UT men’s head tennis coach on administrative leave after bribery allegations

Texas men's tennis coach Michael Center walks with Defense lawyer Dan Cogdell away from the United States Federal Courthouse in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. Center is among a few people in the state charged in a scheme that involved wealthy parents bribing college coaches and others to gain admissions for their children at top schools, federal prosecutors said Tuesday. (Ricardo B. Brazziell

The University of Texas at Austin has placed Michael Center, its head coach for men’s tennis, on administrative leave after FBI documents revealed that he allegedly took a $100,000 bribe in 2015 to help a student gain admission to UT-Austin by adding him as a recruit to the tennis team.

The documents said the student did not play competitive tennis.

“Federal authorities notified us this morning that we were victims of an organized criminal effort involving admissions,” UT-Austin spokesman J.B. Bird said in a written statement Tuesday. “We have just become aware of charges against our Men’s Tennis Coach Michael Center and he will be placed on administrative leave until further notice while we gather information.”

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Bird said the university is cooperating fully with the investigation and that “integrity in admissions is vital to the academic and ethical standards of our university.”

“He is innocent,” Center’s lawyer, Dan Cogdell, told reporters Tuesday.

Center, who was hired in July 2000 and is only the fourth men’s tennis coach at UT-Austin, is one of dozens of people named in a growing national college bribery scandal. An indictment unsealed Tuesday in Boston named more than 50 people — including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — who are accused of paying bribes to ensure their children got into prestigious universities including UT, Stanford, Georgetown, Yale, Wake Forest, and the University of Southern California.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, Center appeared in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin at a federal courthouse in Austin. Wearing a burnt orange T-shirt, dark grey sweatpants and house slippers, Center was represented by Cogdell, a Houston-based criminal defense lawyer.

In court, Austin briefed Center on his rights and said he had 72 hours to pay $5,000, or 10 percent of his $50,000 bond. Center will have to surrender his passport and must limit his travel, Austin said.

Cogdell said it is standard operating procedure for the university to place Center on leave and that Center is disappointed but understands the decision. Center was arrested at 6 a.m. at his home, Cogdell said.

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“He is devastated by the accusation,” said Cogdell on the courthouse steps after escorting Center to a waiting car. “He’d have to be dumber than a bucket of hair not to be devastated by the accusation. But he’s a strong person, he’s got great character, and he’ll get through this.”

Center’s next court appearance will be March 25 in Boston, where he will plead not guilty, Cogdell said.

Hours after the allegations were made public, the UT-Austin men’s tennis team had a match against Rice University. Padma Sunkara and her husband, Ravi Arimilli, came to the match to watch their son, Nevin, a freshman on the team. Sunkara said she was “shocked” and “disappointed” when she first heard the news about Center earlier this morning.

“We’ve known Center for many years, and he’s always been an upstanding coach, human,” said Sunkara, who’s from Austin. “We’re going to see what the courts have to say, but we want to be here to support the team and the players, who’ve worked really hard to be where they’re at right now.”

Education Weekly Roundup

In addition to bribes taken by athletic coaches and other university administrators, the scheme involved parents paying a college prep organization to take the ACT or SAT college admission tests on behalf of their children or to correct their answers after the test, according to the indictment.

The indictment says a Houston high school teacher who was also a standardized test administrator took bribes as part of the scheme. In July 2018, the teacher received a $5,000 check from William Singer, the founder of The Edge College & Career Network LLC, documents show.

Collectively, parents paid Singer roughly $25 million between 2011 and February 2019 to bribe coaches and university administrators, designating their children as recruited athletes or other “favored admission categories,” according to the documents.

At a press conference Tuesday, FBI officials said Singer helped or advised parents to stage photos of their children engaged in sports. In some cases, stock photos were used.

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The indictment also lists Martin Fox, the president of a private tennis academy and camp in Houston, as a key player. Fox allegedly introduced Singer and Center, for which he was paid $100,000 by Singer for “assisting with the bribe transaction,” and he was also paid to help facilitate bribes for a varsity sports coach at the University of San Diego, the indictment states.

Lawmakers in Austin on Tuesday said they were shocked by the allegations and planned to keep an eye on the case as it moves through the courts.

“Students should be admitted to colleges and universities based on academic merit, character and talent, not through bribes and lawbreaking,” said State Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat from Grand Prairie who chairs the House Higher Education Committee.

Turner said he is confident that UT-Austin is working to better understand the situation.

“The House Committee on Higher Education will be closely monitoring this situation throughout the session and beyond,” he said.