By Izzy Gould, Derek J. LaRiviere and Tony Marrero
BROOKSVILLE — Stephen Ray Thompson claimed to be many things. Thompson, 55, fired last month after a single season as head coach of the Springstead High School boys' basketball team, touts a resume that has him coaching — and winning — all across the Southeast.
He boasts of 407 wins during decades of coaching at high schools in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi and Florida. He says he has guided numerous teams deep into state playoffs, won an Associated Press Coach of the Year award in Tennessee and taught future pro Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway and other young stars.
A closer look by the St. Petersburg Times, however, reveals that much of the information on his resume is either embellished or fictitious. He claims, for example, to have won a total of 80 games at two schools in Tennessee that do not exist. The AP in Tennessee does not award coach of the year honors.
And when reached by the Times, Hardaway, a former Orlando Magic star, said, "I have no idea who this cat is. I've never heard of him."
Such misinformation raises questions about how deeply school districts search the backgrounds of people they allow to be in daily contact with students. A comparison of the applications that Thompson submitted first to Pasco school officials and then a month later to Hernando officials shows at least 15 discrepancies ranging from different names of supervisors and varying dates of employment to the year that he was born.
The Pasco County School District withdrew an offer to Thompson to coach at Gulf High School after he failed to provide required documentation.
"When you're talking about people's children you can't negotiate those kinds of things," said Renee Sedlack, Pasco schools' human resources director. "You try your best to make sure your kids are safe."
Heather Martin, the Hernando School District's executive director for business services, said her department compared Thompson's Pasco resume to the Hernando version after the Times began its inquiry, but did not see any major areas of concern.
Martin said the district followed its standard procedures in looking into Thompson's background. "It was checked thoroughly," she said. When told of the discrepancies, Springstead High principal Susan Duval acknowledged that Thompson may have succeeded in fabricating parts of his resume. But she noted that school officials typically cannot confirm every piece of an applicant's work history.
"That's not realistic, but we do make every attempt to go back far enough to feel comfortable with the information we're receiving," she said.
Records show Thompson passed a fingerprint screening that goes through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For his part, Thompson offers little to explain the discrepancies.
"I am retired from coaching and I don't have any more time to devote to this,'' he wrote in an e-mail from Tennessee. "You have not in the least asked me about how any student/athletes who played for me feel about me, how many kids have I fed or put clothes on their back or took to the hospital because they had no parents to do this for them or how many I put in college."
As for the questions about his background, he wrote, "I would think any reputable school system would have checked my credentials before I was hired, wouldn't you? I have always been able to get coaching jobs without any problem. Maybe they know something you don't know.''
Misstating the circumstances of the Pasco job offer, Thompson also wrote: "If I was hired by Gulf and Springstead, I am confident they checked my credentials and found them to be authentic since I got the jobs.''
From Gulf to Springstead
Thompson arrived on the North Suncoast last summer when he applied to coach boys varsity basketball at Gulf. He told principal Steve Knobl that he had won 401 games as a coach and was a three-time coach of the year. He told Knobl that he coached Hardaway and that he "worked camps at Indiana University for the legendary Bob Knight."
"We were excited from what we heard and what we saw," Knobl said. "We had no reason to think otherwise. … I said, 'We have to hire this guy.'?"
They never got the chance.
"I asked him for the transcripts, references and his coaching certificate," Sedlack said. "We don't approve anyone until they at least apply with that. We just could not get what we needed from him. Nothing was lining up for this guy. When we kept pressing him, he got agitated with us.''
Thompson's job offer was rescinded on Sept. 23. Less than two weeks later, Springstead announced it had hired Thompson to coach boys basketball and teach physical education and health. Thompson's impressive resume seemed to be a perfect fit for the void left by former coach Pat Kelly, who led the Eagles to the Class 4A state title game in 2008-09 before taking a job in Jensen Beach.
