Lawsuits, secret taping and the unraveling of a powerhouse high school football program

  • Senior college football writer
  • Author of seven books on college football
  • Graduate of the University of Georgia

ASHBURN, Ga. — Two weeks ago, Michael “Nub” Nelson climbed out of his Toyota Corolla in a parking lot off Interstate 75 and approached.

Nelson, the 65-year-old former executive director of the Valdosta Touchdown Club, smiled and said, “Hey, I’m Nub. Shake my nub!”

Nelson turned to a rather imposing assistant coach from a nearby high school who had followed him there in an SUV to ensure his safety.

“You good?” the man asked.

“Yeah, I’m good,” Nelson replied.

Nelson knows he can’t be too careful after he sparked a small-town tempest in the high school football hotbed of Valdosta, a city of more than 56,000 residents located about 15 miles north of the Florida state line and home to the 24-time state-champion Wildcats.

What Nelson did last May might very well end the career of Rush Propst, one of the most controversial and successful high school football coaches in the country, while also exposing salacious allegations regarding recruiting at SEC superpowers Alabama and Georgia. After a recorded meeting between Nelson and Propst was posted to YouTube earlier this month, Valdosta placed Propst, its coach, on administrative leave.

It became the highest-profile development in a 15-month saga of small-town, big-time high school football featuring a controversial firing (and subsequent discrimination lawsuit), Propst’s even more controversial hire, a battle over Touchdown Club finances, the addition and then loss of an elite transfer quarterback from California, and the launching of an investigation by the Georgia High School Association.

That’s why earlier that morning, Nelson abruptly changed the rendezvous place for an interview with this reporter from Valdosta to Ashburn, about 70 miles north, out of fears that he might be recognized.

“I think the town is split about what I did,” Nelson said. “About half of the people are glad I did it, and about half are mad at me. I think most of them know I was only trying to do the right thing.”

When Nelson secretly recorded a conversation in Propst’s office nearly a year ago in which the coach unexpectedly suggested that the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruits, he had no idea of the far-reaching ramifications his decision would have.

“I don’t know why,” Nelson said. “I’d never recorded anyone in my life.”

We’d get to the controversy over lunch at a chicken fingers restaurant, but first, Nelson wanted to explain how he gained the moniker that has followed him for much of his life.

When first contacted earlier this month, Nelson seemed to be an unwilling participant in the red-hot controversy. In fact, he seemed downright irritated that yet another reporter was on the other end of his phone.

“I don’t really want to talk about that, OK?” Nelson said. “I don’t want to go back there again. So many of you guys are calling me from all over the damn place. I’m in here with one arm trying to fry some chicken.”

To this reporter calling to ask him about the secret recordings he made, it sounded like a classic south Georgia euphemism.

After a few more questions about the recordings, Nelson pleaded that he’d had enough.

“Really,” he said. “I do have one arm, and I am frying chicken right now. Can you call me back?”

Nelson said the accident happened when he was just 13 years old. He was trying to cross a road while riding a horse and failed to see a pickup truck approaching. Nelson nearly died, losing his right arm below the elbow, breaking his left arm and suffering internal injuries. He spent three months in the hospital.

Nelson graduated from Valdosta High School in 1973, and like the rest of the town, he loves its high school football teams. Since his senior year, Nelson estimates he has missed only five Wildcats football games in 47 seasons, including one for a wedding and another after his father died.

“I don’t miss a game for funerals, normally,” said Nelson, a retired commercial painter. “But since that was my dad, I figured I better go. Most of the time, I figure they can wait. They’re dead, after all.”

Nelson isn’t the only fanatical football fan in Valdosta. The Wildcats are one of the winningest high school football programs in the country with 939 all-time victories. Michigan is the only college football team that has more wins (964).

“We’ve had a lot of good times,” Nelson said. “I grew up seeing a lot of great football teams. It just gets in your blood. It brings everybody together. When you win a state championship, everybody feels good.”

The Valdosta Touchdown Club’s website boasts of the Wildcats winning six national championships, 24 state titles and 42 region championships. Much of Valdosta High’s success came before the end of the 20th century. The Wildcats won four state championships in the 1980s and three more in the 1990s. After an 18-year drought, the Wildcats finally claimed another one in Alan Rodemaker’s first season as head coach in 2016.

That’s what made the Valdosta Board of Education’s decision not to renew Rodemaker’s contract in January 2020 so surprising. His teams went 36-17 in four seasons. His last team went 10-3 and made a second straight appearance in the Class 6A state quarterfinals in 2019. His teams’ nine postseason victories between 2016 and 2019 were the most in a four-year stretch at Valdosta High since 1995 to 1998.

“It was a total surprise,” Rodemaker told ESPN. “I got a text from my superintendent at 9:30 at night saying, ‘Unfortunately, your contract was not renewed. Come see me in the morning.’ That was shocking, to say the least.”

In April 2020, Rodemaker, who is white, sued the five Black members of the Valdosta Board of Education who voted not to renew his contract. His complaint alleges they had “intentionally discriminated against [Rodemaker] by conspiring and voting to non-renew Coach Rodemaker on the basis of his race.” The four board members who voted to keep him were white. The superintendent of Valdosta City Schools and the Valdosta High principal had recommended his contract be renewed, Rodemaker said.

In the complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, Rodemaker’s attorneys alleged the “goal of the African-American majority of the Board in non-renewing Coach Rodemaker was simply to replace a white coach with an African-American coach.” The attorneys accused the defendants of holding meetings in violation of the state’s open meetings act that “were not only improper, but probably illegal.”

In December, U.S. District Court Judge Hugh Lawson denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint. In the ruling, Lawson wrote that “the Court finds that his remaining allegations are sufficient to nudge his race discrimination claim ‘across the line from conceivable to plausible.'”

The defendants have appealed the ruling. Rodemaker’s wife, Leah, also sued the individual board members, the Valdosta Board of Education and the Valdosta City School District in a separate federal lawsuit, citing many of the same allegations. The couple also filed two lawsuits against the board members and others in state court. On March 3, the board rejected a proposed financial settlement to end the cases by a 4-3 vote.

Tom Joyce, an attorney representing the school district and the Black board members who were sued by the Rodemakers, noted that Alan Rodemaker was offered a teaching contract for the 2020-21 school year but declined the position.

On April 14, 2020, the same five Black board members who voted not to renew Rodemaker’s contract voted to hire Propst, who is white. The vote was again 5-4, split along racial lines. Propst was hired after other candidates, including Black coaches, declined interest in the job, according to Nelson.

Joyce said that 10 of the 12 candidates who were considered to replace Rodemaker were white and that each of the defendants named in the lawsuit voted to replace him with a coach who is white.

“Many believed that the program was not going in the right direction under Mr. Rodemaker,” Joyce said in a statement to ESPN. “In this regard, Valdosta High had lost games by large margins to its biggest rivals, including cross-town rival Lowndes County High School. Some believed that Mr. Rodemaker was not the one to bring Valdosta High back to its sustained greatness. The facts show that the decision not to ask Mr. Rodemaker back as head coach was not in any way associated with race. It was simply a time for a change of direction.”

The hiring of Propst resulted in a 7-5 season and a Class 6A semifinal loss to Buford in the Georgia playoffs on the field, but with it came a host of discomfiting issues.

“I’m just disappointed we’re where we are right now,” said former Valdosta High quarterback Buck Belue, a longtime sports talk radio host in Atlanta. “It’s the first time I’m a little embarrassed. I’m asked about it a lot. It’s not something you’re proud of.”

“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Valdosta Mayor Scott Matheson added. “It’s a source of pride for this town, so any time it’s tainted, we all suffer a little bit. We’d like to get a stable coaching situation in there as quickly as we can. For some of those kids, it’s their avenue out, so we want somebody in there to inspire and to be a leader and a mentor. Hopefully, this rectifies itself pretty soon.”

Controversy coupled with success has defined the career of 63-year-old Propst as he became one of the winningest high school football coaches in the country. At Hoover (Ala.) High School, his teams won five state championships in nine seasons. At Colquitt County (Ga.) High School, his teams won 119 games in 11 seasons, including consecutive undefeated seasons and state titles in 2014 and 2015.

