Former Texas men’s tennis coach Michael Center was sentenced to six months in prison Monday for accepting $100,000 in 2015 to help the son of a Silicon Valley venture capitalist get into the school by falsely designating him as a skilled athlete worthy of a scholarship to play for Center’s nationally ranked program.
Center, 55, received the sentence in a federal courtroom in Boston from U.S. Judge Richard Stearns, in whose court Center pleaded guilty last April to a single count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud.
Center is the 15th person and the second coach to be sentenced in the 2019 nationwide college admissions scandal. He was the first person to be sentenced by Stearns, who according to a USA Today reporter who was in the courtroom on Monday, said Center’s actions “impugn the entire integrity in something that this country is so proud of — and that’s the education system in this country.”
Center sobbed when Stearns announced the sentence, according to the reporter, who tweeted that Center’s attorney, John Cunha, had stressed to the judge that the criminal act was inconsistent with Center’s character.
“I thought it was harsh,” Cunha said of the sentence when he was approached by the reporter outside of the courthouse. “… I don’t think this is a man who needs to be in jail. I don’t think society is served in any way by him being in jail.”
Center was free to leave the courthouse after the hearing and was ordered to report to the Bureau of Prison on April 6 to begin serving his sentence. The facility where he’ll be incarcerated will be designated at that time.
The punishment mirrored the six-month sentence that prosecutors had recommended to the judge. Center also will serve one year of supervised release after his release from prison. He had previously agreed to forfeit $60,000 to the government — the amount he pocketed for himself in the scheme after an additional $40,000 was funneled to the UT tennis program.
The sentence brings closure to a case that began in March 2019 when federal agents arrived unannounced to Center’s home in Northwest Austin and took him into custody as he was preparing to leave for work. Elsewhere around the country, agents rounded up more parents and coaches who, like Center, had conspired through third parties to get children of wealthy parents into schools that they otherwise would not have gotten into. Fifty-three people were charged in the sting, which prosecutors dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.” Thirty-one have pleaded guilty, including admission test administrators who are accused of changing test scores.
Prosecutors say Center agreed to award an athletic scholarship to the son of venture capitalist Chris Schaepe that cleared the way for Schaepe’s son, who did not play tennis competitively, to get into the University of Texas. In exchange, prosecutors say a middle man — the scandal’s ringleader, Rick Singer — funneled $40,000 to Center’s tennis program and traveled to Austin with an additional $60,000 that he presented to the coach in a hotel parking lot.
In building their case against Center, federal agents set up a pretext phone call in which Singer, who by then was cooperating with the government, got the coach to discuss his involvement in the scheme and admit to accepting the bribe.
Singer has pleaded guilty to multiple crimes — racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the government, and obstruction of justice — and will be sentenced March 12. Private tennis instructor Martin Fox, of Houston, who introduced Singer to Center, has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering. He will be sentenced May 14.
Chris Schaepe has not been charged and has insisted through a spokeswoman that he believed the $630,000 he donated to Singer’s Key Worldwide Foundation was lawful and would go toward children’s causes. He was shocked, the spokeswoman said, to learn about the allegations against Singer and Center.
Schaepe’s son, shortly after arriving on campus, surrendered his tennis scholarship and continued studying at UT as a traditional student while working as a student manager on the basketball team. The spokeswoman said Schaepe’s son remained enrolled after Center’s arrest and was proceeding toward earning a degree; UT will not confirm the student’s status.
“The student transferred from what he thought was a student manager role on the tennis team to a student manager role on the basketball team after receiving a team manager offer from the basketball team in late August 2015 which he accepted,” a spokesman for Schaepe said. “He successfully completed an athletics department compliance process as part of this transfer.”
Following Center’s arrest, university officials performed a review of its athletic department admissions and determined no other athletes were admitted improperly in the 18 years since Center arrived on campus. The university has not released the review to the public despite requests from the American-Statesman and other media outlets.
“Over the past year, the university has put in place controls and processes to prevent the kind of fraud Mr. Center pleaded guilty to,” university spokesman J.B. Bird said Monday. “We remain focused on protecting the integrity of the admissions process for student athletes.”
The school fired Center after his arrest and elevated assistant coach Bruce Berque, who guided the team to the NCAA title in May amid disruption caused by Center’s departure. Berque later signed a contract to be the full-time head coach.
Prosecutors in Center’s case had originally recommended a sentence of 15 to 21 months in prison, which was on the low end of the punishment range. On Monday, though, they lowered their recommendation to six months, citing Center’s remorse and unlikeliness to do it again, according to the reporter in the courtroom. Center, at the time he pleaded guilty, also agreed to a cooperation agreement that could help prosecutors charge additional people in the scheme.
Center is the first coach who has gotten prison time in the admissions scandal. Former Stanford sailing coach John Vandemoer avoided prison last summer when he was sentenced to two years of supervised release for falsely designating two students as sailing recruits. Unlike Center, Vandemoer directed bribes, for $110,000 and $160,000, to the sailing program and did not take any money for himself. The two students did not complete applications to the school.
Two women’s soccer coaches from USC have pleaded guilty, as has a women’s soccer coach from Yale.