In April 2011, Daniel McGugin lost his job as Montgomery Bell Academy’s head football coach when it came to light that he delivered a check for $1,500 to the parents of a player. The payment ran afoul of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association — the governing body for high school sports in the state — and its rules on tuition assistance and recruiting.
TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress praised MBA for “self-reporting” the violation and terminating McGugin. He then declared the investigation over.
It wasn’t finished, however, and the TSSAA continued to investigate and ask questions of MBA staff past and present. What they discovered is unclear, but The City Paper has learned of multiple instances where money was given to the families of student athletes in violation of TSSAA rules, some by MBA trustees.
Publicly the school maintained that the event that led to McGugin’s firing was an aberration. Privately, many close to the school have said this sort of thing has been going on for decades and not just in the football program. Multiple sources told The City Paper of at least nine instances dating back to the 1990s where money was given to the families of student athletes or the school on behalf of student athletes. Not all were necessarily violations of TSSAA rules.
The City Paper has not named the students involved because, in most cases, it’s not apparent that they even knew of the outside assistance. The students in question attended MBA at different times from the mid-1990s up until today.
Of the monies delivered:
• At least three members of the current MBA Board of Trustees have reportedly paid tuition for students who were also athletes.
• One student athlete had a family member who worked for free for an alumnus who in turn paid the tuition.
• The father of one student worked for an organization controlled by a prominent MBA donor. The father worked for the organization during the years his son played at MBA, according to IRS records.
• One individual confirmed to The City Paper that MBA knew he paid the tuition for a student athlete outside of the normal financial aid structure.
• At least one student athlete had his tuition covered outside of normal student assistance channels when his parents were going through a divorce.
Separate sources have confirmed to The City Paper that TSSAA attorney Rick Colbert met with MBA officials in early December. The organization — think of it as Tennessee’s version of the NCAA — sets and determines rules for player eligibility and punishes schools who violate their rules.
When reached for comment, Bob Walker, MBA’s legal counsel said, “MBA has been forthcoming and cooperating with the TSSAA since last fall. We expect the matter to be resolved in the near future.”
The TSSAA declined to comment.
TSSAA rules on financial assistance are clear — if anyone outside of the family pays for a student, that student becomes ineligible to play sports (TSSAA Bylaws, Article 2, Section 16):
“If tuition is charged, it must be paid by parent, bona fide guardian or other family member. If a parent, guardian or other family member secures a loan for payment of tuition, it must remain an obligation of the parents, guardian or other family member to repay the principal and interest in full with no exceptions.”
The rule is aimed specifically at private schools using outside donors to secure athletes. And a school cannot fail to collect a student’s tuition, either. All students with accounts that are 60 days past due are ineligible.
The monies given to families highlight the problems the TSSAA has in enforcing its rules. In 1996, after complaints by public schools about private schools recruiting athletes, the organization split its members into two divisions: Division 1 is composed of public schools and private schools that don’t provide aid. Division 2 is composed of private schools that provide need-based aid along a variety of national and federal guidelines.
Because the TSSAA is not large enough to police financial aid matters and relies mainly on schools to self-report eligibility issues, it would be relatively easy for any private school that awards grants-in-aid to athletes to avoid detection. Multiple individuals, including supporters of MBA and other private schools, have told The City Paper that they believe there are aid issues throughout Division 2 schools.
The TSSAA has leveled penalties for violating financial aid rules only once in the past five years. Grace Christian Academy of Knoxville was issued a three-year probation for using an ineligible player in basketball and football games from 2007-2010. All wins were vacated. The student’s tuition was covered by a church following the death of his parents his freshman year. Because the infraction was not initially reported by the school, the penalties issued by the TSSAA, including heavy fines that were later appealed, were harsher than usual.
Of the eight former MBA athletes that allegedly had some or all of their tuitions paid outside of the proper financial aid channels, a few have gone on to participate in college athletic programs. Some of those students stayed within the region, while others have gone far out of state.
Few people associated with MBA wish to publicly criticize the school. Attempts to get even ancillary figures connected to the situation to speak on the record were met with polite refusals and statements that any public connection to them on this matter could do them irreparable harm.
The institution is extremely prestigious. MBA is the alma mater of former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist and his brother Thomas, founder of HCA. Former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Frank Drowota is a graduate, as is Admiral Joseph W. Prueher, a former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command and ambassador to China. World War II European Commander Lt. Gen. Frank Maxwell Andrews — as in Andrews Air Force Base — was a graduate as well. If the place reminds you of the movie Dead Poets Society it should — its writer, Thomas Schulman, went there too.
It is also the school of athletes like PGA Tour Golfer Brandt Snedeker, former Pro Bowl quarterback and first overall selection in 1952 NFL Draft Bill Wade, former Chicago Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer and former Tennessee Titan Ingle Martin. Current city leaders are entwined with the school as well. Congressman Jim Cooper’s son is a recent graduate, Sheriff Daron Hall’s son is currently enrolled and Mayor Karl Dean’s son is a graduate, as is the mayor’s brother-in-law, Joe Davis.
This is the world that McGugin, an alumnus, was brought up in and took pride in. He was sold on the culture and became a big part of a major source of pride for alumni — football. The school has been state champion 14 times in its history, most recently in 2007 during McGugin’s first year as head coach.
It was during his second year as coach that he gave the family of one of the then-junior varsity players an envelope that had been placed in the coach’s mailbox at school. The envelope contained a check for $1,500, and the students’ parents took the money.
There have been conflicting reports over why the check was given. One person with direct knowledge of the event told The City Paper, “What Daniel did was wrong, but he did it with [headmaster] Brad’s [Gioia] blessing.”
This contradicts claims made by MBA administrators, who told TSSAA investigators that the school knew nothing of the check until it was brought to their attention in early 2011 by the players’ parents. Allegedly, the student wanted to quit the team, having lost his job as a starter. His parents took a copy of the old check with them and went to complain about the football coach.
Disclosure: Three directors of SouthComm — the parent company of The City Paper — Townes Duncan, DeWitt Thompson V and Mark Oldham, have ties to the school. Duncan and Oldham had family attend MBA, while Thompson is an alumnus, and his father served on the MBA board of trustees.