A FEW MONTHS EARLIER, THE LAKE Highlands High School Wildcats had completed another great year under head coach Mike Zoffuto, finishing second in the district with 11 wins and three losses. Four graduating seniors were top college prospects, and recruiters from Alabama and Baylor were scheduled to arrive on campus in the next few weeks. So it was a busy time tor Zoffuto, counseling his charges and juggling phone calls from college scouts. It wasn’t unusual to see him with a phone pressed to each ear.
But everything changed on April 25, 1995, when Principal Ron Matthews and two Richardson Independent School District officials entered Zoffuto’s office and hurriedly shooed several coaches out. Zoffuto, the school’s athletic director since 1987, watched in disbelief as the district administrators riffled through papers on his desk and searched his tote bag. A maintenance worker arrived and began changing the lock on the coach’s door.
The search was part of a five-month investigation by the R1SD into an array of allegations of misconduct against Zoffuto, including charges that he misappropriated athletic department funds and took kickbacks from vendors. RISD Superintendent Vernon Johnson suspended Zoffuto with pay, saying that there had been complaints that Zoffuto had threatened and intimidated coaches and teachers who were potential witnesses in the ongoing investigation.
Zoffuto’s suspension was the first official notice from the district of the allegations against him. To Zoffuto’s embarrassment, his suspension was the lead story on the evening news, He made headlines again the next day, April 26, when he filed a libel suit against Lake Highlands track coach and long-time adversary Buzz Andrews, accusing Andrews of spreading unfounded rumors that Zoffuto was a “thief and embezzler.”
Two weeks later, Johnson recommended to the RISD board of directors that Zoffuto’s contract be terminated immediately. In a letter given to the coach on May 11, Johnson said the coach “violated a number of the District’s policies and procedures.” The school district had found no evidence to substantiate the suspicion that Zoffuto had taken kickbacks. But Johnson wrote that Zoffuto had asked Athletic Supply, a sporting goods vendor, to create a “dummy” invoice in order to buy $700 worth of coaches’ clothes-items RISD Athletic Director Bob Stamps had previously declined to pay. The letter also charged that “Coach Z,” as many players called him, had paid a coaching supplement to someone who did not perform the work, failed to deposit money received from ticket sales from the 1993-94 Red and White spring scrimmage game, and was unable to account for all but $2,540 of the money taken in during that game. Zoffuto was also accused of violating district policies by selling insurance and making personal long-distance calls from his school office.
As his friends and colleagues expected he would, Zoffuto vowed to fight the termination. “I’m not the kind of guy to take a bullet here and a bullet there and fall to my knees,” Zoffuto says. “I mean, you would have had to fill me full erf holes before I was willing to go down.”
But on May 15, facing a cheering crowd of about 100 supporters, TV cameras, and reporters in the lobby of the RISD administration building on Greenville Avenue, Zoffuto announced his résignation. In exchange, the district agreed to provide Zoffuto, who had a year left on his contract, with three months’ severance and continue health insurance for his family. Both parties agreed not to talk publicly about Zoffuto’s termination. Zoffuto says he was also asked to drop the suit against Andrews, which he did. However, he would be back in court four months later, charging that school district officials had breached their agreement to keep quiet about the allegations and were conspiring with teachers to spread rumors about him.
During Zoffuto’s eight-year reign, the Wildcats won three district tides and made it to the state playoffs six years in a row. Named The Dallas Morning News high school Coach of the Year in 1989, Zoffuto was revered by parents and players. Lake Highlands community members were stunned that a popular and successful coach like Zoffuto could be fired.
This is a story about a high school coach who did what it took to win football games and school administrators and community members, who, pleased that the team was winning, were willing to look the other way while the victories piled up. It’s also the story of the ongoing rivalry between academics and athletics in a sports-mad school district. In the end, it seems, no one may have won.
IN TEXAS, FOOTBALL IS KING, AND IN THE SMALL, WELL-HEELED community of Lake Highlands, Wildcats football has been the centerpiece of family activity ever since Mike Zoffuto became head coach eight years ago, Lake Highlands is the only school in the RISD that regularly sells out its season tickets. “The community as a whole is just like a small town,” says Wildcat booster Bill Blaydes. “If you want to find somebody on a Friday night during the fall when the Wildcats are playing at home, you’ll find them at the stadium, It is the center of the community.”
