3 coaches off the job as allegations grow in Marion County football scandal

3 coaches off the job as allegations grow in Marion County football scandal

November 20th, 2013 by Stephen Hargis in Local - Breaking News

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JASPER, Tenn. -- What started as a ploy to motivate players and humiliate a rival team before a high school football game led to a series of alleged criminal acts and state athletics violations by the Marion County High School football program.

Early Tuesday afternoon a second Marion County High teacher and assistant coach, Joe Dan Gudger, was arrested and charged with the vandalism at the school's football fieldhouse as well as possession of alcohol on school property. Gudger is the second Marion County assistant coach to be charged with vandalism of $1,000-$10,000, following the arrest of Michael Schmitt last Wednesday.

Other allegations that came to light Tuesday include one Marion County assistant breaking into South Pittsburg's fieldhouse to steal play sheets and the coaching staff bringing in a former college player to practice with the team, which isn't permitted under state rules.

TSSAA officials now are questioning whether Marion County should continue to have a football program.

Each arrest came after a joint investigation by the Marion County Sheriff's Office and the Jasper Police Department. Both Gudger and Schmitt have been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.

Following Schmitt's arrest, county investigators pulled his cellphone records and discovered conversations among Schmitt and other coaches discussing painting the fieldhouse and making it look like South Pittsburg supporters were the culprits.

The vandalism charges stem from the school's fieldhouse and other property being spray painted with vulgarities and having trash strewn over the parking lot during the early morning hours of Nov. 1. Officers involved believe the vandalism was an attempt to inspire the Marion County football team before its game against county rival South Pittsburg that night. The South Pittsburg Pirates won the game 35-17.

Later Tuesday afternoon, the Marion County school board relieved a third assistant, Tim Starkey, of his coaching duties after it was learned through text message records that Starkey had broken into the South Pittsburg fieldhouse and stolen play sheets and game plans in the week before the game.

Sheriff's deputies would not confirm or deny whether Starkey will face charges for breaking into the fieldhouse and stealing school property, but did add that the investigation is ongoing.

Starkey is a former all-state quarterback and Mr. Football finalist at South Pittsburg, having played on the 1999 Class 1A state championship team. He later worked as a Pirates volunteer assistant before joining the Marion staff as a paid assistant this season.

Also in the text messages, Starkey alludes to Schmitt, who lives in Dunlap, having also taken playbooks from Sequatchie County, before the Indians' game against Marion County on Sept. 27. According to Sequatchie County Principal Tommy Layne, after checking with head coach Ken Colquette, the football team is missing two playbooks from its fieldhouse. Marion rallied in the second half to score the last four touchdowns in that game to beat Sequatchie County 52-28.

"If you have no better morals than this, you don't need to be around kids in any way," said Layne, who also is a member of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association's Board of Control. "I'm just in shock at all of this. I've never, in all my years as an educator and coach, heard of anything as bad as this. It just makes you sick. You feel bad for the kids at Marion for having men like this as their role models."

During the same text message string, Schmitt admitted to buying the paint that was used to vandalize the fieldhouse. Investigators discovered a surveillance tape of Schmitt buying 10 cans of orange and black spray paint -- South Pittsburg's school colors -- at the Dunlap Walmart the night before the vandalism took place. Schmitt is seen on surveillance video placing the spray paint cans onto the conveyer belt and purchasing them, all while wearing a purple and white Marion County coach's sweatshirt and a purple cap with white "MC" letters.

Also on Tuesday, according to Marion County schools Superintendent Mark Griffith, the school self-reported its football program for a major TSSAA practice violation, having a nonstudent athlete suit up and practice with the team.

According to the same cellphone records police used to arrest Gudger and learn that Starkey had broken into the South Pittsburg fieldhouse, it was discovered that former South Pittsburg all-state running back Raquis Hale was paid to show up for "several" practices to help Marion players prepare for South Pittsburg's speed advantage.

"We have evidence that shows that was factual," Griffith said. "We have discovered that having [Hale] come in to practice with the team did happen and myself and [Marion County] school principal Larry Ziegler have notified the TSSAA that he was used to practice with the Marion football team for at least the week of the South Pittsburg game."

According to TSSAA Executive Director Bernard Childress, having someone who is not a member of the coaching staff practice with the team is considered a "major" violation. Hale is a former college athlete, having played for two seasons at Bethel University.

"Aside from being a very dangerous liability issue for the players at Marion, it definitely is a violation of TSSAA rules," Childress said. "We will set the appropriate penalty for those violations at the proper time. That will come after the criminal investigation is closed."

Practice violations typically result in having one week of practice taken away for every individual day the violation occurred.

"It's all very unfortunate for the community, school and, more especially, for the football players that this has come out again about another coach," he said. "All the remaining coaches on their staff will have to be evaluated once the police conclude their investigation."

Text messages between Schmitt and Starkey indicate that Marion head coach Mac McCurry knew about the vandalism before it occurred, as well as bringing in Hale to practice with the team.

"I can't comment on coach McCurry's future here just yet," Griffith added. "There's still an investigation ongoing."

Marion County's football program has been under TSSAA scrutiny before.

In April 2012, four months after McCurry was hired, the TSSAA banned the program from holding spring practice after it was discovered Warriors coaches had already conducted official practices for longer than the 10 days the state allows.

The TSSAA placed the program on probation at that time, and Childress said all former violations under McCurry would be considered when the state's governing body determines what punishment the program would receive now.

"Obviously it's an ongoing criminal investigation, so it's well beyond our authority right now," Childress continued. "We'll monitor the case very closely and once the criminal investigation has concluded, we'll look at the entire scenario that's happened to determine how severe the punishment will be.

"If everything that is being brought to light really happened, my question to Marion County High administrators is, 'Why should you continue to have a football program?'"

Marion County is still alive in the Class 2A playoffs, set to travel to second-ranked Trousdale County for a quarterfinal game Friday.

Contact staff writer Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.


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