The Armwood High School football program was stripped of its 2011 Class 6A state championship, its state runners-up crown from 2010 and fined $12,743 Tuesday by the Florida High School Athletic Association following a seven-month investigation and review process involving the use of ineligible players.
In addition, the school has been placed on three years of administrative probation and given an official reprimand from the FHSAA. The ruling forces Armwood to forfeit all 15 wins from 2011 and 11 of its 14 victories from 2010, when one of the ineligible students also played.
It's the first time in Hillsborough County history a high school team in any sport was stripped of its state title. The probation and reprimand essentially puts Armwood on a watch list, where any future violations can result in more sever penalties.
Tuesday's decision also means the Hawks, who finished last season ranked among the nation's top prep football teams, must return all postseason trophies. The FHSAA does not collect individual medals given at the state finals because it considers those items personal property.
Armwood head coach Sean Callahan declined to comment on the ruling. Principal Mike Ippolito was conducting teacher interviews and could not be reached for comment.
Hawks wide receiver Alvin Bailey, a key member of both 2010 and 2011 squads, said the FHSAA's ruling is difficult to swallow but he says it doesn't take away anything his team earned on the field.
"It hurts but we got our (championship) rings and had great seasons both years," said Bailey. "We did everything we had to do on the field. We worked hard for what we got and no one can take that away from us."
The FHSAA's final judgment was sent in an 18-page letter to Ippolito. The investigation determined the parents of five football players falsified residency information to get their children into the Seffner school.
The FHSAA has dealt similar penalties to other teams in the state, including Lakeland High School, which was forced to forfeit its 2010 season for using two players who falsified their addresses. Like Lakeland, Armwood received a relatively light fine because the FHSAA determined no coaches or school officials had knowledge of the parents submitting false information to gain entry into the school. Still, the FHSAA took a hard line by making the Hawks forfeit 26 victories and a state title.
"Any time that we have individuals who are falsifying information and documents and misleading school officials for the purpose of participating in athletics, it's a serious issue," said FHSAA Associate Executive Director Denarvise Thornton, who assisted in preparing the ruling. "All the information that we received did not indicate any coaches or school officials were a party to falsifying the documents.
FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing said the fines are typically paid from ticket sales from the school's athletic department. However, in Hillsborough County, the parents or guardians of all athletes sign a form specifically stating "any fines or penalties assessed against the school as a result of the actions of any student and/or parent will be the responsibility of the student and/or parent."
School district spokesperson Stephen Hegarty said no tax dollars would be used to pay the fines and the district "expects the parents to pay the fine."
Tampa attorney Peter Hobson represents four of the five players involved in the investigation, as well as two recent transfers to Armwood whom Ippolito has ruled ineligible for a calendar year. While admitting some of the information in the FHSAA's investigation may be correct, Hobson said he and his clients believe there was a "rush to judgment" in the case involving the 2011 players, as well as the two transfers.
"The parents have constantly maintained they wanted to be heard and participate in the process but they weren't," Hobson said. "We are disappointed the principal of the school and the school board didn't make a careful review of the report that was sent (to the FHSAA). There was more information that needed to be considered. We wish the school -- and the principal especially -- wasn't what appears to be so adamant about throwing them under the bus."
Hobson said he plans to meet with the parents to determine their next course of action.
The fines, covering a total of 19 rules violations discovered by the FHSAA, are the most any school has ever incurred in the county. But considering the FHSAA can levy fines up to $2,500 fine per player per game for schools that commit intentional rules violations, the fine Armwood received was relatively low.
Dearing said in cases where parents and/or students falsified information in order to gain athletic eligibility and the FHSAA can't prove anyone from the school was involved, the school is typically fined $100 per player per game.
The largest fine ever handed out by the FHSAA came in 2010, when it slapped Miramar's Parkway Academy with fines in excess of $250,000 and its entire athletic program five years of probation. The penalties were largely a result of using ineligible players on its football team, but resulted in Parkway being banned from participating in the state playoffs in any sport for five years. Eventually, the school had the fines reduced to $117,900.
Armwood can appeal Tuesday's decision but since Ippolito responded to the charges by agreeing with all but one of the violations outlined in FHSAA's preliminary report, that's not likely. However, the parents of the five players mentioned in the investigation from the 2011 team can appeal or file a lawsuit against the FHSAA.