Zoffuto’s termination devastated residents, Supporters flooded Vernon Johnson’s office with angry letters and phone calls. The Richardson Daily News and The Dallas Morning News carried editorials and letters to the editor written by Lake Highlanders outraged to lose a great coach. “Those of us who had been involved with the athletic program-and that is a very large number-were pretty well torn up by it,” says Blaydes.
Whatever Zoffuto had done, some supporters were willing to overlook it. “If indeed everything they said about Mike was true, no one seemed to care about the students,” says Freda Stout, a Lake Highlands resident who has helped Zoffuto find scholarships for some of his players. “We didn’t have a child molester. The timing seemed designed to hurt the children most.” Zoffuto says that several college football recruiters canceled appointments at Lake Highlands after they heard about the scandal.
But Zoffuto’s termination also divided the community, and both sides accuse the other of retaliation. Blaydes, who was quoted several times in the newspapers in support of Zoffuto, says teachers passed around a petition to prohibit Blaydes from participating as scheduled in that spring s graduation ceremonies. The day before graduation, he says, Principal Ron Matthews pulled him from the program-his name was already printed in the brochure-explaining that teachers didn’t want him there because of his support for Zoffuto. Matthews declined to comment for this story.
While many of the Lake Highlands parents adored the brash, plain-talking coach, Zoffuto alienated many of the school’s teachers early on. ” I just want to tell you one thing, ” Zoffuto confided to tennis coach David Wood when they first met. “Never trust a teacher, they’ll stab you in the back any opportunity they can get. ” Wood, also an English teacher, was dumbfounded. Wood doesn’t think Zoffuto realized at the time that he was a teacher. “He did not respect teachers. He thought we were pointy-head intellectuals,” he says.
It was clear that Zoffuto s poor relationship with the teachers played a part in the district’s decision to fire him. “Although you have established a good rapport and an effective working relationship with many parents, students, and the community,” Vernon Johnson wrote in the May 11 letter to Zoffuto outlining the allegations against him, “you have not established effective working relations with many of your colleagues and you are perceived by other [Lake Highlands] educators as lacking integrity in your handling of the LHHS football program. “
The way Zoffuto sees it, teachers disliked him because they were jealous of his success and popularity. “Teachers complained they never got enough recognition for what happened in this community,” he says. “You go out and take your English class and put it out in front of 12,000 people in Wildcat Stadium, and maybe people will recognize what you do. See, my work was on the line every Friday night. People aren’t going to pay five bucks a head to watch them teach an English class.”
On August 31, Mike and Marcie Zoffuto filed suit in state District Court against the RISD and nine other teachers, administrators, and coaches, including Buzz Andrews and David Wood. In the suit, the Zoffutos, who are seeking between $2 million and $20 million in actual and punitive damages, claim the group conspired to defame them by spreading rumors that Mike was a “thief and embezzler.” The suit, which alleges breach of contract and intent to inflict emotional damage, stemmed in part from Zoffuto’s allegation that the school district released the May 11 letter to the news media.
Johnson called Zoffuto’s suit “completely unfounded,’1 saying the district will “vigorously defend itself-and I emphasize vigorously.”
Marcie Zoffuto, who learned in March that her contract with the district would also not be renewed, is suing for discrimination, saying her former boss, Lake Highlands Junior High band director Billie Nero, wanted her fired and harassed her because she bad breast cancer. Marcie, who underwent a mastectomy two years ago (her cancer is now in remission), told D Magazine that Nero said she “hated” Mike Zoffuto. Marcie believes Nero wanted both Zoffutos out of the district. Attorney Tim Sorenson, a Lake Highlands resident who has taken the Zoffuto case on contingency, believes the couple was run out by a cabal of jealous teachers and coaches, all friends of each other, who viewed the couple’s popularity as a threat.
Others, however, say the coach caused his own downfall. “Mike Zoffuto was a person who liked to push things to the edge,” says Bob Stamps, who after six years as RISD athletic director, retired in June. “We’ve all crossed the line once or twice,” Zoffuto says. “To be a good leader, you’ve got to live on the edge, stick your neck out,”
ON A RECENT SATURDAY AFTERNOON, MlKE ZOFFUTO, dressed in shorts, a Fellowship of Christian Athletes T-shirt, and a baseball hat, sorts through dozens of letters of support and old press clippings spread out on a coffee table. The couple’s three daughters, Megan, 9; Anne Marie, 13; and Kristen, 16, stream in and out, Six-year-old Mac is visiting a friend.
