Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Nov. 23, 2008
Last year, Mecklenburg County’s high school football season was scarred by case after case of parents, players and coaches cheating on eligibility rules. This year, Greg and India Keith went to extraordinary lengths to abide by them.
The Keiths, both former teen athletes, felt their 17-year-old son Cody needed to be the starting quarterback for a team this year to fulfill his dream of playing in college and beyond. That wasn't likely to happen at Myers Park High, where he spent last season as a backup.
So the Keiths rented out their South Park-area home worth more than $2.8 million and bought a $737,500 one in the attendance zone for South Mecklenburg High - a school whose virtues included good academics, several of Cody's friends and, not coincidentally, the absence of an established quarterback.
The Keiths have flown their son to California multiple times for pricey football camps, and future trips to camps on the West Coast and in Florida await. The house switch seemed to them a logical, unremarkable way to lift a child toward a worthy goal.
Every year, untold numbers of Charlotte-area families reach similar decisions - some for athletics, some for academics. Most do it with an eye on college scholarships and better futures for their children.
The Keiths' high-profile move hasn't been without controversy. Greg Keith's passion for his son's football future brought him in conflict with some parents and coaches at Myers Park last year.
Some say he pushed too hard for playing time. He says he was only being a good parent, just as he had tried to be with Cody's four older siblings.
"It wouldn't have mattered with our children if it had been math, science, acting, athletics, music, whatever it was, " says Keith, president of his family's real estate development firm. "It's each parent's dream to have their children realize their full potential.
"We're just another family that moved to another school to give our child an opportunity to play."
Given the heavy competition for collegiate athletic scholarships, parents work to get their children noticed.
"Everybody is reaching out to the coaches; they're inundated with parents and kids wanting to be recruited, " said Kathleen Hessert, mother of a former Naval Academy football player and head of Sports Media Challenge, a consulting firm in Charlotte.
"You've got to find a way to differentiate yourself. Yes, you can go overboard, but it's a fine line."
Charlotte's school policies have long given students flexibility to move among campuses for academics. But officials have discouraged moves for athletic programs, even as they've struggled to control the transfers.
Over the years, a who's who of athletes - from star quarterbacks C.J. Leak and Keith Matkins to basketball standouts Jeff McInnis and Jason Parker - have changed schools to get with the right teammates or coach. None of the transfers violated rules at the time.
When an Observer investigation last year turned up widespread cheating on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' residency policy for athletes, Superintendent Peter Gorman cracked down. CMS investigated more than 200 student-athletes and declared 20 ineligible. Four coaches have resigned or been removed, and five schools forfeited football seasons.
Even so, the school switching continues. This year, Butler High's girls' basketball team was bolstered by transfers - all within the rules - from West Meck, South Meck and Union County. Some are calling it the county's best girls' basketball team ever.
Some high schools promote their athletes better than others, so parents move to keep the dream of a college scholarship alive.
"There's an awful lot at stake for them and their child, " said Judy Rose, athletics director at UNC Charlotte. A free education "is a pretty good prize. It's like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."
Resentments and responses
Ted Todd, a Myers Park parent, says he couldn't go to the YMCA last year without the subject coming up. Always something new about Greg Keith, and whether Keith's generous donations to Myers Park High School influenced how much playing time his son received.
Todd's son had been second baseman on the junior varsity baseball team, but he had to share the spot when Cody Keith joined the roster in 2007. Todd said his son spent much of the season on the bench, and the boy believed he didn't get a fair shot.
"It got to where I didn't want to go to games, " Todd says. "I'd watch and get mad."
Three current or former Myers Park parents echoed his sentiment.
Despite being asked to speak on the record, they declined, saying they feared that they would compromise their children in school or athletics.
The Keiths say they never pressured coaches. If they had, why was Cody cut from the junior varsity basketball team? Why, they asked, did he fail to make the varsity baseball team?
"High school athletics are competitive and very emotional, " Greg Keith said. "You hate to say this, but some parents just won't acknowledge that somebody is just potentially better than somebody else. So they have to come up with an excuse for why my child is not playing."
The Keiths were leading boosters at Myers Park and a regular presence at practices. When the school launched a capital campaign in 2006-07 to build a football practice field and renovate the scoreboard and baseball field, Greg Keith helped lead the charge.
His company, the Keith Corp., does business all along the East Coast, and as far away as Canada and Great Britain. His father and business partner, Graeme Keith, is a longtime friend of evangelist Billy Graham.
Greg and India are known to give generously to a wide range of causes.
They bought Bibles for the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tenn., the private school at which Keith and his older son, Graeme, played basketball. The Keiths also paid for an apartment to get the family of one of Cody's classmates out of a homeless shelter.
"Greg is a very strong-willed, aggressive personality, " said Ken Henry, McCallie's boys' basketball coach. But "Greg never, never, not once ever put any pressure on me."
The firm's construction company, Kodiac Constructors, built a press box for Myers Park's baseball diamond and sidewalks for the dugout.
The school's booster organization, the Mustang Club, paid Kodiac at least $52,000, according to financial records obtained by the Observer.
The company bought a $4,000 advertisement that helped pay for the new football scoreboard. The Keiths also made a personal donation but declined to say how much.
Greg Keith says the construction work was done at cost and he never expected favorable treatment from coaches in return.
