Commentary

Selling a second chance, but what kind?

North Carolina prep school's promises and actions spur state investigation

Updated: December 21, 2011, 10:23 AM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On a crisp early Thursday morning in late October, the North Carolina Tech Preparatory Christian Academy student body -- which is also the then-undefeated Tigers football squad -- shuffles out of apartment units in which the players are housed, some still half-asleep, to load onto two waiting tour buses bound for the night's game against Georgia Military College.

Tim Newman, the headmaster and football coach, departs later by car to work the sidelines five hours away in Milledgeville, Ga. School is skipped for another day, as it is whenever the Tigers hit the road, which is every game.

[+] EnlargeNC Tech players in huddle
ESPNMany of the players on the North Carolina Tech team had to take out loans to attend the school, players and parents say.

If this were a traditional school, the academic folks might be on edge, but an "Outside the Lines" investigation this fall has found the NC Tech program to be a unique arrangement on the post-high school athletics scene -- and one playing by its own rules:

•  Parents, players and former assistant coaches say Newman routinely misrepresents facts in the running of his 6-year-old program, in particular pumping teenagers with hopes of Division I college scholarships. They say he offers unfulfilled promises to produce highlight video to be sent to colleges and vastly overstates the number of college players born of NC Tech.

•  Former coaches say the program, which costs several thousand dollars to attend, targets teenagers in dire straits, often from backgrounds naive to recruiting and eligibility guidelines, who either don't meet NCAA academic standards or failed to attract college scholarship offers.

•  No students attend class full time on the NC Tech campus, which consists of leased space in an office park south of downtown. The school year that began in July is already complete. And even before the Class of 2011 bid a final goodbye, the NCAA Eligibility Center in late October flagged the program's curriculum as not meeting standards for the second time in as many years. Newman also stands accused of not providing classes as promised.

•  Newman openly acknowledges fabricating regional and national titles on his program's football résumé. The coach also is accused of overselling his NFL experience, which consists of being on the sidelines for a scab game.

•  A string of lawsuits and liens have been levied against Newman and his NC Tech program for unpaid bills, including one for rings purchased after his program's first "national title."

•  According to the school's website and various documents, Newman juggles the titles of president, headmaster, athletic director and head football coach. His wife, Gail, is the principal and business/admissions administrator. Together, the couple is empowered to resolve school disputes as the sole members of its appeals board.

After being contacted by "Outside the Lines" for comment, the North Carolina Attorney General's Office said its Consumer Protection Division would begin an investigation and issued a statement: "We're concerned about the allegations made against NC Tech Prep." The AG's office has fielded complaints about the program since 2009.

Newman views questions and criticism of his program simply: He dismisses complaints as the byproduct of parents riled because their children didn't get playing time. And if players didn't get classes, he says, either it's on them for not showing up or parents are at fault because they failed to pay their tuition in full. He portrays the ex-coaches talking bad about his program as either bitter rivals or people with "character flaws" and is quick to suggest, "Check their [criminal] records."

'It was about who could pay money'

From its start in 2006, NC Tech has fielded enormous rosters, routinely in excess of 100 players. Ex-assistant coaches say the mantra is the more players signed and paying, the better.

Few prospects are turned away if a family member is willing to pay up to $8,200 in tuition, and extra for an apartment and food, former coaches and players say. Program insiders say a core group of 45 players get the bulk of game time, while the rest serve merely as practice fodder and revenue producers.

"I felt personally you could have had one eye, if you had [money], Coach Newman was going to allow you to play in his program," says Nate Poole, a former NC Tech assistant. "There was guys that wasn't going to play college football. They'd be 5-1, 700 pounds, those types of kids. But he would sell those kids a dream that had [them] thinking that they were going to be the next D-1 All-American."

Newman says Poole isn't credible and contends that he fired Poole in 2008. He has been an assistant coach and adviser to a rival Charlotte prep school since.

A year after Poole left, Newman hired Latasha Peoples, an AAU coach from South Carolina, to start a women's postgraduate basketball team at NC Tech, which ended up never playing a game. Even before she was offered the coaching job, Peoples had been under contract to NC Tech -- not to coach, but to recruit football players. According to a copy of the contract signed by Newman, Peoples was to be paid $100 a head for each player she signed from her native state of South Carolina.

"There was 12 guys that I recruited," Peoples says. "Never got a dime off that."

As a recruiter, her job was to chase the money, she says.

"His main objective when we recruited was to get the kids' parents who are willing to pay money," Peoples says. "It wasn't about the athletic ability of a child. It was about who could pay money."

Other former assistants talk of having perused recruiting service sites to target academically challenged prospects. Because recruits have to be academically qualified under NCAA guidelines to go on an official visit, NC Tech coaches say they identified players who had scholarship offers but hadn't made visits and then hammered the phone, making calls to their high school coaches.