The phone rings constantly. For the last three months, the Zoffutos have talked of little else with friends and supporters other than Mike’s termination. They’ve sunk roots into Lake Highlands; Marcie, 46, recalls that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer two summers before, neighbors rallied to help them, cooking meals and driving the kids to school and activities. When a wealthy football booster offered to rent them his $178,000 house with a pool, neighbors surprised them by packing up their belongings, moving them in, and unpacking everything. “After what the community did for us,” Mike says, “we decided Lake Highlands was the best place we could possibly be.”
With her mastectomy, chemotherapy, and months of radiation treatments behind her, Marcie has a new job as assistant band director in a Garland junior high school, but Mike, who says he turned down at least five coaching offers with other school districts in the last few years, says he can’t even get a phone call returned. He’s selling insurance and has been hired as color commentator for KGBS, a Dallas radio station that broadcasts Lake Highlands High School football games.
Ever since Mike Zoffuto can remember, football has been the center of his life. “You have to understand, I was on the sidelines since I could walk,” Zoffuto, 49, says intensely.
Zoffuto hung out on the sidelines at age 5 with his father, a high school football coach in Pennsylvania. He played ball at West Texas State University, where he met Marcie. At 6 feet 2 inches and 230 pounds, Zoffuto thought he was too small to play professional ball, but the San Diego Chargers drafted him as a center. “No one could snap the ball like 1 could,” he says. Injuries hobbled him before his first season, and he never got to play.
In 1969, the year he and Marcie were married, Zoffuto entered into active duty with the Marines hoping to be sent to Vietnam. But the war was waning and his superiors told him he was more valuable on the Marine football team at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, Zoffuto made a deal. He agreed to play for the team if they would promise to send him to Vietnam, and in February 1970, Zoffuto received orders to go. Three years and two purple hearts later, Zoffuto returned to the States to do what he seemed predestined to do: coach high school football.
As a coach, Zoffuto earned a reputation for turning losing teams into winning ones. “If they had a losing record, that’s where I wanted to go,” he says. So it was only natural that Zoffuto had his eye on what some Dallas-area coaches considered a hopeless cause: die Lake Highlands High School Wildcats football team. In 1987, the Wildcats, who hadn’t had a winning season in five years, had some of the smallest players in the district, earning the team the nickname “smurf patrol.”
Zoffuto says the screening committee told him he had his work cut out for him. “They asked me to clean the kids up, get the hair out of their eyes, make them look like athletes-die community wants a clean team,” remembers Zoffuto, who told them they’d have to let him do it in his own style. ’Tin going to warn you that Tin going to piss a lot of people off,” he told them.
In military style, the former Marine platoon commander and Eagle Scout whipped his scruffy crew into shape. He ordered the players to cut their hair, remove their earrings, and answer him with an enthusiastic “Yes sir! ” when he addressed them. He started an afternoon study hall for football players and enforced 9 o’clock Thursday night curfews. Despite Zoffuto’s strict requirements, Wildcat ranks swelled from 35 players in 1987 to almost 180 players in 1995-making the Wildcats one of the biggest teams in District 11 5A.
Zoffuto also had a knack forgetting parents involved. “My parents ran my football program,” Zoffuto says. “They were the key to my success.” Zoffuto demanded the parents think big when it came to fund raising. The treasury of the Wildcats Booster Club, which had about $ 10,000 in it when Zoffuto arrived, exploded to $50,000 within a few years, the funds raised mostly through sales of a huge inventory of souvenirs with the Wildcats logo on them. “It was incredible-they bought watches, hats, stationery, clipboards, footballs, umbrellas, earrings. I never saw another school do it like that,” says Jay McMahon, former salesman with Athletic Supply whose clients included schools in the RISD.
“Mike always wanted to do things first class,” remembers Allen Holladay, athletic director at RISD until 1989. While other schools in the district provided players with two sets of uniforms, the Lake Highlands Wildcats had four:
When it came to his players, Zoffuto didn’t hesitate to bend University Interscholastic League rules. Nothing was too good for his kids. Those who couldn’t afford to buy $300 shoulder pads still got them, says Zoffuto, by means of a fund set up by an anonymous group of wealthy parents. According to the UIL, a government agency that regulates high school sports in Texas, players cannot receive goods for free unless they turn them in at the end of the year, but one Lake Highlands coach says that “none of that free equipment ever got turned m,” and Zoffuto admits that returning the donated goods was not on his list of priorities. ” Everything I did was for the kids. Anybody who knows me knows I did it for the kids, not for Mike Zoffuto.”