In Hernando County, the district's human resources department was unaware of the Thompson's documentation issues with Pasco schools. Martin explained that the district checks teaching candidates, while the schools vet applicants for positions such as coaches.
There were no red flags about Thompson's application for a teaching post, she said. The district requires two written references, and the schools conduct two telephone reference checks, Martin said. One of the references must be an administrator at the applicant's most recent employer. The district checks education transcripts and degrees, confirms the status of an applicant's teaching certificate with the state Department of Education and does criminal background checks. Thompson qualified on all counts, Martin said.
As for coaching qualifications, teachers must be state certified and have received some CPR and first aid training, she said.
"I could go and coach football," Martin said. "Would I be the best coach? No, but I'd be eligible. A win-loss record is not a requirement, so it's not something we seek out and prove."
Springstead principal Duval said she makes hires with academics the top priority, then looks at coaching qualifications. Duval said the school checked his coaching references and felt comfortable with the decision to hire him.
"It's important to know they've run a program of character and quality," she said. "Do we check their winning and losing record? No. That's not what's it's all about."
As for inconsistencies or fabrications on Thompson's resume, Duval said: "I'm not aware of that."
Thompson's teaching contract with Hernando County was terminated Feb. 19, the day after his 6-18 team was bounced from the playoffs. Duval declined to go into details about Thompson's firing, other than to note that it was within the standard 97-day new-hire probationary period.
"We take a lot of pride in our hiring decisions because it is so critical to the success of our school,'' she said. "We don't always get it right and that's aggravating to me when it happens. We have to make sure we get those people who connect with kids and get them excited about education."
Picking apart his past
In January, unsolicited, Thompson approached a Times reporter to say that the 401 victories on his resume was an accurate number. Later, Thompson referred to a season in which he coached "Country Day" in Memphis, Tenn., to a 10-18 finish and a berth in the state's "Elite 8."
On various documents, he uses three different names for that school, where he said he worked from 1986 to 1993. It's "Country Day Prep School" on his Hernando resume and "Country Hills School" on his Pasco application. On a document he filed in 2003 with the Mississippi Association of Coaches — a source Thompson pointed to as verification of his job history — he lists an overall record of 50-18 at "Country Day H.S. Memphis, TN."
Problem is, no school by any of those names existed in Tennessee during those years. "If there was such a school in Tennessee, students there were operating in violation of the compulsory attendance law," said Connie Mayo of the Tennessee Department of Education.
Mayo said she searched records back to the 1970s for schools named "Country Day" or "Country Hills." She found a "Country Day School," a private school that closed in 1983, three years before the first mention of "Country Day Prep" on Thompson's resume. An article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal noted the closing of the school in 1983.
In a handwritten application with McLean County High School in Calhoun, Ky., on June 8, 2000, Thompson wrote that he was employed at Carroll-Oakland School in Bethpage, Tenn., (The school is in Lebanon, Tenn., about 24 miles away) from 1986 to 1992, roughly the same time period he later said he had been at Country Day in Memphis.
Thompson also listed on a document a school "Chattanooga Workman," where he said he coached for two years with an overall record of 30-31. The Tennessee Board of Education, the Chattanooga Times-Free Press and the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association have no record of that school.
Thompson's resume notes that he earned AP Coach of the Year honors in Tennessee in 1995. Teresa Walker, the AP sports editor in Tennessee, said in an e-mail to the Times, "AP has never named a high school coach of the year while I've been here, going back to 1989."
When asked about his credentials, Thompson challenged the Times: "You can call Anfernee Hardaway and ask if he knows coach Steve Thompson."
When reached by the Times, Hardaway said, "I don't know who that is. That name doesn't ring a bell to me.'' When given a description of Thompson, most notably his height (listed as 6-8 on his Florida driver's license), Hardaway said, "I would remember someone like that."
