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Mater Dei Answers Charges : Officials Say Rules on Recruiting Are Vague and Ambiguous

February 18, 1988|TOM HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

Attorneys representing Mater Dei High School, which has been accused of recruiting violations by Corona del Mar High officials, argued at a hearing Wednesday that the California Interscholastic Federation's bylaws are vague and ambiguous.

Members of the Southern Section's Executive Committee listened to eight hours of testimony, at the Sequoia Club in Buena Park, from coaches and administrators at Mater Dei and Dennis Evans, Corona del Mar principal.

Evans accused Mater Dei coaches of using undue influence in recruiting Corona del Mar sophomore quarterback Danny O'Neil and wide receivers Warren and Weston Johnston.

Attorney Daniel Holden, representing Mater Dei, said: "The evidence failed to show that the (O'Neil) parents and the child were unduly influenced. The only evidence presented here today was hearsay." Hearsay was admissible evidence at the hearing.

According to CIF bylaws, the use of undue influence to secure or retain a student or parents or guardians as residents can result in the ineligibility of the student for a year. The school also can be penalized.

The Executive Committee is expected to announce its decision this morning, according to Scott Cathcart, media relations director for the Southern Section.

O'Neil transferred to Mater Dei in December after he led Corona del Mar's freshman and sophomore football teams to a 17-1 record in two seasons. The Johnstons have remained at Corona del Mar.

Chuck Gallo, Mater Dei football coach, and Gary McKnight, Mater Dei basketball coach, both admitted to meeting with O'Neil and his parents along with assistant principal John Merino before the 16-year-old enrolled at the parochial school.

Federation bylaws stipulate that before enrollment, all parental contact must be handled by school administration, not members of the coaching staff.

Gallo said he discussed the quarterback situation at Mater Dei with O'Neil and his parents and received two envelopes containing checks for the amount of $250 each, designated for Mater Dei's football and basketball programs, from the O'Neils in a subsequent meeting.

McKnight said he discussed with O'Neil's parents any possible conflicts O'Neil might have playing both football and basketball at Mater Dei. McKnight said he also met the Johnstons' parents and told them about planned trips to Las Vegas and China this summer for his basketball team.

Merino, an administrator at Mater Dei for 24 years, set up the meetings with Gallo and McKnight. He also provided the Johnstons with highlight videotapes of the Monarchs' football and basketball teams.

Merino said the O'Neils' name was placed on a pass list for varsity football games after the school received the $500 donation while their son was attending Corona del Mar. Merino, who was relieved of his duties as athletic administrator Feb. 1, is now the school's activities director.

"Any time you have a coach telling a player and his parents about a trip to China or the prospects at quarterback," you are unable to make an unbiased choice, Evans said. "Danny O'Neil didn't do anything wrong. The coaches at Mater Dei were wrong."

Attorney Raymond Alvarado, representing McKnight, also attacked the ambiguity of the bylaws.

"It's beyond me why the CIF can't set down the do's and don'ts," Alvarado said. "When the rules are vague and ambiguous, you can't condemn kids and schools."

Father John Weling, the first-year principal at Mater Dei, maintained throughout an investigation by the Catholic Athletic Assn. and officials of the Southern Section that Mater Dei was innocent. He reiterated that sentiment Wednesday.

"Mater Dei did not violate the spirit or the letter of either the Gold Book (the CAA's code of ethics) or the Blue Book (federation bylaws)," he said. "I have no reason to feel that anybody on our staff violated any rules."

O'Neil's father, Dan, said he was not pressured in his decision to transfer his son to Mater Dei. He said he first became interested in Mater Dei in December of 1986 because of the school's structured, Christian environment and the scholastic decline of his son at Corona del Mar.

Staff writer Steve Lowery also contributed to this story.

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