That wasn’t the only case in which Zoffuto seemed to flout the rules. Every Friday at 4 p.m. before a game, Zoffuto marched the Wildcats, dressed in black polo shirts and jeans, in single file across the street to North Highlands Bible Church for a 15 minute service arranged by a booster parent. The services usually included passages from the Bible read by a pastor or layman. Former Miami Dolphins player Lyle Blackwood joined the group several times, Zoffuto says, and read his own selections from the Bible. “Since 1978, I never missed a Friday without that first 10 to 15 minutes of chapel,” says Zoffuto. “People loved it. The parents loved it, the kids loved it.”
Zoffuto says the worship was voluntary and that no one felt pressured to attend. “The kids were told this is what I’m going to do, this is my procedure on Fridays,” he says. “If you want to come, come on. I’ve never had a kid since 1978 say he didn’t want to do it.”
A former teacher at Lake Highlands says that every season, football players in his class brought up the Friday afternoon services. “It always came up in my class when I [taught] freedom of religion. When other kids would ask if they were forced to go, they’d go ’no, but if we don’t go, we don’t play’ ” He says the players also felt they bad a better chance of becoming starters if they went. The RISD eventually stopped allowing Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings at the school, says the teacher, but Coach Z’s Friday afternoon rituals continued. David Wood says he complained about the possible violation of district policy to Principal Charles Maples and later to Principal Ron Matthews, but nothing was ever done about it. RISD Superintendent Vernon Johnson declined comment on the matter, saving the matter was in the past. ALLEGATIONS THAT ZOFFUTO HAD RE-cruited players from other schools- a blatant UIL violation if true- began almost as soon as he left Red Oak High School, where he had been head football coach. A year into his job as athletic director at Lake Highlands, an anonymous letter, written on Red Oak High School stationery, arrived at the UIL. It accused Zoffuto of phoning a football player at the school twice in November 1987. The UIL has specific eligibility requirements that prevent coaches from recruiting players and prohibit players from moving into another school district for athletic reasons. In January 1988, the student, whose name was redacted from the letter, withdrew from Red Oak and enrolled at Lake Highlands. UIL officials asked Allen Holladay to investigate. Holladay, who retired from the district six years ago, says he couldn’t prove that Zoffuto had done anything wrong.
“I felt like Mike was an outstanding coach,” he says. “The only thing that bothered me was the animosity between coaches in the school district and Mike. There was not a real camaraderie.”
The fact that Zoffuto had a winning football team may have played some role in the other coaches’ animosity toward Zoffuto, but Holladay says much of it stemmed from the accusations that Zoffuto had committed the cardinal sin of recruiting kids from other schools. As it turned out, nothing ever came of the allegations. “Mike had his side of the story, and they had their side,” Holladay says.
A trick play in 1992 further damaged Zoffuto s reputation with some of his peers, Defensive lineman Corey McLane ran 63 yards to score a touchdown against Richardson High School after switching to a jersey with another number on it. Richardson Coach Winston Duke, reportedly furious over the switch, filed a complaint with the UIL, which declined to investigate. “There wasn’t any tear,” says a Lake Highlands coach who was at die game. “It was a pre-planned thing. They had worked on it.”
Zoffuto still maintains, however, that McLane switched his jersey only because it had ripped. “Mike started to believe his own stories,” says a retired Lake Highlands coach. “I think winning football games became the most important thing.”
Six years ago, two teachers complained to Principal Maples that Zoffuto had tried to pressure them in separate incidents into changing a football player’s grades, One teacher says that Zoffuto played “little mind games” with him, “He told me, ’If you fail the kid, he’ll drop out of school and get into drugs and probably end up in prison. But if you can live with that, go ahead and give him a failing grade.’ “
According to the teacher, Maples assured him that Zoffuto would cease putting pressure on the faculty and said that he had ordered Zoffuto to apologize for the incident at a faculty meeting. Three teachers, including David Wood, told me they attended the meeting. “I have one apology,” Zoffuto told the assembled group. “I apologize for loving kids.” The non-apology infuriated teachers who had expected Zoffuto to exhibit at least some sense of repentance.
Reached at home, Maples, who is retired, says he doesn’t recall asking Zoffuto to apologize to the faculty and does not recall any teachers complaining about Zoffuto pressuring them to change grades. Zoffuto also says he does not recall ever being asked to apologize for the incidents, but acknowledges some teachers at times may have misconstrued his concerns for players’ grades as pressure.
