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Last week St. Louis' former and longtime hoops powerhouse, Vashon High School, was stripped of three state championships in basketball for recruitment violations and use of ineligible players. The school was also forced to forfeit five seasons' worth of games for the years 2000 and 2001 and 2002 through 2006.
The unanimous ruling by the Missouri State High School Activities Association, the state agency that governs high school sports, came during a closed session of the association's board of directors in Columbia, and closed the book on a probe that began in 2006 after Riverfront Times exposed more than a decade's worth of apparent cheating within the Vashon bench.
"It's what I expected," says Sam Dunlap, athletic director of the St. Louis Public High League, in which Vashon competes. "Violations happened; the rules were applied."
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Dunlap declined to say whether he thinks the ruling is fair. "Any time you have something like this, it's not a happy day," he says.
Vashon principal Barbara Sharp says she is happy the matter has been resolved: "Of course there are a variety of different emotions I have, but at this point I'm focused on academics, restoring the pride and the integrity of the school."
At MSHSAA's April board meeting, St. Louis Public Schools officials reported to the agency that Vashon — once ranked among the top teams in the nation by USA Today — fielded five ineligible players over more than five years, owing to residency and recruiting violations under Floyd Irons, who coached the team from 1973 until 2006. (A sixth student has since been determined ineligible.) The school waived its right to any appeals and asked for punishment to be levied.
Vashon's admissions came after an eighteen-month investigation that began in late 2006, soon after RFT published numerous apparent eligibility violations over a ten-year period in the opening installment of the paper's "Basketball by the Book" series.
Though Irons' players for years were rumored to have flouted local and state residency requirements, the matter hadn't been internally investigated by SLPS officials. Nor had MSHSAA weighed in much. Only twice since 2001 had the agency ordered sanctions against Vashon basketball players; neither case appears to have resulted in any game forfeitures.
But the RFT article immediately prompted Daryl Rinne, principal of Kansas City-area Kearney High School, to request that MSHSAA investigate. Kearney lost the 2004 state title to Vashon, 68-55. It was Vashon's ninth victory at the state championships — but its first undefeated season ever.
MSHSAA's inquiry moved slowly during the first half of 2007, but accelerated in the fall, after Irons was federally indicted in a real estate fraud scheme. When the coach's defense attorney Rick Sindel agreed to have Irons plead guilty to the charges, assistant U.S. attorney Hal Goldsmith insisted that the embattled ex-coach sit down with MSHSAA officials to divulge his knowledge of eligibility violations during the last ten years of his tenure.
Goldsmith says the arrangement, though rare, is "not unheard of" in plea bargains. He adds: "We didn't feel it was right not to provide that information to the state agency charged with enforcement."
The November 12, 2007, interview between MSHSAA and Irons revealed that brothers Johnny and Bobby Hill were recruited from Alton, Illinois, to play for Vashon between 2002 and 2006. Irons admitted that he rented the students an apartment just a few blocks from Vashon and gave them a 1985 Cadillac DeVille, in addition to providing for their food, clothes and housekeeping — all violations of MSHSAA rules.
Irons said the arrangement cost him up to $35,000. Irons also said he tried to get the boys' father to relinquish guardianship to him, but the father would not agree to it.
Irons did not admit to knowledge of any other ineligible players during the MSHSAA interview.
The ineligibility of four other Wolverines between 2000 and 2006 was not admitted by Vashon until the April board of directors meeting; by then, it had taken the high school more than fifteen months to verify the accusations raised by MSHSAA.
In a prepared statement, MSHSAA board president Don Edwards last week acknowledged the long duration of the agency's inquiry. "There have been many aspects of this investigation that had to be looked at with great care and without a rush to judgment," said Edwards. "Our task was to determine what could be substantiated and corroborated with credible information while keeping the school involved throughout the process. The length of the investigation reflects the desire of the association to be as thorough and fair as possible."
MSHSAA still refuses to identify the ineligible Wolverines because of federal privacy laws. Sharp, Vashon's principal, also declined to reveal the students' names.
The state titles to be forfeited and awarded to the three runners-up are:
2001: Liberty Senior High School becomes the new state champion.
2004: Kearney High School becomes the new state champion.
2006: Kickapoo High School becomes the new state champion.
Vashon also must forfeit five district championships and a second-place finish at the 2005 state tournament. MSHSAA has instructed Vashon to turn all awards and trophies over to the agency.
Informed by a reporter that his school was the new 2004 basketball champion, Kearney High School principal Daryl Rinne sounded thrilled. "Our coach will be very happy," says Rinne. "He's going to get together the former players from that team and have a get-together acknowledgement as state champs."
Adds Rinne: "You do feel sorry for the kids [from Vashon] that took part, but at the same time we're all supposed to play by the same rules. We thank you for doing the undercover work on that, and we thank MSHSAA for following through on what they're supposed to do."
Floyd Irons, who led the Wolverines to ten state titles, could not be reached for comment.
In March, the 60-year-old former Vashon coach was sentenced to twelve months in federal prison and five years' probation for pleading guilty to mortgage fraud. He must also pay $653,147.09 in restitution. According to his attorney, Sindel, Irons reported to the minimum-security "camp" at Marion, Illinois, at the end of May.