Former University of Texas men’s tennis coach Michael Center was sentenced to six months in prison Monday for accepting $100,000 in bribes to falsely tag an applicant as a recruit to get the student admitted.
He’s the first college coach to receive time behind bars in the national college admissions scandal after a former Stanford sailing coach avoided prison last summer.
“This is a case, I think, that society has an interest in punishment,” said U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns. Center’s actions “impugn the entire integrity in … the education system in this country.”
Center, 55, sobbed and was consoled by his attorneys and family for several minutes. His prison term is tied for the second-longest in the admissions case. Business executive Douglas Hodge, a parent who paid into the scheme led by mastermind Rick Singer four times, totaling $850,000, was sentenced to nine months in prison.
“I understand your anguish,” Stearns said. “I know you’re a good man, but this is one of those things that can’t be overlooked.”
Center, who was fired by UT-Austin in March after an accomplished career that included National College Coach of the Year, pleaded guilty in April to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services wire fraud. He agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.
The sentence matched the six months recommended by prosecutors for his cooperation. Center was ordered to one year of supervision upon his release and to forfeit $60,000, equal to the amount he said he made from the offense. He’s to report to prison April 6.
Leaving the courthouse, Center declined to comment. His attorney, Jack Cunha, called the sentence “harsh.”
The prison term – the only sentence given by Stearns in the scandal – is longer than another judge gave parents who paid significantly more into the cheating scheme than Center received in bribes.
“This is a good man who made a mistake,” Cunha said. “None of us want to be judged on the worst day of our lives, and that’s his worst day.
“I thought he got a hard hit. He helped them out from the very beginning. He did everything he could to make it right, knowing what he did was wrong. It’s a case that’s media sexy, and I think he paid for that.”
Fourteen parents have been sentenced in the “Varsity Blues” scandal revealed last year; Center’s sentence marked the second for a college coach.
Former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer avoided prison in June, when the judge noted he used $610,000 in bribes on Stanford’s sailing program, not for his personal use. None of the students tied to his payments attended Stanford as a direct result of his actions. Former coaches at Yale University and the University of Southern California await sentencing, while coaches at Georgetown University, Wake Forest and UCLA fight charges.
Before receiving his sentence, Center choked up as he apologized to the judge for his involvement in the scheme.
“I just want to say how sorry I am,” Center said. “I’m so sorry to my family, my wife, my two boys, my friends and all my former players that I coached over the last 30 years. I’ve never done anything like this before. I would never do anything like this again.”
Cunha argued Center should be spared prison because he had suffered enough. Texas won the men’s tennis national championship months after he was fired, he pointed out, calling Center’s actions in the case an “anomaly.” Fifty-two former colleagues of Center and athletes who played for him sent letters to the judge on his behalf.
“Mr. Center did step forward right at the beginning,” Cunha said. “He’s lost his reputation as a coach. He’s lost so much. He will never be in that situation again. … Incarceration will absolutely make no difference in general deterrence.”
U.S. Assistant Attorney Leslie Wright said Center deserved prison because he used bribery money for “personal use” and broke the trust of the university.
“It was because of his profession as a coach of an elite team at a prestigious university that the defendant was able to commit this crime,” Wright said, arguing it took away a spot for a deserving student.
Prosecutors said Center agreed in 2015 to accept a payment of $100,000 from Singer in exchange for designating as a Texas tennis player a student from Los Altos Hills, California, who did not play competitive tennis.
The money came from more than $630,000 in stock donations the male student’s father, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chris Schaepe, allegedly made to Singer’s sham nonprofit organization the Key Worldwide Foundation.
Schaepe admitted publicly he was the parent implicated in the case but said he committed no wrongdoing and thought Singer’s group was “above board.” He has not been charged in the case.
Last year, a spokeswoman for Schaepe told USA TODAY the Schaepes were “not aware of any unlawful payments to Michael Center or the Key Worldwide Foundation.”
“The Schaepes made multiple large donations to each of several non-profits in 2015 consistent with their typical annual pattern of gifting,” she said.
Thirty-one defendants out of 53 charged in the college admissions case, including parents, coaches and other Singer co-conspirators, have pleaded guilty to felonies for their involvement. The other 22 are preparing for trial.
Wealthy parents are accused of paying Singer to either get their children tagged as athletic recruits to slip them into a university or have someone fix their entrance exam test score. Singer used a portion of the payments to bribe cooperating college coaches.
Prosecutors said the bribe to Center was arranged by a separate defendant, Martin Fox, the president of a tennis academy in Houston, who pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy charges in November. His sentencing is set for May 14.
Fox emailed Center the student’s transcript and application essays in fall 2014, according to prosecutors, and Center later emailed the student’s application to the university’s administration to be coded as a student-athlete. Documents referenced by the prosecution said the student’s tennis experience on the high school team was limited to just one year as a freshman. He was a manager of his high school basketball and football teams.
In February 2015, the student’s father, Schaepe, made a donation of stock valued at $455,194 to Singer’s nonprofit, according to prosecutors. In March, they said Center emailed the father that he would be sending him a letter of notification for a “books” scholarship, which allows the university to purchase books for college athletes as part of the recruitment process. University of Texas awarded the student the scholarship the next month.
After he enrolled at the University of Texas, the student quickly withdrew from the tennis team at the beginning of the academic school year in September 2015, prosecutors said. He left to become a manager on the Texas men’s basketball team.
Singer paid $60,000 in cash to Center during a trip to Austin, Texas in June 2015, prosecutors said. The other $40,000 came in separate checks of $25,000 in April of that year and $15,000 in June to Texas athletics.
Four former college coaches, an SAT test administrator, a former USC athletic administrator and one of Singer’s employees have pleaded not guilty and face trial later this year.
Actress Lori Loughlin is among 15 parents still fighting charges. Their trials could begin as soon as October. Parents who have gone to prison in the admissions scandal include actress Felicity Huffman, who served 11 days of a two-week sentence.