University of Texas men’s tennis coach Michael Center will plead not guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, his attorney said Tuesday, after federal prosecutors accused him of taking a bribe to help a student falsely disguised as a recruit get into UT in 2015.
Center was one of 50 people indicted across six states on Tuesday as part of a wide-sweeping federal investigation that snared nine coaches in what prosecutors called “Operation Varsity Blues.”
Hours before the UT tennis team was scheduled to host Rice in a dual match, Center was standing in a federal courtroom in Austin with chains around his waist. A federal judge set Center’s bond at $50,000 and ordered the coach to pay 10 percent, or $5,000.
The complicated story about wealthy parents — including a CEO, a fashion designer and two Hollywood actresses — cutting corners for their children captivated the nation’s attention. One U.S. attorney called it “the largest college admission scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.”
According to a legal complaint filed March 5, William “Rick” Singer was charged with racketeering, money laundering and fraud for organizing a scheme whereby 33 parents paid him to help their children get into schools like Texas, Georgetown, Yale, Stanford, UCLA and USC.
Documents claimed that Singer made approximately $25 million from 2011 to 2018 to bribe college coaches and create fake athletic profiles, some with staged photographs. In exchange, coaches would designate the clients’ children as recruited athletes, thereby helping them gain easier admission. College athletic entrance requirements are typically lower than those for regular students.
Actresses Felicity Huffman of “Desperate Housewives” and Lori Loughlin of “Full House” were the two most high-profile names unveiled by federal prosecutors. Center, now in his 19th season of guiding the UT tennis team, agreed to accept $100,000 as a bribe in 2015 in exchange for designating a student as a UT tennis recruit, according to investigators. The applicant, according to the FBI affidavit, “did not play competitive tennis.”
UT awarded the scholarship on April 13, 2015, and the student was added to the tennis team roster, according to the affidavit. UT officials would not identify who the student was or if he was still enrolled. Investigators identified the student as being from Los Altos Hills, Calif., but not his name.
Center, who earns about $232,000 annually, has been placed on leave by UT.
Investigators used a cooperating witness to approach Center again in October 2018, according to federal documents. The coach was recorded as saying he was paid “in the nineties” for the 2015 scheme and was willing to do it again.
Eight federal agents in tactical gear came to Center’s home in Northwest Austin around 6 a.m. Tuesday to arrest him, said Center’s lawyer, Dan Cogdell, of Houston.
Still wearing the burnt orange T-shirt and gray Longhorns sweatpants he was wearing at the time he was apprehended, Center stepped into a federal courtroom in the afternoon with chains around his waist. As he stood before U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin, the 54-year-old coach turned to the gallery several times and made eye contact with his wife, Allison, whose expression never changed. The couple’s two teenage sons were not present.
In addition to setting the $50,000 bond, the judge also told Center to surrender his passport and restricted his travel to the Austin area pending permission from pretrial services to go further for work.
Center is scheduled to meet with pretrial services at 10 a.m. Wednesday to confirm the conditions of his release.
The next key date is March 25 when Cogdell said he and the coach will travel to Boston where Center will plead not guilty. The case is expected to stay in Massachusetts, where the federal prosecutors initiated the complaint against Center and the other defendants charged in the scheme.
“I don’t know how it’s going to play out in the university context, but I know how it’s going to play out in a courtroom — with a two-word verdict,” Cogdell said.
Multiple sources said UT officials were blindsided by the news, but the school put Center on administrative leave almost immediately. UT officials said they would cooperate with federal investigators as the allegations “run counter to the university’s values.”
“Integrity in admissions is vital to the academic and ethical standards of our university,” the university said in a statement. “Based on what we know at present, we believe this was an isolated incident in 2015 that involved one coach and no other university employees or officers.”
With an uncomfortable laugh, Center told the judge that his team was scheduled to play later in the day and again on Thursday, when Texas, which is ranked third nationally, hosts No. 1 Ohio State. Outside the courthouse, Center encouraged reporters to cover Tuesday’s match against Rice because “they’re a lot more fun to watch than I am.”
In a statement, Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte said associate head coach Bruce Berque would be the Longhorns’ interim head coach going forward “as we continue to gather information.”
The bribe was arranged by a third party, Martin Fox of Houston, who knew both Center and a cooperating witness, according to the affidavit.
On Feb. 27, 2015, the student’s father made a stock donation of $455,194 to Singer’s company based in California. Then on March 2, 2015, Center notified the father and told him that UT would be sending a letter of intent for a partial scholarship covering books. UT awarded the scholarship one month later, on April 13.
On April 22, 2015, an employee for the cooperating witness purchased a cashier’s check for $25,000 made payable to “Texas Athletics,” the affidavit states. More money was exchanged between the parties, and the witness told investigators he flew to Austin in June 2015 and paid Center $60,000 “in a hotel parking lot.”
The FBI chronicled Center’s bank records and said that on Sept. 4, 2015, the student began classes at Texas. He then voluntarily withdrew from the tennis team, renounced his books scholarship but was still enrolled at UT.
Getting into UT is hard enough for normal students. In the fall of 2019, those who finished among the top 6 percent of their high school graduating class were expected to make up three-fourths of the Texas residents in the student population.
“There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy,” U.S. attorney Andrew Lelling said at a press conference, “and I’ll add there will not be a separate criminal justice system, either.”
Full Center indictment can be read below: