The nationally ranked Armwood High School football team potentially committed major rules violations that could lead to the Hawks being stripped of the 2011 Class 6A state championship. The program also could be fined thousands of dollars and disciplined by the Florida High School Athletics Association.
Although the athletics association investigation is not complete, executive director Roger Dearing said he thinks the school has possibly committed "major violations" regarding the residency eligibility of several players.
"Everybody is innocent until proven guilty, but if the evidence we have right now is accurate, valid and correct, there have been several major violations; there is no doubt about that," Dearing said. "All we have are these witness statements, documents as to when people moved in (to a home) or when they got their Florida driver's license, and in many instances, they don't balance with the enrollment dates of the students at the school.
"Either there is a lack of coordination between the student services department and the athletic department at the school, or someone is ignoring the rules."
The investigation is about 85 percent complete, said Dearing, who expects it to be finished within a month. There is no evidence of recruiting violations, only residency violations, he said. The investigation is being conducted by Troy Pumphrey, who is an employee of the Hillsborough County school district.
Two more witnesses in the Armwood case need to be interviewed and Dearing says both have been difficult to locate.
Armwood head coach Sean Callahan declined to comment on the investigation, but has steadfastly denied he or anyone on his coaching staff has committed any violations.
Armwood principal Mike Ippolito could not immediately be reached for comment.
Once the FHSAA determines the list of violations it thinks occurred at Armwood, the school can respond to each violation and associated fine, Dearing said. Also, a school can agree with the violation charge but appeal the fine. Although the fine can be $2,500 an ineligible athlete per contest, Dearing said the fine can be as little as $100 a game per athlete if, for example, the school was given false information by a parent.
"The general rule we use (to determine the fine level) is 'did you know or should you have known,' " he said. "If it's determined that there's no way the school could have known — you know, the parent was bringing the kid to school, he wasn't riding a bus and they hid it pretty well, the fine drops to $100 a game."
In most cases, it's up to the school's athletic director to determine whether a student-athlete is living within the school's district and has not been recruited, but the coach and his or her staff share in that responsibility, Dearing said.
Once the school responds to the charges, the FHSAA will deliver a letter of its findings to the school. The school can then appeal to an FHSAA sectional committee or the association's board of directors.
"We want everyone playing on the same level playing field and Armwood needs to follow all the same rules as all the other schools in Hillsborough County and all other schools in the state who are members of our association," he said. "Part of our job is to make sure schools comply with those rules so that nobody unfairly builds some kind of powerhouse.
"There's no free agency in high school sports."
The FHSAA began its investigation after receiving a request from the school administration to clarify the eligibility of Hawks senior Jack Lightsey, who played his junior year for Orlando Dr. Phillips. Lightsey transferred to Armwood last spring and earned a starting spot on the offensive line.
At question was whether Lightsey and his family made a "full and complete move" into Armwood's district, as required by FHSAA rules. Soon afterward, the investigation expanded to other Armwood players who transferred to the school last fall after playing the previous season for another program.
Once Dearing's office has prepared a report and determined specific violations, he said he and the FHSAA's director for compliance and eligibility, Denarvise Thornton, plan to meet with Hillsborough County Superintendent MaryEllen Elia and Ippolito.
"When the superintendent shows an interest in trying to correct what the problems are — and MaryEllen Elia has probably called me three or four times saying, 'Please keep me in the loop, I want to know what's going on' — and they want to know what happened, what went wrong and how to develop a plan to keep it from happening again, I feel obligated to sit down and talk to them," Dearing said.