Players also come from NC Tech tryouts, which cost $250 to attend. Most leave the NFL-style combine with a scholarship offer after huddling with Newman in his corner office.

Terrance Davis drove with his parents from Florida this past April and landed a scholarship. He didn't play football in high school, but his stepfather says he impressed with a 4.34-second clocking in the 40-yard dash at the NC Tech combine. That proved enough to cut his tuition cost from $8,200 to $5,000.

When a congratulatory letter from Newman showed up in the mail a few days later, Davis was referred to as "one of our top recruits."

But he saw only marginal playing time this fall as one of 18 defensive backs on a team that had 119 players. And his academic workload consisted of one class: SAT preparation.

"Basically, what we are paying for is high-priced, Pop Warner football and a $5,000 SAT class," says Andrae Crayton, Davis' stepfather. "Of course, I feel foolish. I feel misled. I feel like a fraud has been committed upon me and my family."

Parents and players, though, say they often are swayed by the initial impression made by Newman, which typically culminates with him leading them in prayer in the privacy of his office.

Joe Grant, a 300-pound lineman from Pennsylvania, remembers the first sit-down: "He was saying, 'Thank you, Jesus, for bringing this son -- this wonderful boy to me with his amazing size. … The Lord [has] brought you to me.'"

Grant recalls his mother and grandfather being won over by the Christian appeal, although they balked when Newman mentioned the cost to attend was $8,200. That didn't deter him from quickly offering a deal.

"He locked the door," Grant says, "and he was like, 'Listen, this is a special deal, and nobody else is getting this. Don't tell anybody.' … And he went [down] to $2,950."

Self-proclaimed national champions

"Hello, welcome to North Carolina Tech Preparatory Christian Academy. The Tigers are back-to-back southeastern regional champions and national champions. The Tigers led the nation in scoring and total defense … ."

That's what callers hear on the answering machine greeting for NC Tech.

The football team schedule provided to parents this past season shows the road to a title was to go through the "Ohio State JV" -- which, if true, would have placed the Buckeyes in violation of an NCAA bylaw prohibiting Division I programs from playing postgraduate teams. It turns out NC Tech instead put a 90-18 beat-down on a club team representing Ohio State-Newark, although players say Newman had earlier led them to believe it was the real Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeTim Newman
ESPNTim Newman denies the criticism levied his way, saying those doing so are either upset about playing time or do not have credible backgrounds.

"He presented it like, 'Oh yeah, Ohio State wants to put us on their schedule,'" says Robert Davis, a running back from Buffalo, N.Y. "And then we get there, and it was a club team we're playing. They had blue and red jerseys that said the Titans. I said, 'This is not Ohio State. I thought they were the Buckeyes?'"

There is no prep school sanctioning body that doles out titles or regulates schedules. The NC Tech schedule is an eclectic mix of preps, junior colleges, club teams, and JV squads culled from NCAA Division II and III and NAIA programs.

Newman says his teams have gone 76-6 since his program began -- and won several titles.

"You don't have to be in a conference to declare that you're a national champion," Newman says. "But if we go all around the country beating everybody in the country, then what are we? We're playing in the nation. We're beating everybody around. Everybody, everywhere we go.

"I can self-claim that we're 'national champions.'"

Part of the marketing, he says, is a strategy to lure Virginia-based prep powers Hargrave Military and Fork Union Military into scheduling his upstart sports academy. "If I'm not a national champion, then come beat me," he says. "Come prove it."

Proof of his program's success is on display in files at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse in downtown Charlotte. Newman contracted with a Spartanburg, S.C., supplier to purchase 104 rings commemorating the program's first national title in 2007, but a civil lawsuit filed two years later accuses him of running out on the bill -- with the rings in his possession -- after putting down a $4,000 deposit.

According to court documents, Newman still owes more than $4,000, including interest and court fees, to Carolina Campus Supply and its owner, Dick Conn, a former NFL safety.

"He sent two guys to pick them up," says Conn, who played with the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s after starring at the University of Georgia. "I guess they were coaches. They assured me they had Nike money or somebody was coming in. The whole thing was a farce. I should have never released the rings, but I kind of thought he was sort of a friend at the time.

"He was using church stuff as his cover, too. He had me believing how religious he was."

Court records indicate Newman has at least a handful of judgments and outstanding debt, including $4,600 to a South Carolina printing company, at least $3,500 in unpaid rent and a $750 deposit owed to the father of a former recruit.

Newman initially refused comment on what he termed the "personal business of NC Tech" before saying, "But as far as our program, we've been very successful. Every business is a struggle. What business doesn't struggle?"

Newman touts NFL experience

Prior to their business dealing, Conn recalls crossing paths with Newman, 47, at NFL Alumni chapter meetings in Charlotte, although he admits now he was suspicious of whether Newman ever played in the league. An NFL Alumni plaque hangs from Newman's office wall. So, too, does a photo of Newman in a New York Jets uniform (No. 35), as well as other reminders from his NFL days.

