Background checks vary; schools fear surprises

But Florida's colleges don't take advantage of open public records to see if recruits have criminal pasts.

Published March 6, 2005

With scandals alleging criminal behavior at Colorado, Baylor and elsewhere focusing attention on the athletes schools recruit, universities are re-evaluating how they screen for character.

Oklahoma officials said last week that they began a policy of running criminal background checks on prospective recruits in the fall, putting a greater priority on making sure they know exactly who is coming to campus.

"The scrutiny of college athletes is that much greater now," Sooners associate athletic director Kenny Mossman said Thursday. "And quite frankly, a fair amount of it is public information that doesn't require anything more than a little effort to find."

Few states make it as easy as Florida, where, for a nominal fee, public records laws allow anyone to find out whether someone has been arrested in the state. So are Florida schools, which recruit heavily within the state, taking advantage?

Apparently not.

Florida State athletic director Dave Hart is not a proponent of official background checks, in part because different states have different public records laws, so a recruit in one state could be flagged for something that would be undetectable in another.

"There's too many potential oddities," Hart said. "You couldn't get any consistency in the process because of the different laws and ages of the youngsters."

Dealing with athletes who have been arrested creates a dilemma for schools. Do they bring someone with such baggage into their program? If they don't, are they turning away young people who might have made a single error in judgment?

"We won't take a person that's going to embarrass the university, or we try not to," first-year Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "A lot of times things fall underneath the radar, but if it's on the radar, we won't do it."

But many schools, including Florida, Florida State and South Florida, still limit that radar to asking recruits and their parents, coaches and teachers if a student has had any disciplinary problems.

"I know our coaches are the first line in going out and trying to determine who is right for their program and for this institution," said USF athletic director Doug Woolard, who said his program does not use any formal criminal checks. "I'm sure as we move forward, everyone will be considering the best way to handle this, but we want our coaches to go out and learn as much about a recruit as they can from the people around them."

Had South Florida done background checks on its incoming recruiting class, it would have known that junior college linebacker Gene Coleman was charged with six felonies - including two burglaries, two larcenies and dealing in stolen property - after $13,000 in jewelry was stolen from a neighbor's home in June 2003.

In August he reached a plea agreement, entering guilty pleas in return for adjudication being withheld, pending successful completion of four years' probation, according to FDLE records.

"I knew he hadn't been an angel, but when we talked with his (junior college) coach, he hadn't had any incidents in his two years there," said Bulls coach Jim Leavitt, who was not aware of the details of Coleman's arrests. "There's going to be things people have done in the past. What's more relevant to me is what they do when they're here. We don't want people to ever do anything bad. ... Now six felonies, $13,000, if that had happened two weeks ago, that would be something we'd look into."

Another USF signee, quarterback Carlton Hill, was arrested at Jefferson County High School two weeks ago and charged with a misdemeanor count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor after being found having consensual sex with a 16-year-old student in the school locker room.

Hill's case evokes a recent situation with a similar post-signing day arrest of a state football recruit. Last year Florida State rescinded a scholarship offer to defensive back Jonathan Warren of Madison after he was arrested on two counts of lewd and lascivious behavior in the presence of a minor under 16. Despite his having no criminal record, FSU withdrew his scholarship offer, and he wound up at Butler Community College in Kansas. The charges were later dismissed, and Warren could wind up signing with FSU next spring.

Hart points to that disciplinary action as evidence that FSU is exercising due diligence to monitor its athletes' behavior and show the consequences.

Numerous high-profile incidents, including the saga of Miami freshman Willie Williams, who was arrested during a recruiting visit to Gainesville and later found to have 10 previous arrests, prompted the NCAA to commission a task force to address the need for improvements in the regulation of recruiting. Schools were asked to write their own policies, and while local schools all recognize the need to be aware of improper activities by prospective athletes, none conducts a routine criminal background check.

Leavitt said he will consider doing background checks, but reiterated that his primary source for judging the character of a recruit will be talking to coaches and parents.

And even when a background check yields multiple felonies, that doesn't mean an athlete doesn't deserve another chance.

Consider Coleman, who admitted he took a $40 WalMart gift card out of a Father's Day card in a neighbor's kitchen but initially denied taking thousands of dollars in jewelry in a separate burglary of the same home. He was only linked to the larger theft six months later, when victim Kim Harper recognized a unique unicorn pendant in a local pawn shop. Coleman had pawned it and three other pieces for $130 the day it was stolen.

Coleman's grandparents gave Harper a check for $13,000, covering full restitution, but she doesn't know where her original wedding ring is, and she never got an apology from Coleman. Despite all that, she doesn't believe his mistake should keep him from a college scholarship.

"If he's trying to turn himself around, I'm glad to hear that," said Harper, who lives across the street from Coleman's family. "I'd hate to see his future jeopardized if he's kept his nose clean since this happened."

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione has been surprised by the national attention, including USA Today's and Sports Illustrated's, given to an issue he considers a common-sense decision. He doesn't want the Sooners to be pioneers but simply more aware of the athletes who are representing his school.

"We didn't do this to set the tone or call attention to this part of the process," he said. "It's due diligence, and we think it helps us create a better profile on the prospective student-athletes we're bringing in. We're not going to catch every single thing, either, but if we don't do this, someday someone else is going to walk in to my office and say "Did you know about this? Did you check?' "

Times staff writers Antonya English and Brian Landman contributed to this report.