Football Writers Association of America 2006 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Pete Thamel and Duff Wilson, The New York Times

By the end of his junior year at Miami Killian High School, Demetrice Morley flashed the speed, size and talent of a top college football prospect. His classroom performance, however, failed to match his athletic skills. He received three F's that year and had a 2.09 grade point average in his core courses, giving him little hope of qualifying for a scholarship under National Collegiate Athletic Association guidelines.

In December of his senior year, Morley led Killian to the 2004 state title while taking a full course load. He also took seven courses at University High School, a local correspondence school, scoring all A's and B's. He graduated that December, not from Killian but from University High. His grade point average in his core courses was 2.75, precisely what he wound up needing to qualify for a scholarship.

Morley, now a freshman defensive back for the University of Tennessee, was one of at least 28 athletes who polished their grades at University High in the last two years.

The New York Times identified 14 who had signed with 11 Division I football programs: Auburn, Central Florida, Colorado State, Florida, Florida State, Florida International, Rutgers, South Carolina State, South Florida, Tennessee and Temple.

Pete Thamel
The New York Times
Age: 28
College: Syracuse
Background: Former ESPN The Magazine staff writer, Syracuse Post-Standard staff writer and freelancer for a while, too. He’s the only Albanian sportswriter he knows of and has been to all 50 states. His hobbies include studying obscure Division I basketball conferences, setting up a stealth campaign for former East Carolina coach Steve Logan to return to the sideline and playing bad pick-up basketball.
Duff Wilson
The New York Times
Age: 52
College: Western Washington, Columbia
Background: Wilson has been a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist since 1998. He is the first two-time winner of Harvard University's Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Wilson previously he worked at The Seattle Times and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He is author of a nonfiction book, Fateful Harvest (HarperCollins, 2001), which won book-of-the-year honors from Investigative Reporters and Editors.

University High, which has no classes and no educational accreditation, appears to have offered the players little more than a speedy academic makeover.

The school's program illustrates that even as the NCAA presses for academic reforms, its loopholes are quickly recognized and exploited.

Athletes who graduated from University High acknowledged that they learned little there, but were grateful that it enabled them to qualify for college scholarships. Lorenzo Ferguson, a second-year defensive back at Auburn, said he left Miami Southridge High School for University High, where after one month he had raised his average to 2.6 from 2.0.

"You take each course you failed in ninth or 10th grade," he said. "If it was applied math, you do them on the packets they give you. It didn't take that long. The answers were basically in the book."

The NCAA has allowed students to use correspondence school courses to meet eligibility requirements since 2000. That year, the NCAA also shifted the power to determine which classes count as core courses to high school administrators. In doing so, it essentially left schools to determine their own legitimacy.

"We're not the educational accreditation police," Diane Dickman, the NCAA's managing director for membership services, said in September.

But last week, Myles Brand, president of the NCAA, said he would form a group to examine issues involving correspondence courses and high school credentials. Brand acted partly in response to a letter sent on Nov. 2 from the Southeastern Conference that highlighted cases similar to Morley's and Ferguson's.

The man who founded University High School and owned it until last year, Stanley J. Simmons, served 10 months in a federal prison camp from 1989 to 1990 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud for his involvement with a college diploma mill in Arizona.

Among the activities Simmons acknowledged in court documents were awarding degrees without academic achievement and awarding degrees based on studies he was unqualified to evaluate.

In interviews last week, he said he should never have pleaded guilty and that he operated legitimate correspondence schools for adults.

In 2004, Simmons sold University High to Michael R. Kinney, its director. Kinney, 27, who was arrested on a marijuana possession charge in 2003 and is wanted on a bench warrant, declined to comment, despite requests by phone, fax and visits to his apartment.

Several University High graduates said they found the school through Antron Wright, a former XFL and Arena Football League player who is prominent in Miami's high school athletic circles. He is considered a savior by some players, but one principal has barred Wright from his building for luring athletes to a rival school and introducing them to University High.

Miami has ideal conditions for academic-athletic exploitation. It is fertile recruiting ground: 38 players from Dade County were on N.F.L. rosters at the start of the 2004 season, more than any other county. Also, Florida's public schools require an exit examination for graduation, but private schools have no such requirement, and operate under a law that prohibits any state regulation. That allows University High to operate essentially unsupervised.

Pat Herring, the interim admissions director at the University of Florida, looked into University High after admitting one of its graduates, Dane Guthrie, a former Killian tight end. "We found that University High School was kind of a storefront operation," Herring said. "It didn't seem to have much in the way of an academic program." While Florida officials were discussing whether to allow Guthrie to remain, he transferred to Arizona State.

Other colleges that have admitted University High graduates say they know little about it.

Auburn admitted Ferguson in 2004 and a fellow University graduate, Ulysses Alexander, this year. "The bottom line is they were both qualifiers by the NCAA," said Mark Richard, a senior associate athletic director at Auburn. A four-member academic panel at Tennessee admitted Morley after sending an athletic department official to Miami to investigate University High. Morley has thrived on the field at Tennessee, but Philip Simpson has stumbled at Temple.