[+] EnlargeNC Tech building
Mike Fish/ESPN.comNC Tech is housed in an office complex in Charlotte.

NC Tech players and parents describe Newman as going out of his way to sell his NFL experience during the recruiting process. The pitch amused former NC Tech coach Poole, who played receiver in the NFL for New Orleans and Arizona:

"Oh, he talks to those parents like he was Tom Brady, like he was Kris Jenkins … like he was one of those superstar guys."

Asked about his NFL time, Newman says: "Well, I had a short stint with the New York Jets." He also says he played in the World Indoor Football League with the Las Vegas Aces in 1990, but that league folded before a game was ever played.

According to a Jets publicist, team records indicate Newman was a replacement player during the 1987 NFL work stoppage. Signed as a running back, he suited up for one game -- Oct. 4 versus the Dallas Cowboys -- but did not have a carry, and the team said Newman did not record a statistic.

Newman starred as a running back at Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte, although he acknowledges later earning his degree in business administration from American InterContinental University -- a predominantly online program that has been the subject of accreditation issues in the past.

Newman's résumé references a college coaching career, although he acknowledges never having lasted long enough to walk the sidelines. He recruited players to Barber-Scotia College, but the historically black school lost its accreditation and dropped football prior to the program's first season. He later did the leg work and recruited for Louisburg College but was let go in August before the junior college team hit the practice field.

Newman says he was dismissed by Louisburg the year before starting NC Tech because the administration found his recruiting to be "racially unbalanced," even though he'd recruited "some of the top players in the country."

School officials say Newman's claim is totally unfounded, instead maintaining he was dismissed because unbeknownst to them, he'd recruited more than 200 players to the start-up program. "So we got kids on campus that we don't have a spot for them to play football," says Mike Holloman, the Louisburg athletic director. "We don't have a uniform for them. I felt like he wasn't telling any kid no."

Players enroll in school but some take no classes

When the school year opened in the Carolina heat of July, NC Tech welcomed a roster of 119 players -- including 21 wide receivers and 18 defensive backs. Of that group, only 44 enrolled in the school's distance learning classes, contracted through a Pennsylvania-based program whose course work has since been deemed not to meet NCAA legislation. The number dwindled to 39 by season's end.

Joe Grant
ESPNFormer offensive lineman Joe Grant says he was told by Newman that he was a Division I prospect. Once on campus, though, he barely saw game time.

Few, if any, students took more than a class, for which NC Tech paid $399 per student. Others enrolled during the season in only an SAT prep class. A significant number engaged in absolutely no academic activity, only playing football.

"There are football players here that don't take any classes," offensive lineman Ben Guest said on the eve of the last game against Georgia Military. "I am paying to live here and just play football. I don't know what kind of a program that is."

NC Tech is marketed as a postgraduate program for players who graduated from high school but are not yet in college -- although the academic year consists of only a fall semester. Even then, there isn't a full-time student to be found, despite a pitch on the NC Tech website declaring: "All players are required to be in school as full-time students."

NC Tech's status as an educational entity first took a hit two years ago when the NCAA Eligibility Center, the watchdog over high school transcripts, issued a statement saying it would "no longer accept core courses, grades and graduation" from the school. After first threatening legal action, NC Tech reacted by getting out of the education business and outsourcing its curriculum to various distance learning programs, the latest of which is Keystone National High School.

Now, when a college admissions office receives a transcript of a Tigers football player, it shows up as his having attended Keystone, not NC Tech. That worked until the NCAA Eligibility Center deemed this fall that Keystone's coursework didn't measure up and that transcripts from students who enrolled in its Internet courses after Oct. 26 could no longer be used.

Asked about Keystone's status, Newman says: "As far as I know, our class is straight, and [there is] no issue with us as far as that, but [Keystone] with the NCAA. Our kids are fine. Our classes are fine with the NCAA."

That's not quite the case. NCAA Eligibility Center officials will perform an individual review of each course submitted for the current semester. And, going forward, NC Tech might need to consider another curriculum provider.

Even before the latest snafu, college football coaches had some trepidation about NC Tech's academics.

"As a college coach, I would be concerned about the NCAA accepting the classes," says Chris Cook, a first-year assistant at South Carolina State. "Any kid that I ever recruited from there, I would be very, very concerned [about]. And if that kid went there and got a core class or was trying to swap a core class or something like that, I'd be concerned that it would be accepted."

NC Tech classroom walls
ESPNNot every player attends class, even though Newman says all players are full-time students.

Cook has a unique perspective, having been an assistant coach at NC Tech in 2009. Back then, he hadn't yet earned his college degree, but he coached safeties and served as a class monitor. He acknowledges being desperate for a job -- like the kids he coached were for a program to show them love -- and worked on a sixth-month contract that paid $500 a month, plus gave him an apartment.

