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MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- What was expected to be a routine eligibility appeal took on more of a courtroom feel as attorneys representing Signal Mountain High School and the TSSAA verbally sparred for more than two hours Thursday in a ballroom at the Doubletree Hotel.
Typically at eligibility hearings, the TSSAA's Board of Control members will ask questions of a coach, athletic director or athlete to determine whether to grant or deny the appeal. But once it became clear that Signal Mountain would be represented mostly by attorney Clancy Covert, board members remained largely silent and allowed TSSAA attorney Rick Colbert to handle most of the questioning.
"That's what happens when you involve attorneys," TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress said. "That's their right to be represented or make whatever presentation they want."
Signal Mountain officials hope to regain at least some of six football wins they were forced to vacate when the TSSAA ruled on Oct. 7 that Eagles senior linebacker and running back Tim McClendon was ineligible. The appeal hearing lasted nearly three hours, and the board met behind closed doors for an additional five hours before deciding to postpone its vote until this morning.
While there are nine board members, only six heard Signal Mountain's appeal. Sequatchie County principal Tommy Layne recused himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, since his school plays in the same district as Signal Mountain. Another board member, Ike White from Memphis, did not attend, and there is one vacancy on the board after the recent resignation of Maryville's Lynn Brown.
While Layne did not vote, he did sit in on the hearing. After having his name and his school repeatedly pointed to by Covert as the team that would gain the most from Signal Mountain having to vacate the wins, a visibly upset Layne stood to defend himself and his Dunlap school.
"This guy here [Covert] is questioning my integrity and my school's integrity," Layne said loudly. "All the involvement I had was to speak with Mr. Childress about what I had heard. If you want to question my integrity you can come here and do it any day of the week."
After a brief exchange with Covert, Layne sat down and the meeting came to a dramatic close.
Besides the question of McClendon's eligibility, Signal Mountain officials expressed their displeasure with why TSSAA directors waited nearly two weeks before letting them know there was a potential problem.
"My question was, why didn't anyone let us know there was a question about Tim's eligibility on Sept. 22, when the TSSAA was notified?" athletic director Patty Lane said to the board. "We didn't get the phone call until two weeks later. I wonder why we didn't get that phone call as a courtesy?"
After the meeting, Childress said the TSSAA was disappointed with those remarks, saying the entire staff was on the road during the week he was first notified there could be an eligibility problem. He said several staff members were attending the state golf tournament the following week and then gathered to discuss the issue.
"I can say honestly that we were notified by numerous administrators that we needed to look into four student-athletes who had transferred to Signal Mountain," Childress said. "We were told that [Coach] Bill Price had bragged they had recruited them in because they were good players. Any time we get a tip with the word 'recruiting' we first have to determine if there is enough evidence to pursue it.
"We determined that three of the four kids we were tipped off about were legitimate transfers but that there were enough questions about Tim McClendon to follow up with an investigation. It's not our policy to tell any school why they are being investigated or when we will be there. We call them, usually the day before, and once our investigators arrive, they make the school aware of why they are being investigated.
"There is no certain time frame that we have to work in to let a school know that they are being investigated. We do that in as timely a manner as we can, but the bottom line is, for any school, if you don't break a rule, you don't have to worry about how fast the TSSAA notifies you."
Covert was introduced as a Signal Mountain parent and resident, but it quickly became apparent that he was serving as the school's legal counsel when he addressed Colbert early on as "your honor."
"I guess I just gave away what I do for a living," Covert joked as the entire room chuckled.
Among the 15 or so people who attended the meeting representing Signal Mountain were Tim McClendon, the player in question, and his mother, who both testified. Also testifying before the board were school principal Dr. Tom McCullough, Price, Lane, assistant coach Shane Roberson -- who has served as McClendon's mentor at three schools -- and school board representative Chip Baker.
Roberson detailed his relationship with McClendon, explaining he had become somewhat of a father figure since meeting the teenager as his middle school math teacher. He told the board that McClendon transferred to Signal Mountain for educational reasons, saying the senior had a better chance of graduating in an environment where he could receive additional help in class.
Price told the board that he had filled out the online eligibility form, explaining that he had filled out similar forms throughout his 28-year coaching career and never before had to attend an eligibility hearing for one of his players.
"A couple of weeks later [after filling out the form and submitting it], we received a fax saying the student was eligible to compete in all sports for the 2011-12 school year," Price told the board. "If the TSSAA says a kid is eligible, you don't have to file a hardship. We never got notification that he could possibly be ineligible until two weeks ago.
"The TSSAA investigators never spoke to me. I'm the one that filled out the form, but I was not included when they came to the school to ask questions."
Colbert asked Price if, after marking that McClendon had made a bona fide change of residence, he had checked the TSSAA bylaws' definition of "territory" to ensure that the player lived in his zone.
"No, sir," Price said.
The TSSAA's definition of a student-athlete's "territory" or zone was at the core of the discussion throughout the day.
"There is a lot of vagueness, a lot of gray in that definition," Covert told the board. "According to your definition, [McClendon] is eligible to play. All we're asking for is to take the time to look at the definition. To single out Signal Mountain is a problem because I would dare say our interpretation is the same as a lot of other schools."
When asked about that statement, Childress smiled and said, "Their interpretation of 'territory' is far different than what we've used ever since it was written into our bylaws."