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Column | John Romano

Armwood High principal disputes perception of renegade school in football scandal

The final bell has rung, and the last student has left campus. Dinner is still off in the distance, and normal is a relic of the past.

This is principal Michael Ippolito approaching the front door of a would-be football player who is hoping to transfer to Armwood High.

Turns out, a person's word is no longer enough. Neither is a utility bill or a lease. These days, Ippolito is visiting houses, apartments and mobile homes to make sure the residence is legit, the guardian is legal and the transfer is kosher.

Consider it the price of a scandal.

"When I was getting my master's degree,'' Ippolito says with a gentle laugh, "they never said anything about knocking on doors.''

Any day now, Armwood High is expected to be stripped of its 2011 state football championship. The Seffner school had five players on the roster who were ineligible because their families falsified residency information.

Ippolito does not deny this. In fact, the school's official response confirmed most of the allegations made by the state's governing body for prep sports.

It is the perception of a renegade school that Ippolito politely disputes. Until now, he has been largely silent but agreed to talk Wednesday to correct what he said were misconceptions. And while he readily admits his administration was duped, he says it was neither gullible nor culpable.

Ippolito points out that in his first month on the job in August 2010, he discovered an ineligible player was taking part in summer workouts. The player was removed from the roster and had to appeal to the Florida High School Athletic Association.

The player was later approved by the FHSAA to rejoin the team. A year later, the FHSAA determined that same player should never have been eligible.

"To some degree, I think we're being unfairly portrayed. It's almost like I'm a bumbling fool who didn't know what was going on,'' Ippolito said. "I can assure you, we were doing due diligence. And we weren't trying to hide anything.

"But when a parent is willing to go as far as having a friend from TECO falsify an electric bill, I'd call it a pretty sophisticated deception.''

Could Armwood have done more? Absolutely.

Because of the school's past success on the field, it was a magnet for football transfers. There were far too many players arriving not to expect that some were bending the rules.

And while the FHSAA investigation exonerated coach Sean Callahan of recruiting, it is remarkable that someone on the job as long as Callahan wasn't more suspicious.

Yet, ultimately, it is Ippolito's responsibility.

And that's why he is now having face-to-face meetings with parents in his office as well as traveling to homes with the school's athletic director to double-check residency. So far, 10 new transfers have been ruled ineligible. "I had one parent just admit it,'' Ippolito said. "They said, 'I don't really live where I said I lived.' ''

Hillsborough County is now considering changes to its verification process. Ippolito says the plan is to form a committee of principals, coaches and athletic directors from around the county to review and approve athletes' transfers.

Whether it will work is debatable.

But it beats knocking on doors.

Armwood High principal disputes perception of renegade school in football scandal 06/06/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 7, 2012 9:16am]
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