He says he never saw his last three paychecks and is still owed $1,500. Unlike other coaches who confronted Newman midseason, Cook says he didn't make waves and stayed through his contract. "I feel there were some major obstacles that came up that kind of snowballed on the whole situation," Cook says. "I wasn't expecting to go in there, and halfway through the season, all of a sudden our classes aren't being accepted allegedly by the NCAA."

NC Tech has never sought accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the regional educational overseer. Nor has it ever registered with the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education.

NC Tech morphs from prep school to sports academy without notice, selling itself as an alternate to going the junior college route, where players eat up two years of playing eligibility. It promotes an image of full-time students, yet there aren't any.

"We're giving kids a second chance and an opportunity," Newman says. "Kids need SAT [scores], they need a GPA, they need film, they need an opportunity … . We explain that. [We] break it down to them, looking at their transcript, of the needs of each and every player. Like a doctor, we'll be able to explain that to them."

Newman, some players and parents say, promises far more than he can deliver. Some say he fails to provide classes as promised or he recruits players with the notion his program is a vehicle to Division I eligibility, when in fact the NCAA allows only for the benefit of one postgraduate course to be substituted -- three classes if the student is identified as having a learning deficiency -- and the players' transcripts often are so weak that improvement in a single course wouldn't push their GPA to the required 2.0.

When Grant first sat down with Newman this past spring, the offensive lineman told him his dream school was North Carolina State. Grant recalls: "He said, 'Yeah, you're going to NC State. We're gonna get you there.' Once I actually got here, he is like, 'You're not gonna go D-1. You're not even eligible.'"

Newman says he didn't see Grant's official transcript until just before the final game, which was the first he started.

Grant never got his scheduled math and Spanish classes, Newman says, because his mother didn't pay the $2,950 tuition bill in full. In an Oct. 14 letter obtained by "Outside the Lines," Newman wrote of discontinuing communication with colleges that he says expressed interest in Grant until a balance of $650 was paid, but there was no reference to academic classes. Grant's grandfather has since filed a formal complaint with the attorney general's office.

Grant's roommate, Guest, also says Newman promised NC Tech as a gateway to Division I eligibility. After Guest drove north from Satellite Beach, Fla., to attend school, Newman told him it couldn't happen and he, too, got no academic classes.

NC Tech Guest
ESPNFormer offensive lineman Ben Guest says of NC Tech: "I am paying to live here and just play football."

"We sent him to North Carolina to get the three credits that he needed," says Kara Carlson, his mother. "We had everything squared away, and they tried to say, 'Oh, we didn't have your transcripts.' That is a crock because they were in my hands when we went to visit. In a nutshell, we go with the intention of getting those three credits and beef up the SAT and ACT. The next thing you know, all he is getting is the pre-SAT course."

Others experienced a taste of academic life, if only briefly.

Robert Davis was among the dozen running backs who reported in July, but he didn't get his online Algebra II and Physical Science classes until the end of September. Then, already halfway through the curriculum, he says his account was canceled a month later. He says Newman told him it was a mistake on the curriculum provider's part, although it was never corrected.

Back in Buffalo, his mother couldn't get her frantic phone messages to NC Tech returned. When her son came down sick with a viral infection, she says, he had to call a cab to get to the hospital. She says the only recourse she had was not paying the final $400 of her son's tuition bill, after having doled out $2,800.

"I called the school every day," Cassandra Jones says. "Finally I get [Newman]. He was like, 'You haven't paid me any money.' I said, 'If I haven't paid you any money, then why do I have receipts that your wife signed?'

"The school scammed us out of our money. He professes to be a God-fearing man. All he cares about is winning games and money."

'There is some good stuff happening here'

Newman won't have any of it. His critics have reason to dislike him, he says, or as in the cases of some of his former assistant coaches, are not credible because of their backgrounds.

Prior to interviewing Newman, "Outside the Lines" found at least three coaches hired by NC Tech since 2009 had faced criminal charges, ranging from burglary to credit card theft to marijuana possession. A review also found some coaches didn't have college degrees when hired to the school's staff.

"Our program was very new at that time, but we learned from those people that we need to start checking their character and checking out their record," Newman says.

Newman himself was the subject of a domestic violence protective order almost 20 years ago after allegedly striking a woman with whom he had fathered two children. He also has been behind on child support payments. In 2007, a year after NC Tech opened, he wrote in court papers, "I am out of work and no longer receiving unemployment. Currently looking for work." When his domestic violence protective order is brought up to him after a series of questions about him and his program, he doesn't like it at all.

"This pisses me off," Newman says after abruptly ending an on-camera interview with "Outside the Lines." He turns to a reporter, adding: "God has been good to me. There is some good stuff happening here."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.