Ave Maria University: A Catholic project gone wrong

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Two sheriff's deputies and three security guards were waiting when she arrived at the Ave Maria student center. Their message was clear: Step foot on university property again and you'll be arrested. They escorted her from campus.

"This administration is [trying to] intimidate its residents and property owners," Stuart immediately vented on her blog. "[It] is a violation of our constitutional rights." A week later, she met with Fox 4 News and discussed what she saw as the university's hypocrisy and abusive behavior.

"What's going on here isn't Catholicism," she says now. "This town is built around the idiosyncrasies of one man: Tom Monaghan. It's madness."

Local reaction was swift and caustic. The Ave Herald, the town's online newspaper, invited readers to leave anonymous comments about Stuart's interview.

"The woman came across as an angry, bitter woman with a chip on her shoulder," one commenter wrote.

"I deduce that filling the news hole with this relatively weak story must mean there was not another family murder in Naples or gang rape in Immokalee. For that, I am grateful," wrote another.

Stuart responds that the messages were left by "Monaghan's little soldiers here who are always willing to wage vicious, anonymous attacks."

Around that time, it came to light that Monaghan's Ave Maria Foundation was going broke. During the 2008-09 school year, the university lost an estimated $16.4 million — more than twice the amount it had publicly revealed. Part of that debt was attributable to Monaghan's obsession with sports, which had already cost the school millions of dollars and several controversies. For a decade, the billionaire had dreamed of building a Catholic university football program that could crush Notre Dame.

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.

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.