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Probe: No violations at Independence

However, CMS leader vows to keep cracking down on cheating in sports.

By Eric Frazier
efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

Superintendent Peter Gorman pledged Wednesday to keep cracking down on cheating in high school athletics, even as he announced that a probe of the state's most successful football program turned up no evidence of wrongdoing.

Gorman said the five-month investigation found no recruiting violations by Independence High football coach Tom Knotts and his staff.

Knotts, one of the state's winningest coaches, will keep his job despite what the school system called “persistent rumors” of recruiting violations by his program.

“We found no concrete evidence,” Gorman said during a news conference. “And we need to move on. Independence needs to move on.”

Knotts could not be reached Wednesday.

But in an interview with an Observer correspondent this spring, he called the investigation “ridiculous” and said coaches need more information on eligibility requirements.

“I don't know what the rules are,” he said. “I'm a high school football coach that has followed the rules to the best of my knowledge. I've worked my butt off and given my adult life and I've given up a lot.”

“… That is one thing why I am so bitter about the investigation.”

School supporters welcomed the findings. “We're thrilled, but of course people still aren't going to believe,” said Teresa Oliver, whose son Jerrod played for Knotts. “You win so many titles, people, they like to take jabs at you.”

While the investigation stopped short of saying Independence recruits players, it did uncover questionable meetings between the team's coaches and parents of prospective players. Coaches from other schools did the same thing, the investigation found.

Independence won seven consecutive state titles from 2000 to 2006, and reached the championship game last year.

Last season, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools launched multiple investigations after Observer reports showed families broke residency rules to get their kids into select athletic programs.

The Independence probe began in February. It followed an Observer report during the state playoffs that starter Ranzell Watkins used a phony address. CMS suspended Watkins and six teammates.

Among all schools, CMS has dismissed at least 17 players, and four coaches have resigned or been removed. West Charlotte, South Mecklenburg and Phillip O. Berry forfeited football seasons over eligibility issues.

Attorney Landis Wade said the investigation focused on 24 Independence players over the last two seasons. CMS studied student records, and e-mails and phone records for Independence coaches and administrators.

Knotts' phone plan did not include itemized call records, Wade said. Otherwise, Wade said, the coach cooperated with the probe.

About 60 people were interviewed, some multiple times, prompting complaints from parents of some athletes.

Last fall, as the Observer uncovered ineligible players, CMS defended its eligibility checks. Wednesday, Gorman defended the probe, particularly its length and the $96,000 in legal fees for Wade and his firm, McGuireWoods.

Gorman said the only way to settle the rumors about Independence was with a detailed investigation. “I am convinced we made the right decision,” he said. The investigation “turned over the facts, and that's what we wanted.”

The investigation found:

Independence coaches didn't always follow a rule that says when a parent contacts a coach about their child attending the school, the coach must immediately refer the parent to the principal. The regulation is commonly ignored by other CMS high schools as well, investigators found.

Coaches at Independence and other schools attend youth football games. No evidence was found that they did so to evaluate talent – a violation of CMS rules. Asked why they were there, Wade said, “This might seem like a silly answer, but they want to watch those youth football games. We have no concrete evidence that they went there to recruit.”

Youth-league coaches have contact with high school coaches, and help influence where young players attend high school. The investigation found no evidence Independence coaches used such contacts for recruiting.

Gorman says he intends to tighten oversight to keep contacts between high school coaches, youth-league coaches and families from evolving into recruiting sessions. He plans additional training for coaches and athletic staff, and additional rules to govern campus visits by school-shopping parents.

Gorman said he'll make more changes this summer, based on recommendations from an eligibility task force.

CMS will continue looking into credible reports on violations, Gorman said. He voiced support for CMS athletics director Vicki Hamilton, but said CMS does not have sufficient oversight of sports. Hamilton has one assistant.

Asked if CMS can stem a culture of cheating, Gorman said: “We've got to have help to do it, from parents, students and coaches … People will have to personally make decisions not to break rules. That one's out of our hands.”

Special Correspondent Jay Edwards contributed.

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