of service that he has provided, but winning with integrity will always be paramount at The University of Texas, and it was a decision that had to be made."
Center is accused of taking a $100,000 bribe in 2015 to recruit a student to the tennis team and consequently admit him into the university. Prosecutors say admission rates for recruited athletes are typically higher. According to the federal complaint, the student was not a competitive tennis player. Instead, the student only played tennis as a freshman and managed his high school basketball and football teams.
“The coaches used those athletic profiles to convince everyone else internally that this was a good recruit for the team. The person was admitted and the coach pocketed a bribe,” Lelling said.
The complaint said once the student started classes in the fall, he withdrew from the tennis team. Center was arrested in Austin on Tuesday and made a court appearance later that afternoon, hours before a tennis team match in Austin.
“I really can’t say anything. I’m just disappointed I won’t be there tonight,” Center said leaving federal court. “I’ll have something to say another time. ”
Center’s attorney, Dan Cogdell, said Center is innocent and they plan to plead not guilty.
“I don’t care what is in a transcript, or what is in a complaint. Unless a witness testifies to it, it means nothing,” Cogdell said. “It’s not proof, it’s not admissible, a jury can’t even consider what’s in a complaint or in an indictment so until we get in a court room, until I get the discovery behind this, I don’t know how valid those accusations are or aren’t.”
Officials with UT Austin said that Center will be placed on administrative leave until further notice.
J.B. Bird, Director of Media Relations & Issues Management for UT Austin, released the following statement:
Integrity in admissions is vital to the academic and ethical standards of our university. The University of Texas at Austin is cooperating with federal investigators and is concerned by the allegations raised, which run counter to the university’s values. Men’s Tennis Coach Michael Center was placed on leave as soon as we learned of the charges against him, which are being fully investigated. We are continuing to gather information and review our processes. Based on what we know at present, we believe this was an isolated incident in 2015 that involved one coach and no other university employees or officers.
Chris Del Conte, University of Texas Vice President and Athletics Director, released the following statement:
“It’s a difficult day in our department, as we received reports that a member of our staff is accused of wrongdoing. As was discussed in the University’s statement earlier, our Men’s Tennis Coach, Michael Center, has been charged by federal authorities in a criminal effort involving admissions. We have placed Coach Center on leave until further notice while we cooperate with the federal law enforcement authorities in reviewing this situation. In the meantime, with our Men’s Tennis team in the middle of its competitive season, associate head coach Bruce Berque, will serve as our interim head coach going forward as we continue to gather information.”
The NCAA said it will look into the claims. In a statement, the NCAA said the “charges brought forth today are troubling and should be a concern for all of higher education.”
Most NCAA rules that regulate recruiting are aimed at preventing schools and coaches from giving improper benefits and enticements to athletes. In this case, parents were paying coaches to help students gain entry to college by falsifying athletic credentials and claiming that the students were being recruited to plays sports.
The NCAA said it is reviewing the allegations “to determine the extent to which NCAA rules maybe have been violated.”