NCAA investigating Massachusetts basketball powerhouse prep school

The NCAA is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into Notre Dame Preparatory School just weeks after declaring two Class of 2012 basketball recruits from the school academically ineligible to play college ball this year, Yahoo! Sports has learned.

Parents of former players from the Fitchburg, Mass., prep school told Yahoo! Sports they have been contacted by NCAA investigators and asked about topics including academic and eligibility issues, financial irregularities and recruiting practices at the longtime basketball powerhouse. The NCAA has already ruled Maryland recruit Sam Cassell Jr. and Xavier's Myles Davis academically ineligible to play.

"They seemed to be focused on academic issues at Notre Dame Prep, but they asked about a number of other issues as well, how tuition payments worked, visits by assistant coaches from certain schools, the behavior of specific players and general life within the program," said Everett Swain, whose son Charles was part of the basketball program for most of the 2010-11 academic year. Swain, who is from Texas, spoke with investigators this week.

Another parent of a former player also confirmed speaking to the NCAA about similar issues. One former player said he is scheduled to meet with investigators next week.

NDP coach Ryan Hurd told Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday that criticism of the school – whether in the media or made to NCAA investigators – is coming from a handful of bitter parents and former players, including the family of Charles Swain, who did not enjoy on-court success that resulted in a Division I scholarship. Charles Swain is playing at D-III Simpson College in Iowa.

Hurd expressed confidence in how his program and school operates even after having Cassell and Davis ruled ineligible this month to play or receive a scholarship this season. Cassell is the son of former NBA star and current Washington Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell, who ripped the NCAA decision in the media. Cassell Jr. is now at a Florida junior college. Davis is paying his own way and sitting out the year at Xavier.

[Related: Sam Cassell rips NCAA for declaring son ineligible]

"I think if you look at the sheer number of players who have come through here over the years, it's probably pretty easy to find a few who are disgruntled," Hurd said. "You met a few kids who had come to grips with their reality, and those parents in the cul-de-sac. Instead of telling their neighbors the truth, they feel like they need a reason."

He declined to answer more questions Wednesday citing demands on his time from college recruiters.

"If you'll excuse me, we have more college coaches here today to see our kids," Hurd said.

Notre Dame Prep regularly has a roster stocked with Division I recruits, which makes this a potentially significant case for the NCAA.

The NCAA's ongoing crackdown on so called "diploma mills" for questionable academics and recruiting practices has generally focused on upstart schools that were recently founded.

Notre Dame Prep, however, has been in business since 1952. It has drawn in top high school talent from across the country for decades and helped produce scores of star players including current NBAers Michael Beasley, Derrick Caracter and Ryan Gomes. It boasts at least 19 current Division I college players and its current roster should deliver about half dozen more.

The NCAA, citing policy, declined comment on whether it was engaged in a wide-ranging investigation of Notre Dame Prep into more than just academics.

It did however acknowledge NDP was under what it calls an "extending evaluation" of its academic program. That is generally a two-year certification cycle where course work is looked at on a case-by-case basis.

If the NCAA is not satisfied with its findings, it can rule a school "not cleared," meaning no work from it can be used by a player to gain initial college eligibility. It effectively ends the athletic program's ability to bring in high level talent.

"The NCAA takes seriously the foundational concepts of academic readiness and academic integrity," NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said.

Hurd acknowledged the NCAA looking into the school's academics but said it wasn't unusual in the prep school world. Indeed, the NCAA said it has around 50 schools currently under extended evaluation.

"I think you'd find that a lot of schools of our size, they find themselves on that radar and then they have to prove they belong, and we're certainly willing to do that," Hurd said.

While Hurd defended NDP, interviews both on and off the record with numerous former players as well as their parents paint a picture of a prep school with minimal academic standards and unconventional business practices.

In the past, Hurd had some members of the basketball program pay their tuition (upwards of $12,000 annually for non-scholarship payers) directly to his own personal bank account rather than the school itself.

Parents supplied Yahoo! Sports with cancelled bank transactions, text messages from Hurd and other paperwork concerning the payments and the account at Bank of America. They also detailed how at the time they were suspicious of such a request.

"I asked [Hurd] how should we make the payment," said Marilyn Hill, whose son Eric Richardson considered attending NDP as part of the basketball program for the 2010-11 academic year. "He gave me an account number under 'Hurd Basketball' at Bank of America. I said, 'Shouldn't it be going to Notre Dame Prep?' He said, 'No, this is the account all of the money goes into.' "

Hill decided not to send her son to NDP after visiting the school and finding the physical upkeep unsatisfactory and upon advice of a lawyer who looked over the documents from the school.

Other families went along, however. Bank transactions show the Swains paid $10,000 to "Hurd Basketball" during the time Charles attended the school.

[Forde-Yard Dash: Is Ohio State getting value from E. Gordon Gee's high cost?]

Hurd acknowledged he encouraged and accepted tuition payments directly that year, but has discontinued the practice.

"What I was trying to do was establish a little more of an income so I could buy a house," Hurd said. "I was going to pay whatever was the amount to the school that was going to cover the tuitions and then run the basketball program and then whatever was left over at the end of that was going to be my compensation.”

Hurd said costs soared, though, and “it ended up being kind of a disaster.” Notre Dame Prep's headmaster did not return repeated calls seeking confirmation the money was ever actually passed onto the school or how the arrangement was supposed to work.

Some former players said academics at the school were rudimentary at best and there was a belief that simply showing up for class was enough to earn an A. The goal, some players believed, was simply to raise star players' grade point averages to gain NCAA initial eligibility.

NDP averages less than three dozen students per year, half of which are basketball players. The remainder of the small study body is mostly made up of foreign students, primarily those from Asia. The school’s website lists costs for international students at $24,500 per year.

"The classes were really, I don't want to say nothing at all, but for the most part, it wasn't even high school level education," said R.J. Dempsey, a member of the basketball program from Anchorage, Ala., during the 2010-11 season. "It wasn't proper at all."

Charles Swain paid to attend NDP in the hope of gaining exposure to college coaches recruiting his higher-profile teammates, not to improve his academics. He'd already been accepted as a regular student to Baylor. While he said some teachers were dedicated, he described the class work at NDP as "just child's work, pretty much." Many of the players didn't bother trying, he said, because they believed their grades were guaranteed.

"It was a joke," Charles Swain said. "Players didn't take it seriously. They knew they would receive A's whether they attended or they didn't. [Players] wouldn't do well in most classes but they would just get passed along. They'd get A's because that's what they were there to get. A lot of time they would skip class. A lot of times they would come in there, sleep, get on their computers."

NDP's academic coordinator Craig DeLisle, who has been at the school for 25 years, disputed that classes are conducted that way or that unearned grades are ever given to athletes.

"Not true," DeLisle said. "And I taught those kids a lot. When you see a head go down … we wouldn't allow that here. We don't allow them to get on their phones.

"Some students come here with great educational backgrounds and others come here with IEP's [Individual Educational Plans] for students who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities," DeLisle said. "The students who struggle have a mandatory study hall each day where we try to get them ready for the next class, the next test.

"Sure, we want to be able to help them play collegiate sports," he said. "But we're not just giving away grades."

While DeLisle acknowledged that "some teacher's courses were easier than others, just like in any school," he believes the allegations against NDP were mostly from disgruntled students.

"It sounds like you have some students who were unhappy here," he said.

He also dismissed the NCAA's academic disqualification of Cassell and Davis as isolated.

"I guess what it was, was more of a paperwork issue," DeLisle said. "In terms of syllabus and course descriptions."

Hurd also took issue with Charles Swain's characterization of classroom decorum.

"No chance," Hurd said. "I mean, you're talking about prep school classes with four or five kids in them. No chance. And I understand Charles, you can be as upset as you want, but now you're just being ridiculous. Our kids here, they work hard. Not all of them are as bright as Charles."

Dempsey – and other former players who spoke to Yahoo! Sports but did not wish to be identified – backed Swain's account.

"Guys were on their phones the whole time in class," Dempsey said. "They would just be sitting there not doing the work. They'd be sleeping or doing nothing."

The NCAA's process for academic eligibility requires the school to prove its classes are real, and the NCAA can demand specific work – tests, papers, projects, etc. – from individual players to assure that each grade was honestly earned. That's why one player can be ruled eligible and another ineligible who attend the same class.

Osburn spoke in general about the evaluation process and not about any specific case at Notre Dame Prep or anywhere else.

"Because courses are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, prospective student-athletes must request their school send additional academic documentation regarding their courses and coursework," she said.

That's part of the NCAA's standard program for prep schools under extended evaluation.

The probe into the school's finances, how tuition is paid and how college recruiters acted on campus – all topics being asked to parents by NCAA investigators – could potentially make this a bigger and wider-ranging case than the eligibility of two high-profile recruits from last year's team.

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