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For Armwood, lessons may be found in other schools' handling of sports scandals

TAMPA — Heads rolled in Miami-Dade County after the Dr. Michael M. Krop High School basketball eligibility scandal of 2011. The principal took a demotion. The coach retired. The athletic director was reprimanded.

A wrestling coach and a volleyball coach were fired that same year at Seminole County's Oviedo High School.

Today, Armwood High School's football program is in the crosshairs of the Florida High School Athletic Association over allegations similar to those in Oviedo and Miami: families faking addresses so their kids could play on winning sports teams.

It remains to be seen if any officials in Hillsborough County will be disciplined.

At a news conference last week, superintendent Mary­Ellen Elia voiced support for coach Sean Callahan and Armwood principal Michael Ippolito while saying the greater issue deserves attention.

"This is a serious matter which has revealed some very specific procedural areas that we agree we need to closely review," Elia said.

As Armwood prepares its response to the FHSAA's 45-page report, some parents say the investigation was unfair, and they're consulting lawyers.

"None of that in the report is true," said Eric Collins, the stepfather of player Javonte Sneed.

State Rep. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland, who got involved in the eligibility issue after a scandal at Lakeland High School, said she has read the Armwood report, doesn't like it, and thinks the FHSAA has too much power.

"If a parent relocates to give their child an opportunity, I don't see anything wrong with that," said Stargel, who got a law passed this year that will change the way eligibility cases are handled.

"Where they cross the line is when somebody offers them an inducement to play," she said.

But questions remain about why anyone would lie to get into Armwood.

It appears most of the players — if not all — could have enrolled at the school without crossing any line.

• • •

Callahan has declined to discuss the ongoing controversy about five students who entered the school since 2010 and played on the team that won the state championship in December.

Some coaches believe the Hawks likely could have challenged for a state title without any of the five players. Two were sophomore backups. One was a lineman on a team featuring five other linemen who signed Division I scholarships.

"Yeah, I think they would have won it," said Sickles coach Brian Turner, who added that two of his assistants agreed with him. "And not just contended for a state title. I think they would have won it."

Another irony is that Armwood's enrollment is well below capacity, which makes the school available to students anywhere in the district under the choice program.

According to school officials, Hillsborough families can simply fill out a form online and enter their names in a lottery.

"Choice has been, and remains, a viable option at Armwood," said Lanness Robinson, the district's athletic director.

But timing might have been a factor for some.

Greg Newton Sr., whose son Greg is one of the five named players, described a sudden move from Tampa Catholic School.

"It was almost like an emergency situation, when we did have to leave because we couldn't afford it anymore," he said. On his lawyer's advice, he declined to comment further.

Other students came from outside Hillsborough and would not have been able to exercise the choice option until they moved into the district.

Sneed — the championship player who was arrested in December on robbery charges — came into the school as a freshman on a choice hardship, sometimes known as a special assignment, according to his stepfather. He later moved to Durant as a sophomore. According to the FHSAA report, he returned to Armwood on the basis of fraudulent residence information.

If the students transferred midyear, FHSAA rules would prevent them from playing until the following school year unless they could show what is known as a "full and complete move."

To do so, they would need to document that the entire family had relocated.

• • •

Even if no Armwood officials lose their jobs because of the scandal, the school won't escape unscathed.

Past cases of recruiting and fraudulent eligibility in Florida high schools have resulted in fines as high as $260,000. But FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing said Friday that Armwood's total fines, including legal cost, would likely be less than $20,000.

The FHSAA is generally more lenient when a school admits wrongdoing and takes corrective action.

Boyd Anderson High School in Broward County turned itself in after a newspaper disclosed an assistant football coach was letting players use his home address and that of a neighbor. The school was fined $1,000.

Oviedo principal Robert Lund­quist did not like having to pay $57,000 to the FHSAA. He acknowledges he was deeply embarrassed when the organization uncovered fraud in his wrestling and volleyball programs.

"We were guilty as charged," he said. "We violated the rules." The mother of one wrestler was teaching at a university in Connecticut while using a Florida address on her driver's license, he said. "She was not even living with her child."

People wondered how Lund­quist could have been blind to the cheating around him. "I trusted the coaches which were in place and they were not forthright and honest with me," he said.

"I feel accountable. Under our superintendent, we worked hand-in-hand with the FHSAA. I was reprimanded. I had to let loose our athletic director, who had not done anything wrong. I had to make serious changes at the school."

Lundquist believes any principal in a situation such as Armwood's — even if he did not know about the improprieties — should take a hard look at his program and implement measures to prevent cheating.

Stargel is adamant that dishonest coaches be punished, not parents seeking opportunities for their children. "It's like going after the drug dealer instead of the drug user," she said.

Lundquist worries about Stargel's law. Among its provisions, districts will be able to allow players to compete on teams immediately after their transfers.

"It could turn into the Wild, Wild West," he said.

Staff writer Laura Keeley contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at sokol@tampabay.com. Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@tampabay.com.

For Armwood, lessons may be found in other schools' handling of sports scandals 05/19/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 19, 2012 11:06pm]

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