Teachers, fed up with what they saw as Zoffuto’s strong-arm tactics to win games at any cost, turned against the coach. The final blow, says Wood, came in 1990 when Zoffuto was quoted in The Dallas Morning News criticizing teachers for failing seven of his football players, making them ineligible to play for six weeks. Zoffuto says he was misquoted in the article and did not actually say that the students would end up on drugs and in gangs if they could not play football, but teachers refused to believe him.
Some teachers were infuriated when Mike Zoffuto got national attention last season for the animated commentary he and two other amateur sportscasters gave during the telecast of a game between Piano East and Tyler John Tyler high schools. In the game’s final seconds. Piano East came from far behind and pulled ahead of Tyler, but Tyler reclaimed the lead in the last moment when a player ran 97 yards for a touchdown to win the game. “God bless those kids!” Zoffuto hollered into the microphone. “I’m sick. I want to throw up.” Wire services picked up the off-the-cuff comments and re-broadcast them on news stations all over the country that night. The comments caught the attention of Jay Leno, who invited Zoffuto and his fellow commentators to appear on “The Tonight Show.” Zoffuto declined, but his colleagues took Leno up on the offer. Zoffuto says the uninvited attention just seemed to make other coaches more jealous of him.
Like other athletic directors in the district, Zoffuto did not teach a class, a fact that led some people to believe, erroneously, that he did not have a Texas teaching certificate. Some coaches resented the fact they had to teach and Zoffuto didn’t. “I’m in the classroom rive times a day and he’s sitting down there, teaches no classes, and can get in his car and go anywhere he wants, anytime he wants,” says one coach. “We could never find him. He was supposed to be there to sign forms and to do this and do that, but we continually had to slide stuff under the door and get it two or three days later. We couldn’t do our jobs as a whole because we couldn’t find him.”
When he was in his office, the coach says, Zoffuto was often selling insurance. “I’d sit in his office and wait on him to sign a paper and he’d have all that mutual fund crap on his desk talking that talk, and I’d just get up and leave.”
In all, Bob Stamps figures he investigated more than 30 complaints against Zoffuto over the six years he was RISD athletic director. The UIL had two complaints regarding the Lake Highlands football program on record. A June 1994 complaint involved allegations that football coaches were receiving stipends from the Lake Highlands Wildcat Booster Club. The allegation was referred to Stamps, who closed the file with no finding of wrongdoing. In October 1994, the State Executive Committee of the UIL ruled one of Zoffuto s players had transferred from Berkner High School to the Lake Highlands school district for athletic reasons-a UIL violation-and he was declared ineligible to play But minutes from the committee meeting show that it did not implicate Zoffuto in the matter. The booster club was also accused anonymously last year of financial mismanagement. An RISD audit found no problems.
NO COACH DISLIKED ZOFFUTO MORE than Buz2 Andrews, whom Zoffuto had hired from J J, Pearce in 1987 as assistant football coach. Trouble between the two started immediately. “He was a constant thorn in my side,” says Zoffuto. “He wouldn’t work with me.” Alter a tumultuous two years, Zoffuto says he recommended to the district that Andrews, who declined to be interviewed for this story, be replaced as a football coach. Andrews became head track coach, but the change didn’t do much to help them get along. “They had an awful working relationship,” says Bill Blaydes. “They got into arguments constantly,” clashing because Zoffuto wanted certain kids in spring football training and Andrews wanted them to run track. “They went at it hammer and tong,” says David Wood.
Over the next five years, Andrews’ track team won three state championships and he earned a reputation as being one of the state’s best high school coaches, says Bob Stamps. Zoffuto, who claims Andrews had told him he wanted his job as athletic director, believed for years that Andrews was the source of constant anonymous allegations against him and his football program.
Stamps says many of the allegations about player eligibility did in fact stem from Buzz Andrews, who also complained bitterly that Zoffuto’s habit of scheduling players for summer football workout schedules-a UIL violation if true-threatened to destroy the track program. Stamps interviewed parents and players, but says he found “absolutely nothing. Everybody we talked to from the kids to the coaches, everybody whitewashed the whole situation,” assuring him that the kids were working out voluntarily. Stamps says there was always enough smoke to believe there was a fire. “1 could just never prove it,” he says, because players would not talk to him and Buzz Andrews insisted on remaining “off the record.” Without corroboration, the allegations against Zoffuto wouldn’t stick. There would come a time, Stamps told Andrews, that he would finally have to put his name behind the allegations.
