A legendary former New Jersey football coach finds himself in a maelstrom of controversy just months after capping a 50-year career with a state title, with two prominent players on that team charging the coach with recruiting them to play for his school, then attempting to kick them out of their shared apartment as soon as the team had won a state title.
As first reported by the Newark Star-Ledger, longtime North Bergen (N.J.) High football coach Vincent Ascolese has been accused of recruiting two teenagers -- Denzell Leitch and Eric McMullen -- to play for the team in his final season at the helm of the program. The two teens, along with McMullen's mother, lived in separate apartments at the house directly next door to Ascolese's own residence, which was also owned by the coach.
Then, literally moments after North Bergen won a state title with a miraculous Hail Mary completion on the final play against Montclair (N.J.) High, the coach went asking for rent compensation from Leitch's father. Within days the younger Leitch and McMullen were told they would have to move out, a move that Leitch's father called despicable.
"Heartless," Ingram Leitch told the Star-Ledger. "He used my son, and then kicked him to the curb."
Shortly after being notified about the incident, the Star-Ledger launched its own investigation into the players' allegations. In the process of weeks of digging through paperwork filed by the coach, the players and North Bergen High, the newspaper discovered that Ascolese may have violated a number of New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association regulations.
Here's how the Star-Ledger's Mike Vorkunov and Craig Wolff classified their findings:
A four-week investigation by The Star-Ledger has found that the coach — the third-winningest in state history — may have violated keystone rules of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, first recruiting Denzell from his high school in Brooklyn, and then adding Eric from his home in South Jersey, some two hours away. Records show that the coach, along with Denzell's father, also filled out fraudulent paperwork to make it appear Ingram Leitch would be living with his son, starting in the summer of 2010 when Denzell was still 17.
An Ascolese family member also reportedly paid to fly Leitch to a football camp in Oklahoma, another clear violation of state regulations. Combined with the fraudulent paperwork filed to make Leitch and McMullen eligible to compete in football, it is a real possibility, if not a likelihood, that North Bergen's state title could be repealed.
In the meantime, the 74-year-old Ascolese, who is the third-winningest coach in New Jersey history, is reportedly suffering from prostate cancer which has advanced into his bones, leaving him in more fragile physical health.
While Ascolese has yet to succeed in evicting either Leitch or McMullen, neither teen has paid a majority of the rent allegedly due for them to remain in the apartment where they live to attend North Bergen High, a situation that could serve to cement some of the allegations against the former coach.
Regardless of eventual outcome, the sordid saga has cast a pall on a magical state championship run and what has always been considered as a completely forthright coaching career for a man beloved as a legendary figure in his community.
While the athletes and their parents who agreed to let them live alone (at least in Leitch's case) to play football at a school far from home find themselves receiving some concern, it's the legacy of Ascolese that appears to be furthest beyond repair, in large part because of incidents like the following one, and plenty more in the full investigative report, described by both Denzell and Ingram Leitch to the Star-Ledger.
Denzell said he switched his cell phone to speaker, and Ascolese may not have been aware. Denzell said he reminded the coach his father had promised to pay up.
"Your father ain't got shit," Ascolese said, almost in a whisper, according to father and son.
"He said, 'You know, any college that calls me, I can easily say to them, his father owes me some money.'" Denzell said his eyes teared up, and his father — listening in from Staten Island — went into a silent rage.