District to drop Sealth coaches
Seattle Times staff reporters
Background on Chief Sealth coaches
Willis, 52, took over the Chief Sealth High School girls basketball program in 2002-03, inheriting a team that had gone 3-17 the previous year. Willis, also a counselor at Chief Sealth, coached at Eastside Catholic High School in Bellevue before joining Chief Sealth.
He was fired from Eastside Catholic after just two seasons, despite guiding the Crusaders to the state tournament. Neither Willis nor school officials would discuss why he was fired.
Willis played college basketball for George Fox University in Oregon, and he says he played professionally in Europe and Australia. He says he eventually wants to coach college basketball.
Fuller, 37, has been coaching with Willis since 2000, when they were both at Eastside Catholic.
A supply-chain analyst at Boeing, Fuller is the assistant basketball coach and head girls track coach at Chief Sealth.
She played on Garfield's 1987 state-championship basketball team.
Walters, 45, has been coaching with Willis for the past three seasons and has previous experience coaching track. He is the head boys track coach at Chief Sealth. Walters works in King County's risk-management division as an administrative staff assistant.
The Seattle School District plans to get rid of three Chief Sealth High School girls basketball coaches after concluding they improperly recruited girls to build their nationally ranked, state-championship team — a scheme that ranks as the biggest prep-sports recruiting scandal in state history.
But despite finding widespread recruiting, the district doesn't believe the team should forfeit any games, or the state championships it won this year and last.
That recommendation will be forwarded to the Metro 3A League, which still could decide otherwise.
District officials on Friday announced those findings after a seven-week investigation prompted by a Seattle Times report in which parents and players detailed improper recruiting by the Chief Sealth coaches.
The district notified head coach Ray Willis and his assistants, Amos Walters and Laura Fuller, that it intends not to renew their annual coaching contracts. All three coaches have until Friday to tell the district if they plan to appeal.
The basketball program, undefeated and ranked No. 9 in the nation by USA Today this year, will be placed on probation for two years, during which any further recruiting would result in losing postseason eligibility.
"Activity that violates rules will not be tolerated," Superintendent Raj Manhas said in a news release. "School staff and adults have a responsibility not only to abide by the rules, but to act as role models in setting high standards of behavior for our students."
The district found that coaches recruited five players, promising them college scholarships and starting positions. In three cases, coaches also provided false addresses to parents so the students could enroll at Chief Sealth.
One parent told district investigators the recruiting was "relentless," while another said Willis claimed to be building a "dream team."
The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), which oversees high-school sports in the state, strictly forbids coaches from recruiting or attempting to recruit athletes. Coaches can't offer enticements such as playing time or help getting college scholarships.
"When there is repeated behavior that violates rules, conducted by individuals in a leadership role ... we find that deeply troubling, and it's unacceptable," said Seattle Schools spokeswoman Patti Spencer.
The school district decided not to strip the team of its state titles because "evidence does not substantiate that students initiated the recruiting activities, or that they were aware of the recruiting rules or the consequences of violating those rules," the news release stated.
However, the district didn't cite any WIAA rules in explaining that decision.
While the school district's sanctions against Chief Sealth didn't include forfeiture of games or titles, the governing athletic body, the Metro 3A League, will review the findings and decide how the team should be penalized, if at all.
The Metropolitan Activities Executive Committee, made up of a principal from each of the 13 schools in the Metro 3A League, could fine Chief Sealth, expel or suspend the team from the league, or force the team to forfeit its games. Forfeiture could lead to relinquishing its two consecutive state championships.
The WIAA executive board has the final authority in determining if Chief Sealth could lose its titles. WIAA executive director Mike Colbrese declined to comment.
Coach Kathy Gibson of Issaquah High School, which lost the district and state championship games to Chief Sealth this year by a total of four points, said she is glad the district is acting on the recruiting violations.
"Before, we were all thinking they were getting away with something," Gibson said. "Now somebody — possibly the coaches, possibly the school — will be held accountable."
She said it was "somewhat surprising that's all they decided to do so far. But I don't want to jump to any conclusions. Maybe more things will be done."
"We were sold a dream"
The district began investigating Chief Sealth after a Seattle Times report Feb. 15 detailed how the coaches recruited girls with promises of starting spots, college scholarships and other benefits. Parents said coaches even provided bogus lease agreements so their daughters could enroll at the school without having to move from the suburbs. Several of those girls helped Chief Sealth win its 3A state title last year and led this year's team to another.