EVEN THOSE WHO DISLIKE MIKE ZOFFUTO admit that he exudes success. “The only thing I can compare him to is a TV evangelist,” says another teacher, “He has such charisma and presence and motivational ability that he can convince people they are winners,” Zoffuto’s strategy for motivating his players has been the same throughout his career, he says, and has always included controversial tactics like the pre-game prayer meeting. “I’ve always been blessed with a school that has a church right across the street,” Zoffuto says. After the prayers, he marches players to the fieldhouse, where they lie down on cots and listen to George C. Scott’s inspirational speech from Patton, where the general tells his troops to make “the other poor bastard-the enemy-die for his country. ” Zoffuto says his players can recite the speech tram memory.
“He got kids to do things physically on the field that not many people have the ability to do,” says Bill Blaydes. “But he didn’t just leave it on the field. He has spent hours with ever)’ color kid you can think of coming out of this program.”
Jaunapha Gibson, 17, says he’d still be in a gang if it hadn’t been for Zoffutos intervention. “He was the father I was always looking for,” says Gibson, who still eats dinner regularly with the Zoffutos. Gibson, a senior, is now die number 26 running back in the state and a blue-chip recruit who has already gotten more than 200lett ers from colleges all over the country. “I can almost take my pick,” he says. “I could tell [Zoffuto] as many times as I wanted to how much his help has meant to me and I don’t think he’d really know.” Gibson says Zoffuto was able to help kids because he refused to cut anybody from the football team. “Coach Z didn’t believe in Cutting anybody,” Gibson says. “If you came out for the team, you were on it. You may not have gotten to play, but you were part of (be team. If he’d cut them, maybe they’d have gone to a bad crowd.”
MARCH ZOFFUTO LEARNED ABOUT the cancerous lump in her left breast in July 1993, the day before she interviewed for a job as assistant band director at Lake Highlands junior High School. In the interview with an RISD screening committee and band director Billie Nero, Marcie says Nero assured her she would cover for her classes so she could go to chemotherapy. But alter the first treatment in August, Marcie says, Nero announced that she would no longer cover for her and began a campaign of harassment to get her fired. Marcie requested and got a transfer to another junior high school when the harassment didn’t stop, but says Nero began harassing her daughter, Anne Marie, who was in the band program at Lake Highlands Junior High.
The Zoffutos say they complained to Nero, but when nothing was done, they and 17 other parents met formally with Principal Randy Reid on January 25 to complain about Nero’s treatment of their children. In a memo to Nero, Reid outlined the parents’ concerns. “A consistent theme among the complaints was the use of humiliation and intimidation tactics by you toward your students,” Reid wrote in pan, “…under no circumstances will humiliation and intimidation be tolerated…”
The Zoffutos contend it was after this meeting with Reid that Nero began trying to slander them, joining forces with friends Buzz Andrews and Jay Higgins in an attempt to get the couple fired from the district. Nero did not return calls from D Magazine.
Mike Zoffuto says it was after the January meeting that a parent told him that Buzz Andrews had suggested that Zoffuto was taking kickbacks. When Zoffuto confronted Andrews with what he’d heard, Zoffuto says Andrews threatened to destroy his coaching career and the whole athletic department. Zoffuto says he told Lake Highlands High School Principal Ron Matthews about the accusations and that Matthews ordered Andrews to stop spreading rumors or be fired.
David Wright, a 19-year-old Lake Highlands graduate and delivery boy for Athletic Supply, says he heard questions about alleged kickbacks as early as November. He says Jay Higgins stopped him numerous times in the hallways at Lake Highlands as he made deliveries, asking if Zoffuto was receiving kickbacks from Athletic Supply salesman Jay McMahon, an old friend of Zoffuto. “[Higgins] said, ’I’m trying to get information together about it,’ ” remembers Wright, who told Higgins he didn’t know anything.
David Wright says Higgins continued in December and January to pull him aside when he was at school making deliveries, asking if he’d “seen or heard anything” either about kickbacks or about Zoffuto creating “dummy” purchase orders to get equipment that the district would not pay for. Wright says he told McMahon, who told Zoffuto about Higgins’ inquiries. Once, Wright says, Buzz Andrews stopped him and asked him about the suspected kickbacks, saying that he, Higgins, and other teachers were trying to get Zoffuto fired “because over all these years, Coach Z had favoritism for football and wasn’t right for the job” of athletic director.
A source close to the Zoffuto investigation says Andrews claims Wright approached Andrews first, upset about things he had overheard or seen between Jay McMahon and Zoffuto while at Athletic Supply, including “dummy” purchase orders the two created.