Simpson, a standout quarterback at Southridge High, said Wright had met with him and his parents and offered a sure alternative from high school to college, telling him: "You either stay there and bust your behind and hope and pray that at the end you don't get shorthanded. Or you can do this."

Simpson said his mother called the NCAA to check whether University High courses would be accepted. He said he graduated in three weeks by taking four classes, improving his average to 2.3 from 2.0.

He now says he lacks the educational skills for college. For a basic math class at Temple, Simpson said, he studied at least three hours every day, got help from tutors and met regularly with the professor. He still did not score higher than 53 out of 100 on any test.

Simpson said Temple ruled him academically ineligible to play. He watched this season from the sideline.

A Quick Diploma

University High School consists of two small rooms on the third floor of an office building wedged between a Starbucks and an animal hospital on Route 1 in south Miami. Inside are three desks, three employees and two framed posters from art museums on the wall. Promotional brochures say diplomas can be earned in four to six weeks, with open-book exams, no classes and no timed tests. A diploma costs $399, no matter how many courses.

In paperwork filed with the state of Florida, the school says it has six teachers. None of the school's graduates interviewed, however, mentioned dealing with anyone besides Kinney, the current owner, and none said they had received any personal instruction.

John M. McLeod, a Miami-Dade Community College educator, is identified as the University High principal on a letter welcoming new students. McLeod said he met Simmons in the 1970's, but that he had no connection to University High. He said his signature had been copied. "I've never seen this letter," he said. "I know nothing about University High School."

Simmons said he did not know why McLeod's signature was on the letter.

Former students said in interviews that courses consisted of picking up work packets from University High and completing them at home. Grades they received on the packets counted the same on their transcripts as a yearlong high school course.

"If it was history, they had the story with the questions right next to it," Simpson said. "They were onepage stories. It wasn't really hard."

University High says its textbooks are the Essential Series from Research and Education Association of Piscataway, N.J., but their publisher describes them as study guides.

"You wouldn't describe them as textbooks," Carl M. Fuchs, president of Research and Education, said. "You would say they're more supplemental, but they can be used on their own. A textbook is certainly going to have a lot more text, a lot more information."

University High's literature claims it is accredited by the National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools. The association's Web site says it is "not meant to represent an evaluation and/or approval of the materials, teaching staff or educational philosophy employed by the applicant program." It says "only one standard is applied: consumer protection."

The Florida Department of Education's Web site lists accreditation for University High by the National Coalition of Alternative and Community Schools and by the Association of Christian Schools International. But the alternative schools coalition does not accredit high schools, and David Ray, the Florida regional director of the Christian schools association said, "University was never accredited and has never sought accreditation with us."

To Some, a Second Chance

Simmons said that he opened University High School in 2000 to serve adults; and that the average age of about 400 current students is 36. Football players from public schools in poor neighborhoods began enrolling around March 2004, when University applied for membership to the NCAA. Clearinghouse, which determines if a student is eligible and can qualify for a scholarship. Several players said Wright led them to University High.

Philip Simpson said that when he went to University to enroll, Kinney was expecting him because Wright had called. Ferguson and Simpson said they worked on their University High packets at Wright's apartment.

Wright, 30, could relate to talented athletes with academic struggles, some of the players said. A former star at Southridge and Palmetto High Schools in Miami, he did not attend a Division I-A university because of poor grades, local players and coaches said. He graduated from junior college, then played two years at Division IAA Bethune-Cookman.

Wright later rooted himself in the Miami football community, serving as an assistant coach at three schools and as a substitute teacher at Dade County football powers. He developed a strong bond with his players.

"I thank God every time I step on the practice field for Tron," said Keyon Brooks, a former Killian player and University High graduate now playing for South Carolina State. "He got me here. He helped me succeed in life. I look at him as a role model."

Tavares Kendrick, a top-rated quarterback from Homestead High, credits Wright for helping him get to Florida International University, where he is a backup quarterback. Kendrick said his average improved to 3.0 from about 2.1 in about seven weeks by taking nine classes at University High.

"Antron is a great guy," he said. "He helps kids that have great talent but don't have the smarts for school." Yet Wright is barred from Southridge, partly because he lured players to Killian and to University High. In January 2004, five football players left Southridge and later played crucial roles on Killian's state title team.

"He can't come into my building," Carzell J. Morris, the principal at Southridge, said. "Just for the fact he comes in and takes my kids out. Kids that could probably make it if they weren't looking for the easy way out."

Southridge Coach Rodney Hunter said Wright also encouraged Damaso Munoz, who is now at Rutgers, to leave for University High early this year. Robert E. Mulcahy III, the athletic director at Rutgers, said Munoz was enrolled at the university and was paying his own way.

He was admitted by a committee of faculty and deans. Thirteen of the 38 seniors on Killian's 2004 state title team did not graduate with their class. Many, including Morley and Brooks, wound up at University High.

"How legitimate is it?" Otis Collier, the athletic director at Killian, said about Morley's improvement at University. "I don't know. I guess it's because of me. I probably should want to know, but I don't want to know. I don't want to know anything about it."

