University of Texas tennis coach sentenced to six months for “Varsity Blues” scandal

John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, Sept. 18 2019, Boston, MA. Photo by Chris O'Brien/BU News Service

By Stella Lorence
BU News Service

BOSTON – Former University of Texas at Austin tennis coach Michael Center was sentenced in U.S. District Court Monday to six months in prison and ordered to forfeit $60,000 for his role in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal.

Center, 55, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire and honest services fraud in April 2019.

“I just want to say how sorry I am,” Center said through tears in a statement before the court.  “So sorry to my family, my wife, my two boys, my friends and all the former players I’ve coached over the last 30 years.”

Center agreed to accept a bribe of over $90,000 in exchange for designating a student as a recruit to the U-Texas tennis team in 2015, according to the affidavit filed by Special Agent Laura Smith. The student was not a competitive tennis player.

“The only reference to tennis in his application was one year of tennis as a high school freshman,” said the affidavit.  “[The student’s] application materials to U-Texas listed him as a manager of his high school basketball and football teams.”

Center was the first coach in the scandal to accept money for personal use as opposed to accepting on behalf of a university sports program, according to Prosecutor Leslie Wright.

“A deserving student was unfairly denied acceptance to the university,” Wright said.

The government conceded that Center’s quick acceptance of responsibility for his actions and his cooperation with the government investigation “set him apart,” according to Wright.

“Mr. Center did step forward right from the beginning,” said John Cunha Jr., who represented Center.

Cunha said that Center’s acceptance and cooperation were consistent with the letters of support given to the court on Center’s behalf and not “when the devil came knocking and he answered the door.”

Center also declined to repeat the scheme when approached a second time by perpetrators of the scandal and therefore has a low chance of reoffending, Wright said. These details factored into the government’s recommendation of a sentence on the lower end of the sentencing guidelines.

“I suggest that there’s no chance he’ll reoffend,” Cunha said. “He has lost his reputation as a coach. He’s lost so much. He’s never going to be in that situation again.”

Judge Richard Stearns accepted the government’s sentencing recommendation with the exception of a suggested fine, citing “society’s interest” in seeing a punishment that acts as a deterrence to prevent similar admissions scandals in the future.

“I believe you’re a good man,” Stearns said to Center after reading the sentence. “I’m sorry it’s come to this.”

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