In e-mails, Thompson responded to specific questions about his background by saying, "The only thing your investigation will turn up is that I am a hard-nosed coach who has often 'bucked' the system … but you know I am good. Who else could have taken a totally depleted team at Springstead HS, arriving in Oct, with 15 of 22 games on the road, and taken that team to the district championship game and the state playoffs? Who else could take 4 teams in 5 years to the state playoffs in MS, 4 teams in TN to the state playoffs?''
Records show that several of the teams in Tennessee and Mississippi that Thompson claimed to have led to the postseason never made it to the playoffs and, in some instances, did not exist.
Verification standards differ
Thompson lists three schools on his resume with longer periods of employment than those verified by Hernando County Schools, documents show. Martin, the Hernando district official, said three one-year gaps were not cause for concern, noting that years of employment typically are verified for setting salary levels.
"Obviously, if there are some major things that jump out at us, we would look at it," she said. "Just because a year is deleted from that doesn't mean it's falsification."
The standards for verification in the private sector differ somewhat from what is practiced in the school districts.
Phyllis J. Towzey, an attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Florida Bar, said in an e-mail to the Times, "Including false information (or having material omissions) on a job application is a serious matter and, in most companies, is considered grounds for termination.
"In general, certainly a gap of a year or more on an employment application would warrant further inquiry, and the applicant should be asked to provide an explanation," she wrote. "Employment history references should always be checked to confirm that accurate information has been provided on the application."
Martin said if the district had reason to believe an employee embellished or fabricated a coaching record or a part of the application or resume, it would be grounds for an ethics investigation.
In terms of legal obligations, St. Petersburg attorney Marcia S. Cohen said, "What usually ends up happening when (districts) ignore something like this and the guy does something bad, they get blamed for not having looked into his background more clearly.
"But I can't say there's a legal obligation to run down the discrepancies. Should they do that? Yes, but are they legally obligated? Not to my knowledge."
While verifying a candidate's won-loss record is not a requirement, Duval said, that information should probably get a higher level of scrutiny. "We may start to ask a few more questions about that," she said.
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Times staff writer Izzy Gould can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 421-3886.
On resume, many red flags
A Times' review of Stephen Ray Thompson's resume showed a number of questionable assertions:
• Thompson stated he coached at Seneca (Ky.) High School from 1997 to 1999. Athletic director Scott Greenwald, who took over the program in 2001, said the coaches during that time were Chuck Nallavenko (1993-99) and Tony Branch (1999-2005). Greenwald also said Thompson was not an assistant on those teams. "He did not coach at this school," Greenwald said.
• Two schools Thompson said he led to the playoffs for a total of 80 wins in six seasons — Country Day Prep and Chattanooga Workman — did not exist in the years he claimed to be coaching there.
• Thompson claimed to be at Country Day Prep from 1986-1993. Instead, he was teaching at Carroll-Oakland Elementary in his hometown of Lebanon, Tenn., from 1988-1990.
• Thompson's resume lists accolades including leading Tyner (Tenn.) High to the "Sweet 16" while earning Associated Press Coach of the Year honors in 1995. TSSAA assistant executive director Matthew Gillespie said Tyner did not make the playoffs in boys or girls basketball that year. Tennessee AP sports editor Teresa Walker said the AP has not awarded a Coach of the Year since she arrived in 1989.
• Thompson lists his overall record at Tyner as 58-27 for three years. According to a newspaper report, Thompson coached for two years and his record was 32-22.
• Thompson said he led Philadelphia (Miss.) High to the playoffs three consecutive seasons, including the "Sweet 16" in 2007. The school's athletic director, Tristan Howell, said Thompson won just nine games in three season and did not make the playoffs.
• Thompson lists coaching Smith County (Tenn.) for two years to a 30-20 record. Smith County athletic director Larry Silcox, who has been with the school for 30 years, said Thompson coached only the 1986-87 season and led that team to an 8-15 record.
• Thompson claimed 401 career wins as a varsity boys basketball coach when he arrived on the North Suncoast. His resume said 377. Through interviews and documents, the Times could verify 97 wins.