Meetings and hard feelings
As Myers Park's losses piled up last year, other parents say Keith grew angry at games, yelling his frustrations in the bleachers. Cody played some; starter Stuart Ahlum played the most.
"It's difficult to watch your child's team go 2-9, " Keith said, disputing that he did anything improper. "It's difficult to watch your child, son or daughter, not play."
Just before Thanksgiving, about five Myers Park parents met at the Keith Corp. offices.
Greg Keith said the other parents called the meeting, and asked if they could have it at his office.
"Nobody's happy when you're 2-9, OK?" Keith said. "People were just venting. People were frustrated."
After coach Jim Ruark learned of the meeting, he met with Keith separately at Keith's request.
He said Keith wanted to know what his son should do to start at quarterback.
Keith didn't try to exert undue influence, the coach said. That would be hard at Myers Park, he added, where the teams draw support from many well-off families.
"It comes down to competition on the field, " Ruark said. "That's the understanding. That's the deal."
Another Myers Park coach, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for his job, said he believes Keith did try to influence coaches.
Told of this coach's comments, India Keith replied: "I'm sorry they feel that way. But it's not true."
Greg Keith added: "It's very, very sad that you try and do things and help a school any way you can, and that's the kind of response you get."
Myers Park athletics director Greg Clewis says he knew about the hubbub around the Keiths, and he believes it was driven by perceptions.
When wealthy people give to a cause in which they have a personal stake, it's easy for others to suspect favoritism.
"People at all economic status levels love their children; they fight for their children, " he said. "But where do we turn them loose and let them walk on their own?"
Wanting the best for their kids
Switching high schools didn't strike the Keiths as anything extraordinary.
Greg Keith attended Myers Park himself as a teen. His father pulled him out when the basketball coach refused to play him ahead of older players. Greg enrolled in McCallie, where he became the school's all-time leading scorer and earned a scholarship to the University of Georgia.
India Keith was a young girl swimming for fun in Hillsville, Va., when some Junior Olympics coaches asked if she could be brought to the next town each day to train. Her family wasn't able to do it.
Now a lawyer, she still wonders how good she might have been.
"I just don't want to have that regret with my kids."
So when Cody found himself stuck as Myers Park's backup quarterback last season, the Keiths decided to act. They believed their son had the talent to start.
They had flown him several times this summer to California to see Steve Clarkson, a quarterbacks coach whose player evaluations cost $3,000 and whose four-hour, one-on-one sessions go for $1,000.
His clients have included the sons of hockey star Wayne Gretzky, rapper Snoop Dogg and Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. Clarkson is in such heavy demand that he auditions players before accepting them for coaching; one Los Angeles Daily News writer dubbed it "the football equivalent of getting into Harvard."
The Keiths declined to let Cody be interviewed for this story. But in a player diary posted on Clarkson's Web site, he described how he came to the camp.
"My dad told me about it one day and said we would be going out to California, " he wrote. "I just kind of went with it."
More trips to Clarkson's academy are in the family's future, Greg Keith said, as well as trips to other camps such as the ESPN/Under Armor combine in Florida. At 6 feet 3 inches tall and 170 pounds, Cody's growing into the kind of frame college coaches want in a quarterback. Clarkson, according to his Web site, sees "a considerable amount of upside."
That assessment, the site adds, "validated the Keiths' need to be in a situation where Cody would take the majority" of the plays in this, his junior year, "to continue his growth as a QB as well as to flaunt his talents to college recruiters."
That meant he'd have to switch schools.
"I'm still friends with all the guys at Myers Park. I'm still friends with Coach Ruark, " Cody wrote in his diary. "It just wasn't the right place for me."
Deciding on South Meck
The Keiths say they considered private and public schools inside and outside of Mecklenburg County. But they zeroed in on South Meck.
They met with the principal and liked what she said about the school. Cody had friends there. And the Keiths knew the Sabres quarterback job was open.
Last year, after its best season in years, South Meck players were boarding a bus for the playoffs when they learned their season had been forfeited because quarterback Jey Yokeley had been declared ineligible.
He had transferred in, just as Cody intended to do.
South Meck parents warned the Keiths to follow the rules. The same admonition came from Superintendent Peter Gorman, whom GregKeith knew from earlier discussions about possible construction ventures.
This spring, the Keiths paid $737,500 for a 3,600-square-foot house inside the South Meck zone, three miles from their old home in the Myers Park zone. In May, they made the move.
Gorman said if families follow the rules, CMS can't judge their reasons for moving.
"I always hope that parents will make a choice that's in their child's best interest, " Gorman said. "I typically think of that as an academic interest. ... But the family has to make the decision in their hearts."
The Keiths say they have never hesitated to act in their children's behalf.
"We did this with all five kids, starting in kindergarten, " Greg said. "You analyze each child, each year, and you (ask), 'Is this the right place for this particular child?' It's kind of one year at a time."
With Cody Keith at the helm this year, South Meck has advanced deep into the playoffs.
Still, new rumors have cropped up. South Meck rarely throws the ball, so Cody gets few chances to show off his arm. Greg Keith says he hears he's transferring his son to Charlotte Latin or Charlotte Christian or Country Day so he can have a bigger role in a different offense.
None of it's true, he said. "We're very happy at South Meck."