Miami Senior High principal Victor Lopez is game for a challenge. Last month state regulators reported that his school had violated recruiting rules, and they demanded a response. After conducting a two-week probe, Lopez penned a four-page, single-spaced declaration of innocence on June 24. "We have found no evidence of recruiting involved with our programs," he concluded rosily.
But Lopez may not have looked hard enough. Examination of the principal's reply reveals a flawed explanation for infractions that could cost the Miami High's boys' basketball team the Class 6A state championship it won in March.
The Florida High School Activities Association's three-day investigation began in response to a New Times cover story ("Dream Team," March 5) that documented the basketball team's apparent violation of state recruiting regulations. In a June 9 report, FHSAA deputy commissioner Ron Allen confirmed most of the charges in the New Times story and uncovered fresh violations involving the boys' baseball and soccer teams. If FHSAA commissioner Ron Davis confirms wrongdoing, all three teams may have to forfeit every game from their most recent seasons.
Lopez did not return a phone call seeking elaboration. Allen is on vacation until July 7 and could not be reached for comment. Davis was unavailable because he is attending a conference in Kansas City. He is expected to rule after returning to his Gainesville office next week.
In his response to the FHSAA, Lopez disputes the charges against the baseball and basketball teams. (He admits the soccer team used an overage player.) He contends that the school legally enrolled a star baseball transfer from Mexico and that administrators did not change the grades of several baseball players to maintain their eligibility, as Allen implied.
Lopez is equally adamant that no wrongdoing occurred in the basketball program, despite substantial evidence to the contrary. Allen determined that five basketball players featured in the New Times story had accepted housing from a booster, a coach, or a school official, an apparent violation of state recruiting rules. The FHSAA asked Lopez to explain allegations against the players -- Udonis Haslem, Antonio Latimer, Steven Blake, Damion Fray, and Thaddeus Ambrose.
Herewith an analysis of FHSAA allegations against each player and Lopez's response:
*Haslem: The star center from Jacksonville told Allen that he lived with Bob Corella, who describes himself as an unpaid assistant basketball coach. This living arrangement is an apparent violation of the FHSAA "policy on recruiting," which forbids the "offer or acceptance of a residence with any person associated with a school."
In his response, Lopez downplays the connection between the school and the self-described coach. "Bob Corella is not an assistant coach at Miami Senior High, paid or otherwise," Lopez argues.
Lopez's answer skirts the issue. Whether Corella is a coach or not, he is clearly associated with the school. He attends many practices and almost every game. He has worked as the official scorekeeper. In February head coach Frank Martin referred to Corella as "one of my guys ... somebody who, whenever I need to take five kids to the doctor, he's willing to help." Moreover, it is unlikely that Haslem lived in Corella's efficiency. His birth mother told New Times that since her son moved from Jacksonville two years ago, he has lived in Broward County. Haslem's driver's license lists a Broward address.
*Latimer: The Puerto Rican power forward told Allen that he too had squeezed into Corella's apartment for a while. (When New Times started investigating, Corella's apartment was also listed in school records as Latimer's official address.) He said he moved from there into an apartment owned by the parents of Rosie Faz, a Miami High employee whom Allen described as "an athletic staff member," another living arrangement that violates the rules.
Lopez did not deny that Latimer shared a mailing address with Corella, nor did he dispute that Latimer moved into lodging arranged by Faz, but the principal minimized the relationship between Faz and the school. "To reiterate a point that was clearly discussed in previous correspondence ... Rosie Faz is employed as a paraprofessional, not a part-time athletic staff member."
Faz has been employed by Miami High for at least the past four years. She has worked in the athletic department office. Whether she is a "paraprofessional" or a janitor, it is against FHSAA rules for an athlete to live with "anyone associated with a school."
*Blake: The point guard stated that he and his father shared a home with Joyce Lund, "an ardent supporter of the Miami Senior High athletic program," according to Allen's report. The Blakes' family home, where Steven was living when New Times investigated in February, is in Miami Lakes -- outside the Miami High attendance boundaries. FHSAA rules prohibit living with a booster.
Lopez acknowledges that Blake used Lund's address, then distances his school from her. "Ms. Joyce Lund is not a member of any booster club affiliated with Miami Senior High School," Lopez asserts. That may be true, but in previous correspondence with the FHSAA, Lopez has described Lund, an MHS alumna, as "an avid fan of college and high school sports [who] is often seen at our athletic events."
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*Ambrose: Until the guard graduated last month, his official address was the Coral Gables home of Barbara Inskeep, a career counselor at Miami High. Lopez does not refute this, although the living arrangement violates FHSAA rules.
*Fray: The forward, a native of Jamaica, lives on property owned by the family of MHS assistant basketball coach. Lopez does not deny this.
Despite the shortcomings of Lopez's response, the principal's letter ends on a positive note: "Thanks for your support and assistance on this matter. It has been a great experience.