Sometime in late January, a Lake Highlands High English teacher met with Superintendent Johnson about a laundry list of rumors about Mike Zoffuto, says Bob Stamps. Johnson asked her to put her concerns in writing, which she did. Assistant Area Superintendent Jerry Miller gave Stamps a copy of the teacher’s handwritten complaint, which mentioned the rumors that Zoffuto and McMahon had created dummy purchase orders.
The letter also suggested they talk to Buzz Andrews, who, according to David Wright, had been trying for months to get information from Wright to use against Zoffuto. Stamps did talk to Andrews, who confirmed the teacher’s allegations and told him David Wright could corroborate allegations concerning the purchase orders, Stamps says.
Andrews later presented the district with a taped conversation among him and Wright and Jay Higgins, during which Andrews asks Wright several questions, including whether Andrews had ever tried to talk to Wright about any allegation against Zoffuto before the tape was made April 9. Wright assured him he hadn’t. Andrews also asked Wright to describe dummy purchase orders, which he did, saying he had seen Zoffuto and McMahon make them. Wright now claims the tape, a copy of which D Magazine obtained, has been edited to take his comments out of context.
He says that at the time, he did not know what a dummy purchase order was, but was merely repeating what Andrews had suggested it might be. Stamps told Andrews that this time, he would have to put his name behind the allegations he made against Zoffuto.
On February 3, Stamps met with Miller and district auditor Tony Harkleroad and told them he thought Andrews had made enough allegations to warrant more investigating. But later that week, Stamps was surprised to learn of a new development when Vernon Johnson told him neither he nor Miller would be included in the investigation, which was to be bandied by the personnel department. “I was very much stunned at that point, because 1 had been doing all the athletic investigations,” during his tenure as athletic director, Stamps says.
More than a dozen teachers and coaches, including Buzz Andrews, were called to the RISD Greenville Avenue headquarters to provide information about Zoffuto s conduct. Zoffuto says he met with district officials several times after he was suspended on April 25, addressing questions the district had about a dummy purchase order, kickbacks, making personal phone calls, and selling insurance on school time, as well as [he old issues of player eligibility and pressuring teachers to change players’ grades. Zoffuto says he was never led to believe that his job was on the line.
On the morning of May 11, Zoffuto woke up believing that he would be exonerated. “I thought I’d meet with the district and get a hand-slap. They’d put me on probation and tell me never to do it again,” Zoffuto says. But a phone call from Principal Ron Matthews that morning made it clear that the tone had changed. “Things are bad,” Matthews told Zoffuto. “There is nothing I can do.”
Zoffuto knew then he had been fired.
THE RISD LISTED FIVE ALLEGA-tions against the coach in its May 11 termination letter to Zoffuto. One of the allegations claimed that he made personal long-distance calls from his office phone. Although the RISD provided D Magazine with two years’ worth of calls placed from several phones at Lake Highlands High, including Zoffuto’s, there is no indication which, if any, calls the district considered improper. Superintendent Johnson declined to say how many personal calls Zoffuto is alleged to have made.
Zoffuto’s termination letter is equally vague about the matter, stating only that the calls did “not appear to be related to district business. You have acknowledged some of the long-distance calls as being personal in nature and you admitted that you had never reimbursed the District for the charges.”
The letter also stated that administrators found “a multitude of materials” at Zoffuto’s office including “promotional literature for insurance, investment, and financial planning products; software programs for financial planning and investment; numerous loose-leaf ring binders (of the type provided by RISD1 reflecting business between you and RISD employees…employees have observed you conducting your personal business activities during the workday.”
Zoffuto says he earned only $2,600 last year from the insurance business and that most of it was residuals from sales the years before. Zoffuto says the district singled him out for making money on the side while other teachers, he claims, sold Mary Kay cosmetics or arts and crafts from school to earn extra money.
The district also wanted to know what happened to money Zoffuto collected from the spring 1994 Red and White scrimmage game, an annua! football program fund-raiser. Zoffuto says he paid game workers cash, then placed the rest of the money in a sack and put it in the trunk of his car. Zoffuto claims he collected $2,500 in ticket sales for the game and later paid out $2,545 cash in expenses. Zoffuto provided the district in May with invoices from Kent Ackeman, a football booster who owns a company that maintains athletic fields, whom he says he paid $1,390 in cash from the spring game to refurbish the baseball field. Ackeman acknowledges receiving that much cash from Zoffuto, which he says he used to defray the total cost-about S3,425-of refurbishing the Held. Zoffuto paid SI,135 to cover game expenses, including ticket takers, security personnel, and Athletic Supply for jerseys. “I was told by my principal and by the athletic director that this was my money to use how I wanted for the program,” says Zoffuto, “I did that.”
