College admissions scandal: Ex-University of Texas tennis coach gets 6 months for taking $100,000 bribe

Michael Center, 55, accepted the bribe to help get someone admitted to the college as a purported student-athlete.
Image: Center leaves the federal courthouse in Boston
Michael Center, the former head coach of the men's tennis team at the University of Texas at Austin, leaves the federal courthouse after being sentenced in connection with a nationwide college admissions cheating scheme in Boston, Massachusetts on Feb. 24, 2020.Amanda Sabga / Reuters

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By Phil Helsel

A former University of Texas at Austin tennis coach was sentenced Monday to six months in prison for taking a $100,000 bribe in the widespread college admissions cheating scheme.

Michael Center, 55, of Austin, sprinted away from a scrum of reporters and his lawyers after the sentence was handed down in federal court in Boston.

He pleaded guilty in April to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud after accepting a $100,000 bribe to help get someone admitted to the college as a purported student-athlete, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts said in a statement.

"I believe you are a good man, but this is one of those things that just can't be overlooked," U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns said.

Center cried as he apologized to his family and friends and pleaded with the judge not to send him to prison. "I just want you to know how sorry and ashamed I am that I have been a part of this," he told the judge.

Prosecutors said that beginning in 2014, Carter conspired with William Rick Singer, alleged mastermind of the scheme — which was taken down by federal authorities in March after an investigation dubbed "Operation Varsity Blues" — and the former president of a private Texas tennis academy to accept a $100,000 bribe in exchange for getting the child of one of Singer’s clients recruited as a student-athlete to the University of Texas at Austin.

The student, who did not actually play tennis competitively, was added to the team roster in April 2015 and then admitted to the university, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Center’s attorney, John Cunha, said Center had been on the verge of being a hall of fame coach and is now "broken." Cunha said he thinks the sentence imposed was more than what was necessary.

"Nobody seeing what happened to Michael Center is going to say, 'Oh my God, I think I’m going to try this myself,'" Cuhna said. "... Even the government says that he's never going to do anything like this."

The former president of the private Texas tennis academy, Martin Fox, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering in November and is scheduled to be sentenced May 14.

Prosecutors said at the time of Fox's guilty plea that they would recommend a sentence of one year of supervised release, a fine and restitution.

The overall college admissions scheme orchestrated by Singer involved wealthy parents, including some Hollywood actors, paying to have their children’s scores boosted or to have them fraudulently admitted as student-athletes, prosecutors have said.

Actor Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty in May and was sentenced to 14 days in prison. She was released on the 11th day of her sentence. She was released early as is normal policy for inmates who are set to be released on weekends, a prison official said at the time.

Actor Lori Loughlin and her fashion-designer husband, Mossimo Giannulli, are among those fighting charges. In December, they accused federal prosecutors of concealing evidence in the case.

Singer has pleaded guilty. He has said he has worked with more than 750 families.

The Associated Press contributed.