By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
During a faculty meeting in spring 2007, Father Joseph Fessio, a tall and handsome Jesuit priest who had worked for Monaghan for five years, pressured his boss to downsize his sporting ambitions. Fessio had played Division I baseball at Santa Clara University and knew how much time — and money — went into building even a mediocre program.
"We were starting to feel the financial crunch, and we simply couldn't build everything he wanted," Fessio recalls. "So Tom said he wanted to build the gymnasium and not build the academic building."
"Tom, this is a university," Fessio countered. "Do you realize the message it would send to build the gym but not the classrooms?"
Monaghan backed down, but just barely. He agreed to save money by beginning with a lower-division basketball team.
Soon, Ave Maria officials were splashing full-ride scholarships on players from around the country. Tony Turkovic was one of them. The New York City kid got the hard sell when he visited in 2008. After a tour, he was offered a full four-year ride. But there was a catch.
"They wanted him to sign before we were supposed to go back in the afternoon," his mother, Branca, remembers. "It was like, 'Sign before you really see any more.'" While a university photographer held up a digital camera, Tony put pen to paper.
"I don't know where my head was that day," she says. "We were distracted by their promises. I wasn't paying attention."
Tony moved to Ave Maria in August. Two weeks later, Branca's phone rang.
"Mom, these people are crazy," Tony said. "Put me on the first flight home."
Turkovic would later tell the Naples Daily News that his time in Ave Maria was "the worst two weeks of [his] life." The university offered courses in theology, philosophy, and biology, but not the tech classes he was expecting. Girls weren't allowed in boys' rooms under penalty of expulsion. And the nearest supermarket was ten miles away in Immokalee.
The basketball was even worse. Turkovic had passed up less generous scholarships to other schools in the Northeast. Now he found himself practicing in a local K-12 school in a town of a few hundred residents. There was one makeshift locker room. And the coach, supposedly a devout Catholic, screamed obscenities at players all practice long. Turkovic quit before the season began.
"It was a horrible experience," his mother says. "Those people weren't Catholic. They were weirdos."
Soon, the whole program began to unravel. The coach, Ricky Benitez, was fired for using profanity. It was soon discovered that his resumé was a fake. He claimed to have worked as an NBA scout and played for the Puerto Rican national team, but neither was true.
By midseason, nine of the team's 12 scholarship players had either dropped out or become academically ineligible. Of the three recruits remaining, one was the athletic director's son.
"It wasn't fair to these kids to bring them out there under the pretense that they were going to have a regular student life," Fessio says.
Monaghan's expensive sports scholarships had only made Ave Maria's financial problems worse. He had a simple but radical answer: Increase enrollment by 50 percent each year. But there was a hangup. The billionaire also demanded that SAT scores keep improving, which would require more scholarships to attract better students.
"He had all these incompatible goals," Fessio says. When Fessio suggested to a board member that it might be time for Monaghan to step down, the billionaire caught wind. And fired him.
Jim Towey is a former assistant to Mother Teresa, but he suddenly goes strangely Amish and squirmy when New Times attempts to take his photo in front of Tom Monaghan's orange-brick quasi-oratory. The Joe Biden look-alike waves his hand and walks in the opposite direction.
"Nah, it would send the wrong message," he says. "That's not what the university is about."
These days, Ave Maria's new president and CEO is having to disavow a lot of his predecessor's accomplishments. Towey was hired in February, relegating Monaghan from CEO to the ceremonial position of chancellor. Formerly an aide to President George W. Bush and head of Florida's health and human services agency, he doesn't hide the fact that he's the clean-up guy sent to fix Ave Maria's mess.
"Everyone expected deficits at the beginning," Towey says, admitting that the university is still losing several million dollars each term. "My job is to end them [within three years]." After less than two months on campus, Towey announced he was firing 17 employees, slashing the overall budget by 10 percent, trimming sports programs, and gradually building enrollment while reducing scholarships.
Yet straightening out Monaghan's experiment might not be so simple. Towey claims to have no clue about the basketball program debacle two years ago. And asked about Marielena Stuart, he turns to an aide and inquires, "Have I met with her?" Then, when he makes the connection, he slams her claims against the university. "I worked for Mother Teresa for 12 years," he says. "No one is going to accuse me of being squishy in my faith."
He uses the word normal like a bullet point: "This is a very normal place, with normal students." But moments later, he admits Ave Maria is anything but ordinary. "This is a very unique arrangement here. It's almost like what you would see in medieval times when a baron would go and build himself a church and monastery."