Rebecca Rogers, a parent whose daughter was recruited by the coaches, commended the school district for taking some action against the coaches.
"I feel that they definitely should lose their jobs," she said.
Rogers told the district one of the coaches provided her with a fake lease agreement and rent receipt for a West Seattle apartment so her daughter, Leah, could attend Chief Sealth in 2003-04. The family never moved from its Renton home.
"I'm not going to deny any fault, because I did choose to go along with it in the end. But I think the truth of the matter, too, was I felt awkward, and they were so encouraging," Rogers said. "The calls that Ray, Laura and Amos made daily, numerously, they made it so that you couldn't say no. When they wanted you, they wanted you. I believe we were sold a dream. It's a very hard place for a parent to be in."
In another case, the district found, Willis attempted to recruit a student who lived outside the district. Willis purchased a blank lease from an office-supply store and provided a West Seattle address for the girl's mother to use to meet residency requirements for enrolling at the school. The coach then drove the student and mother to the enrollment center where they enrolled using the fake address.
District investigator Eddie Hill said he found that parents and players who shared their stories were credible. Two parents denied allegations of recruiting and some would not speak to Hill.
All three coaches denied wrongdoing. Hill said that when interviewing Willis, Fuller and Walters, he found them "to not be credible."
"Their flat denials of any improper conduct were not consistent with information and documents provided by other witnesses," Hill wrote in a report on his findings.
The coaches denied wrongdoing when interviewed by The Times in February.
Attorney Christopher Thayer, who represents Willis, had no comment concerning Friday's announcement: "For reasons that should be obvious to you, I do not believe Mr. Willis has any interest in talking to The Seattle Times."
It's unclear whether Willis will keep his job as a counselor at Chief Sealth.
"At this point, the actions we've taken are limited to the investigation at hand, which related to the coaching activities," Spencer said.
Walters and Fuller, who also coach track, have been placed on administrative leave from those duties while the district considers whether they can keep those jobs.
Principal had concerns
The investigation focused on the coaches' misconduct and not the culpability of players. That is why the district did not recommend forfeiture of any games, officials said.
"After significant thought and reflection, I decided not to rule any of the recruited players as ineligible," Ammon McWashington, Seattle's director of secondary education, stated in a letter to the Metro 3A League. "My primary reason for this decision is that adult coaches and adults parents/guardians engaged in the recruiting activities."
McWashington said that during the two-year probation, which starts Friday, the district will monitor the school. The district also will require all of its high-school athletic directors to attend rules clinics.
Chief Sealth principal John Boyd on Friday declined comment on the report or how the probation will affect the team, referring all calls to the district.
But Boyd said in an interview with investigator Hill on March 31 that he had been concerned about the large numbers of girls transferring to Chief Sealth to play basketball. Boyd said then that he and two other administrators, including McWashington, had their "radar out" about the issue.
"Boyd himself had between four and seven conversations with Willis in Willis' office about such allegations," district investigators wrote.
Mike Kelly, Chief Sealth athletic director, said in an interview with Hill on March 31 that he tried to substantiate complaints about recruiting, seeking advice from administrators and even keeping a database of new girls who started playing basketball at Chief Sealth between 2002-05.
He said he asked for signed statements, and none of the parents provided them.
"He talked to the players involved, and confronted the coaches," the report stated. "The players always said that they had not been recruited, and the coaches denied that they had been involved in recruiting."
But the report stated that Kelly failed to follow through in at least one instance, in 2003. Kelly was scanning a computer report and found that one of the girls lived outside the Seattle School District. Kelly confronted Willis, who twice said that the girl had moved into the district.
But Kelly did not check her student records.
"No one suggested that the volume of complaints and transfers indicated that a more thorough investigation was needed," the report stated.
The Seattle School District was supposed to complete its investigation of the Chief Sealth program March 2, but was granted two extensions because Hill needed more time to interview people.
The investigation included interviews with parents or guardians of current and former players, school administrators, and the coaches themselves.
Before this year's state tournament in March, the district conducted a preliminary investigation to determine if all the players on the current team were eligible to play.
That investigation determined that senior Valerie Cook and her family had lied about their residency. The school ruled her ineligible to play but did not force the team to forfeit any games she had played in, saying it had no evidence the coaches had known of the deception.
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