Austin school penalized for recruiting trip to American Samoa

An elite private school in Austin, Texas, known for academics but not athletics is facing a three-year probationary period for its athletic programs following a brazen recruiting trip to American Samoa last summer.

St. Andrews Episcopal School, a tiny K-12 school with 750 students, has only offered varsity football as part of the Southwestern Preparatory Conference for three years. Nonetheless, the Crusaders made waves last December by signing Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer as the school's head coach. Now, with Detmer's team slumping through a winless season, the school is facing allegations that a St. Andrew's coach and the parent of a former St. Andrews player traveled to American Samoa to try and recruit prospective athletes to play for the Crusaders.

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The Austin American-Statesman's John Mayer cites Melila Purcell, widely considered the top football talent scout in American Samoa, as the man who put St. Andrews baseball coach and admissions official Stephen Garcia and David Petrick, the father of a former Crusaders player, in touch with players in American Samoa. Purcell claims that he took the two Austinites around the island and escorted them to football practices at Tafuna High School, where the two men watched and met Samoan athletes and their families.

"They were looking for ones that could play football and help their high school," Purcell told the American-Statesman, adding that he was under the belief that St. Andrews wanted as many as six Samoan players to come to Texas and play in the 2010 season, or in following years if not for 2010. The two men were reportedly offering to pay the full $19,000 tuition cost for the school and planned to provide free room and board for the players with host families.

Two Samoan teenagers eventually did submit applications to St. Andrews, and one student eventually enrolled in the school. He has sat out the season because of eligibility concerns, and he was recently ruled permanently ineligible for all league games as a result of the investigation into the American Samoan recruiting trip.

More troubling were quotes from Garcia in the American Samoan newspaper Samoa News. The following paragraph comes directly from a story in that publication, via the American-Statesman, which was then seen in Austin and presented to St. Andrews officials.

"We have 360 kids in the high school, but we don't have big kids," Garcia told the Samoa News. "But we come over here in Samoa, and we take a look around, and we were just amazed by the size of these players. ... We stopped by and saw JV practice at Tafuna High School yesterday and some of those JV kids are bigger than our varsity players back in Texas. We are very interested in the size of the players here in Samoa and we are hoping (for) some players for St. Andrew's."

While Detmer may not have made the trip overseas, he isn't being cleared of all responsibility for the affair, either. The head coach was reportedly the first to meet with Purcell when both were in Utah last summer, and Detmer spoke to Purcell about what academic standards the Samoan players would have to meet to play at St. Andrews.

For the moment, St. Andrews head of school Lucy Nazro is standing by her staff, saying she is convinced any recruiting violations were inadvertent, yet she also told the American-Statesman that she was "horrified" by the Samoan News report that first made the school official's trip to the island out to be a football recruiting mission.

There's no telling where the episode will turn from here, but history has not been kind to those who broke regulations to recruit Samoans in the past. The American-Statesman raised the specter of Franklin High School in Stockton, Calif., which was hit with a five-year postseason ban in 2007 and forced to forfeit wins after 10 American Samoan players showed up on the team's roster and coaches were found to have funneled $70,000 to others as a way of paying for the players' airfare, room and board.

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Franklin's head coach resigned shortly after those violations arose, but the Samoan players went on to damage another school as well. A year after Franklin High was served its five-year ban, seven players transferred to Stallworth Charter Academy, also in Stockton, and that school's sports teams were then suspended by the California Interscholastic Federation.

There's no indication any penalties near that stringent will be served on St. Andrews, but the three-year probationary period puts St. Andrews on a knife's edge. Any other violations of Southwest Preparatory Conference regulations could get the school's athletic programs expelled from the conference.

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