Tennis

Texas fires men’s tennis coach Michael Center in college admissions scandal fallout

Posted March 13th, 2019

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Story highlights
  • Center was in his 19th season as the head coach of the UT men's tennis team. His associate head coach is now the interim head coach.
  • UT's president says a review will be made to possibly change the school's admission policies.
  • The sweeping FBI probe netted about 50 people accused of conspiring to circumvent admissions at several schools.

After placing Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center on administrative leave following his arrest Tuesday, the University of Texas announced Wednesday it had terminated the veteran coach’s employment partway through his 19th season with the program.

Federal authorities have accused Center of accepting $100,000 in 2015 to help a California student with minimal tennis accolades get into the school as a scholarship athlete.

University President Gregory L. Fenves announced Center’s termination in a letter to the UT community and said the school will conduct a review of the allegations against Center to see if it needs to change its admissions practices to prevent future problems.

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“The integrity of UT admissions is essential to our mission as a research university and to the students and families we serve,” he said. “That is why any act of wrongdoing, no matter how singular, matters so deeply.”

Also Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott encouraged Texas schools to evaluate their admissions policies.

“I expect all universities to look into this and make sure they have procedures and policies in place so this type of action will never be able to happen again,” he said.

U.S. Attorney for District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, left, FBI Special Agent in Charge Boston Division Joseph Bonavolonta, center, and Kristina O’Connell, Special Agent in Charge of IRS Criminal Investigation in New England, right, depart a news conference after announcing indictments in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The federal operation netted about 50 people who are accused of conspiring to circumvent admissions at several of the nation’s top academic institutions. Those who were charged or indicted included top business executives, nine athletics coaches and actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

Rick Singer, founder of The Key Worldwide Foundation, has pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges for operating a scheme that circumvented admissions requirements to get students into selective schools.

Authorities say Singer secured money from rich parents to help their children get into colleges that otherwise would have rejected their applications. According to court records, Singer found people to take standardized tests for students or to fix their incorrect answers.

Singer also bribed college coaches into classifying traditional students as scholarship athletes to secure their enrollment, federal authorities allege.

Singer pleaded guilty Tuesday to four charges. Court documents show he flew to Austin in 2015 to meet with Center in a hotel parking lot and gave the coach $60,000 on behalf of the father of a prospective student from Los Altos Hills, Calif.

Center was introduced to Singer through Houston youth tennis coach Martin Fox, prosecutors allege.

Last October, federal agents directed Singer to place a phone call to Center to get him to confess to his role in getting the person admitted into school. Center, they said, admitted to receiving more than $90,000. According to a transcript of the call, Singer told Center about another student who wanted to get into UT on a tennis scholarship. Center advised Singer to email him additional information about the student.

Texas men’s tennis coach Michael Center has been charged as part of a sweeping FBI investigation into a college admissions scheme. He allegedly helped a student get into UT under the guise of playing tennis in exchange for payment. (Ralph Barrera/American-Statesman file)

Federal agents arrested Center on Tuesday morning at his Northwest Austin home and charged him with one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. He is scheduled to appear in a federal courtroom in Boston on March 25 and will plead not guilty, his lawyer said.

UT officials have declined to release the name of the person Center allegedly signed to a scholarship. They also have declined to say if the person is still enrolled at UT, citing federal privacy laws that prohibit them from discussing the status or record of an individual student.

In documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service, Key Worldwide said that it donated more than $500,000 to University of Texas athletics. But UT officials dispute that figure, saying the school has record of only one payment for $15,000 from the nonprofit in 2015 to go toward a new tennis facility.

Key Worldwide reported to the IRS that it donated $294,000 to UT athletics in 2015 and $252,500 in 2016, for a total of $546,500.

A UT spokesman added that the school is in the process of reviewing other gifts that could be related to the accusations against Center, which could total several hundred thousand dollars. UT is sharing the information with federal investigators, the spokesman said.

Like most schools with powerful athletics departments, Texas lowers its academic admission standards for students who are coming to the school on a sports scholarship. Center is alleged to have given the student a minimal scholarship that covered the cost of books. Within days of getting to campus, the student renounced the scholarship and voluntarily withdrew from the team, court records show.

This isn’t the first time questions about UT’s admissions process have been raised. An investigation commissioned by the UT System concluded in 2015 that then-President Bill Powers sometimes ordered that students touted by regents, legislators, donors and other prominent people be admitted despite objections from the admissions office. Powers said he always acted in the best interest of the university.

Charlotte Canning, chairwoman of UT’s Faculty Council and a of theater and danceprofessor, said it’s prudent for UT and other schools to review their admission policies and procedures. “It’s always a positive step to pause and look at the situation and see if there’s something we could have done to prevent this,” she said.

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