The cash payments violated district policy, but it was also the way that some other coaches, including baseball coach Jay Higgins, handled money from their fund-raising games. Higgins told D Magazine that he paid costs of the annual marathon baseball game with cash first; then, if any money was left over, he deposited the balance. RISD records show that Higgins deposited money from marathon fund-raisers for the last five years.
Zoffuto seems to have handled the Red and White game money the same way that prior Lake Highlands athletic directors had done. The district could not produce any record of ticket receipts for the last 20 years of Red and White games, no record that prior athletic directors had deposited any money from the game, and no record of how the proceeds might have been spent. Administrators did not question die process until last spring when employees went to the school district with complaints.
Outside of Zoffuto, no one, including the district, can say how much revenue the cames’ ticket sales generated because nothing was documented. In his May 11th termination letter to Zoffuto, Johnson admits that the district is “unable to determine the exact amount of money that was received from the game.”
Rita Greenfield collected tickets at the game and says she has no idea how much money came in or how many tickets were sold. “There’s no way to know that,” she says. “No one counted it.”
Zoffuto says he is sorry in retrospect that he did not keep receipts, but he doesn’t feel that he handled the money irresponsibly. “My lawyer tells me it doesn’t matter if you stole $10,000 from them,” Zoffuto says. “They have no proof because they have no gross receipts. They could never prove I stole money from them. You know whose fault that is? It s the school district’s. They’re pissed off because they screwed up, not Mike Zoffuto.”
Another allegation focused on one purchase order written on Aug. 9, 1994, for coaches” clothing purchased from Athletic Supply. Zoffuto had placed the order along with orders for hundreds of dollars worth of football equipment. McMahon says he immediately phoned in the order with the manufacturer, then faxed the customer order to RISD’s Bob Stamps so that a district purchase order could be generated. McMahon says Stamps faxed the order back about a week later with the coaches’ clothing scratched out. By then, Zoffuto says, the coaches had been wearing the clothing. McMahon says he and Zoffuto decided to create a second order, this time showing $700 worth of shoulder pads, practice pants, and helmets were being ordered so that Athletic Supply could get paid. The equipment, Zoffuto says, had already been ordered anyway, but they had planned to pay for it out of the Booster Club account.
“Nobody thought it would be brought up again,” says McMahon. “With any school I call on there are things that go on like that all the time,” he says. “But it was always for the athletic programs. I never had a coach say I want to buy a pair of warm-ups for my wife. “
Eventually, the district stopped pursuing allegations of kickbacks against Zoffuto and McMahon, and McMahon says R1SD auditor Tony Harkleroad assured him that he and the company had been cleared.
Superintendent Johnson has refused to discuss details of the investigation since Zoffuto’s termination in May. but defended the way it was conducted. “This was not a slipshod operation,” he says. “If you read the documents used in the investigation, you will see we had extremely good grounds,” to terminate Zoffuto.
But the RISD has released only a handful of documents used in Zoffuto’s investigation; hundreds of others documents that might shed light on the investigation remain closed. The R1SD, citing privacy concerns of those who provided information to die district, has aggressively fought attempts from the media to obtain those documents. In July, The Dallas Morning News filed suit against die RISD to obtain the documents. A Dallas County District Court ordered the RISD to release Zoffuto’s termination letter and several other documents, including phone records and purchase orders from Athletic Supply. The state Attorney General’s office is currently reviewing the remaining documents and a ruling on whether the RISD must release any documents is not expected for several months. Zoffuto says the documents will prove the district doesn’t have the case against him that it claims.
ON MAY 15, IN THE MIDDLE OF SPRING practice, Mike Zoffuto called the Wildcats into the fieldhouse and told them he had resigned. “Everything I did was for the program,” Zoffuto told them. “I did nothing that would embarrass you.”
Zoffuto, who wanted to retire after the Wildcats won 100 games under his direction, had a dream. He pictured himself an old man in a wheelchair, rolling himself out on the field to watch his players’ own kids continue the winning legacy he’d started. The band would be playing, the cheerleaders would be jumping up and down, the crowd would be cheering. A group of clean-cut young men would gather around to rub his bald head for luck. They’d say: “Here’s the old coach that started all this.”
Zoffuto looks around, imagining the scene in his mind. “What a dream that was.”