UT fires tennis coach charged in massive college cheating scandal

Michael Center. (University of Texas photo)
Michael Center. (University of Texas photo)(KWTX)
Published: Mar. 12, 2019 at 12:29 PM CDT
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University of Texas head men’s tennis coach Michael Center was fired Wednesday, a day after he was arrested and charged in what officials described as the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Justice Department.

Associate head coach Bruce Berque will serve as interim head coach, the university said in a press release.

"After working with campus leaders to review the recent situation with Michael Center, we have decided to relieve him of his duties as our men's tennis coach," Athletics Director Chris Del Conte said.

"It's a very difficult decision, and we are grateful for the years of service that he has provided, but winning with integrity will always be paramount at The University of Texas, and it was a decision that had to be made.

Center, 54, who was charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, was arrested Tuesday and made an initial appearance before a federal magistrate Tuesday afternoon.

His bond was set at $50,000.

He must later appear in court in Massachusetts, where the nationwide investigation was initiated.

Center is accused of accepting $100,000 in 2015 as a bribe to designate a student from Los Altos Hills, Calif., who did not play competitive tennis as a recruit.

According to the indictment, one payment to Center was made in the form of $60,000 in cash handed over in an Austin hotel parking lot.

Center's attorney, Dan Cogdell, says the coach will enter a not guilty plea.

Court documents say an admissions consulting company in California set up by William "Rick" Singer was paid $25 million from 2011 through February 2019 to help facilitate the bribes.

Singer, of Newport Beach, Calif., pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Boston to charges including racketeering conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

Parents spent anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million to guarantee their children's admission to elite schools, authorities said.

“In exchange for the bribe, the U-Texas coach designated the son of one of Singer’s clients, who did not play tennis competitively, as a recruit for the university’s tennis team, thereby facilitating his admission to U-Texas,” a court document says.

Center who is in his 19th season in Austin, has a 365-137 record over 18 seasons with the men's team.

Martin Fox, 62, the president of a private tennis academy and camp in Houston, is accused of introducing Singer to Center and of arranging similar bribes on two occasions with varsity coaches at the University of San Diego.

He was indicted for conspiracy to commit racketeering.

Niki Williams, 44, an assistant high school teacher in Houston, who works as a test administrator for both the College Board and ACT, Inc., is accused of accepting bribes to allow Mark Riddell of Palmetto, Fla. to secretly take ACT and SAT tests in place of the children of Singer’s clients or to replace their exam responses with his own.

Singer funneled bribe payments to her through Fox, court documents allege, but in July 2018 Singer sent her a $5,000 check directly.

She was indicted for conspiracy to commit racketeering.

Riddell was indicted for conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

John Wilson was indicted in the Southern District of Texas for conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, the Justice Department said.

Wilson, 59, of Hyannis Port, Mass., is the founder and CEO of private equity and real estate development firm;

Nine coaches at elite schools and 33 parents accused of paying what prosecutors said were “enormous sums” to guarantee their children’s admission are named in the indictments.

Coaches are accused of taking bribes to admit students at schools including Wake Forest University, Georgetown University and the University of Southern California.

Actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman are among those charged.

Prosecutors allege that in addition to bribing coaches or athletic officials to make it appear the students were recruits, the scheme also involved bribing those administering college entrance exams to provide answers, change answers or allow someone other than the student to take the exam and having someone take classes in place of the student.