Wright declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this article.

By transferring to University High, students can bypass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is mandatory for public school graduation, and focus on passing through the NCAA Clearinghouse. NCAA minimum standards require the completion of 14 core courses. Grade-point average in those courses and standardized test scores are rated on a scale. Students with high averages can qualify with lower test scores and vice versa.

For example, after Morley's junior year at Killian, a computer program used to project eligibility showed him graduating with about a 2.1 G.P.A., meaning he would need at least a 960 on the SAT. At University, he raised his average to 2.75, so his 720 SAT score was exactly what he needed to qualify.

Although the standardized testing services flag suspicious jumps in scores, there is no similar alarm for grade-point averages that suddenly go up. Assuring the legitimacy of high school credentials is one reason Brand says he is forming the NCAA panel, which will make recommendations by June 1.

"We see the problem accelerating," he said. "We want to stop it as soon as possible."

Doing Something About It

When Morley was preparing to enter college, Tennessee and the Southeastern Conference questioned his University High transcript. Brad Bertani, the associate athletic director for compliance at Tennessee, went to Miami to investigate.

Bertani, who met with Simmons for three hours, said he determined that Morley had done his own work. But Bertani refused to comment on University High's curriculum. "There's all kinds of schooling out there, whether you think it's legitimate or not," Bertani said. "That's for the admissions people at each school to evaluate."

Copies of Bertani's handwritten notes from the visit, obtained through a freedom of information request, say that there were no records of University's teachers and that no lab was required for the chemistry course for which Morley received a B.

Tennessee's research showed that University High School sent transcripts from 28 athletes to the NCAA Clearinghouse.

Bertani also spent weeks investigating Morley's connection to Wright, who accompanied Morley on his recruiting trip to Knoxville and kept in contact with Trooper Taylor, an assistant football coach at Tennessee. Bertani said he found no improprieties with Wright or any connection between him and University High.

Morley, who played defensive back and returned kicks this season, did not respond to repeated attempts for comment by e-mail and through Tennessee officials. His mother, Felicia Henry, demanded to know who had told a reporter he had attended University High and said she knew nothing about the school's academics.

Morley took a full course load at Killian while playing football, along with seven other core courses -- half the NCAA minimum for a high school career -- at University.

Transcripts obtained by The New York Times show he received four A's and three B's from University. At Killian, he received C's in English all four years, but he got an A in classical literature from University. Grades like that helped his G.P.A. in core courses improve to 2.75 from 2.09 from August to December.

Three of the four members of Tennessee's admissions panel expressed reservations.

"I didn't see anything fraudulent or out of line," Richard Baer, the dean of enrollment at Tennessee, said of his initial reaction to Morley's transcript. "It looked like it could have been another student's transcript from another institution. I didn't see anything that struck me as saying: 'You know what? We need to look carefully at this.'"

The other panelists reacted differently. "All of this was in my mind very, very questionable," Anne Mayhew, the vice chancellor for academic affairs, said. Todd Diacon, the head of the history department, said, "Anytime I see a transcript like a University High School, it concerns me."

Ruth Darling, an assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs, said, "I always had reservations about this type of school, if students are actually learning." In the end, the panel never voted, accepting the transcript because the NCAA approved University High and Bertani found that Morley had done his own work there. But when told of Simmons's fraud conviction, Mayhew said Tennessee should have been more careful.

"I think we need to add a new layer of caution to deal with high school diploma mills," she said.

Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer lauded the university, pointing out that no other college had visited University High.

"I'm a Tennessee graduate as well," he said. "I want the university to be represented in the right way."

At What Cost a Degree?

When describing his reasons for transferring to University High, Simpson recalled a Southridge basketball player with Division I potential who failed his last chance at Florida's mandatory graduation exam.

"I still remember to this day him walking around the hallways crying," he said. "He was ready to fight every principal and teacher in Miami."

That image stuck with him as he struggled academically. Simpson said he still has his ninth-grade report card showing a 0.6 grade point average. He said he relied heavily on others to do his work.

"The basic skills I'm supposed to have from way back then," he said, "none of them are there." Mark Eyerly, Temple's chief communications officer, said, "It is in the best interests of our students and of the university for us to offer admission to students whom we believe can succeed here academically."

Simpson said that his problems at Temple made him more determined.

As a freshman, Simpson played defensive end and made seven tackles for a 2-9 team. Temple completed an 0-11 season this month.

When his football career ends, he said, he sees himself in only one place.

"I believe that my fate is to go back to Miami and change things," he said. "My job is to go into school systems like Miami and be a coach and teach kids right from wrong."


Comment of the judge, Shawna Seed: This wellreported piece illuminated a serious problem in college athletics. It also put a human face on the issue and gave the reader greater insight into why desperate athletes would choose such a school.

• Second place: Alan Schmadtke, Orlando Sentinel
• Third place: Jon Solomon, Birmingham News
• Honorable mention: Ted Miller, Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Bruce Feldman, ESPN The Magazine; Joseph Person, The State