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By Ezra Kaplan and David K. Li

BOSTON — A former Yale women's soccer coach pleaded guilty Thursday to taking bribes and helping applicants pretend to be athletes so they could gain special admission to the Ivy League school.

Rudolph "Rudy" Meredith, a key figure in the massive federal probe into alleged cheating in college admissions, admitted to charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud in an appearance before U.S. District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf.

Meredith — who wore a dark suit, blue shirt and dark striped tie to court — faces up to 20 years in prison, three years probation, and a fine of up to $250,000.

He is expected to get a lesser sentence in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors, but will still have to forfeit $866,000 of his ill-gotten earnings, authorities said.

During a marathon, two-hour hearing, prosecutors explained Meredith's role in the complex college-admissions scandal. Meredith showed little emotion, sat up straight in his chair and looked straight ahead for most of the hearing.

Judge Wolf questioned Meredith extensively, asking the defendant if he's sure about pleading guilty and cooperating with the government.

"I understand your honor," Meredith answered several times. "Yes, your honor."

The judge even took time to disclose that he's a 1968 Yale graduate and has donated to the school in the past. Lawyers on both sides did not find any problems or possible conflicts.

Meredith first came on the FBI's radar when an executive under investigation for securities fraud told authorities that Meredith offered to designate the executive’s daughter as a recruit in exchange for cash, a law enforcement official has said.

FBI agents set up a sting last year at a Boston hotel room where Meredith allegedly asked for $450,000 to help get a student into Yale by presenting the applicant as a recruited soccer player.

"It was his attempt to defraud Yale," Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen said. "It’s a clear bribe."

Meredith opened the door for FBI agents by leading them to Rick Singer, the consultant at the center of the scam. Singer is also cooperating with authorities.

Meredith resigned his post at Yale in November, months before indictments were unsealed, saying "it is time to explore new possibilities and begin a different chapter in my life."

The former coach and his lawyers had a police escort to leave the courthouse and get through a crush of reporters.

Defense lawyer Paul Thomas declined to discuss the case: "We only make our comments in court."

The Southern California-based Singer, officials said, ran an elaborate operation, catering to rich parents who paid for his help to slip their kids into elite universities.

The probe has led to the arrests of 50 people, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin.

Singer allegedly teamed up with coaches and other college officials to fake athletic credentials of these applicants, thus getting them special admission to schools such as Yale University, Stanford University and the University of Southern California.

Singer, who has already pleaded guilty to charges including racketeering conspiracy, also used adults to take college board tests for some children of his big-spending clients.

Several other defendants have pleaded not guilty, including former Georgetown University tennis coach Gordon Ernst, accused of getting $2.7 million in bribes to designate at least 12 applicants as recruits to the elite Jesuit school

The first of the parents accused of using Singer’s services are due in court Friday.

Kaplan reported from Boston and Li from New York City.