The San Clemente High School football program has undergone serious staffing upheavals in the last couple weeks in connection with a sports equipment company kickback scheme uncovered by PBS this spring.
Though head coach Eric Patton is on administrative leave, Capistrano Unified School District officials at that the program would have continuity going into the season, which starts Sept. 2 against visiting Cabrillo of Lompoc.
“I’m not going to diminish what’s gone on, because it’s tough,” said Jon Hamro, the Tritons athletic director, who took over as interim head football coach last week.
He told parents Monday that the ongoing investigation and allegations against Patton and other staffers have fortified and united the team's coaching staff and players.
“The kids have been resilient, and they’ve handled themselves really well,” he said. “We’ve all gone through this together, and it’s galvanized…. To be honest, it’s not just the players and coaches, it’s ‘us.’ That really has energized us.”
Where the Staff Stands
The team has also added two new assistant coaches, both former assistant coaches at the school. They are Pat Harlow and John Allred, who both played at USC and in the NFL.
Freshman head coach Jaime Ortiz was briefly put on leave, but private investigators exonerated him in the scandal—Patton and other staffers stand accused of taking kickbacks from now-defunct Lapes Athletic Sales of Laguna Hills. The new owners, who had invested in the company and then purchased it as it was failing, thought the books were fishy and found what they say is evidence of the kickbacks.
According to the San Clemente Times, the other Tritons coaches put on leave during the continuing investigation were varsity defensive coordinator Jeff Veeder, running backs coach Joe Wood and defensive backs coach Ken Goldstone.
CUSD Superintendent Joe Farley said Monday that “a much larger group” of former staffers was also involved.
District officials wouldn’t confirm the S.C. Times' list but said that where possible, staffers such as Ortiz have been interviewed and cleared by administrators. Farley said others have been invited to similar interviews, but they are operating with legal counsel and scheduling issues have come up with the lawyers.
All this is separate from criminal investigations that are ongoing.
“Misappropriation of $1 of public funds is a crime in California,” said Daniel Shinoff, an attorney retained by the district.
The Ongoing Investigation
A number of parents criticized the timing and abruptness of the staffing upheavals. The announcements came less than three weeks away from the start of a season that for the Tritons.
“The timing could have been worse, but not much,” acknowledged SCHS Principal George Duarte.
Farley and Shinoff said the timing was largely out of the district’s control; CUSD had to hire a private investigator who conducted a detailed investigation, the results of which only became available recently. The district has also had to adhere to the dense and arcane California Education Code protocol.
Other parents were angry that Patton and the other coaches were under such media scrutiny before legally accused of a crime.
“It’s unfortunate that the media is assassinating Eric Patton’s character,” said Keri Murphy, a parent at the meeting. “My older son was coached by him, and he’s now in Harvard because of the character of this man. I’ve personally witnessed clothing being given to young men whose parents couldn’t afford it.”
Shinoff pointed out that administrative leave was not suspension—no disciplinary action has been taken, he said, though “I’m sure it doesn’t feel that way to the people involved.”
No disciplinary action has been taken against any staffers in connection with the allegations.
Farley urged parents to discuss the situation with their children and advise them not to jump to conclusions until all the details and evidence are available.
“The integrity of the district is defined in these situations,” he said.
After the meeting, parents talked among themselves about the impressive energy, will and stamina their boys seemed to be showing in practice over the last week—fingers crossed that the rejiggered coaching staff would lead the team to success despite the legal and administrative problems plaguing the program.
Will there be any more bombshells in Triton football news in the coming weeks?
“Gosh, I hope not,” Duarte said. “I don’t think there will be any more large surprises.”