Despite his teams’ on-field success, he was forced to resign at Hoover and was fired at Colquitt. Propst announced his resignation from Hoover High in October 2007, effective at the end of the season, after an investigation alleged improprieties in his program and concluded that he had quietly supported a second family in another town. Propst, who was married with children at the time, eventually divorced his wife and married the woman with whom he shared his secret life.

In March 2019, Propst was fired at Colquitt County High after a school board investigation alleged he committed ethics violations, including improperly administering medication to players and owing back taxes. In an interview with ESPN in September, Propst denied the allegations.

Despite Propst’s success, Nelson had concerns when he was hired, but he was willing to give the coach a chance.

“I got a taste of that Rush Kool-Aid too,” Nelson said. “At first, I did like him. I wanted things to go well. You wanted it to be good.”

After a few weeks on the job, according to Nelson, Propst attempted to take control of the Touchdown Club’s finances. In the past, the club had supplied food and other necessities for the team’s players. Nelson said Propst had another vision for the club.

“At one point, he was honest enough to tell me what he wanted from the Touchdown Club — for us to support him and his family,” Nelson said. “That’s not our purpose. Our purpose is to provide nutrition for the players.”

Before Nelson met with Propst in the coach’s office on May 16, he decided to secretly record their conversation.

During the meeting, according to Nelson, Propst got up from his chair and closed his office door. That’s when Propst suggested that the Georgia Bulldogs and Alabama Crimson Tide pay recruits $90,000 to $150,000 to sign with them. Propst also suggested a Georgia booster paid former Bulldogs star running back Nick Chubb a total of $180,000 in three installments to return to the team for his senior season in 2017.

Chubb, now a starter with the Cleveland Browns, denied the allegations on Twitter.

Compliance officials from Alabama and Georgia contacted Nelson two weeks ago to inquire about the authenticity of the recordings, and whether it was Propst and him talking in the recordings. (Alabama and Georgia declined comment.) Sources close to Propst told ESPN that the coach has provided officials from both schools with affidavits in which he denied having personal knowledge of recruiting violations committed by either program.

The man who secretly made the recording doesn’t believe what Propst said, either.

“I think he was just being arrogant and trying to be a big shot to get the money,” Nelson said.

Propst, when contacted by ESPN two weeks ago, declined to comment. He referred questions to his attorney, Jason Wilcox, who declined comment on Thursday.

During a nearly 15-minute recording of their conversation that was posted to YouTube on March 6 (Nelson denies posting it), Propst tells Nelson that he needs “funny money” to pay for rent for players’ families who want to move to Valdosta.

“Here’s the deal now,” Propst said. “However you think of me on this and just be truthful with me, we have to have some funny money and it can’t be three or four thousand dollars.”

Nelson laughs on the recording. “But there are some things, Nub, you don’t even need to know about, know what I’m saying?” Propst continues. “I don’t even let my assistants know. It’s me and whoever I’m talking to.”

During the recording, Propst suggested that when he was coaching at Hoover, the city’s police department gave him cash confiscated in drug raids on Interstate 20.

“In Hoover, you know where I got my damn cash money in Hoover?” Propst said. “From the city police drug raids on damn I-20. They would give me money from time to time from drug raids. I s— you not. They probably gave me $30,000 of drug money. Is that not unbelievable? The Hoover Police Department loved the Hoover Buccaneers, plain and simple.”

“So we’ve got to have some funny money,” Nelson said.

“Funny money, if we’re going to do it right … and we had funny money over there,” Propst said.

“And how much funny money do you think we need?” Nelson asked.

“I don’t know,” Propst said. “Hell, it could be 10,000 the first year, it may be 15,000. I don’t know who is coming and what they need and all that [stuff]. … They might not ask for anything. I don’t advertise it.”

A source within the Hoover Police Department administration who spoke only on the condition of anonymity told ESPN that its officers were never involved in a scheme to funnel money to Propst for players. The source said that officers’ traffic stops are recorded by body cameras and that the department is required to file an annual report with the U.S. Department of Justice to account for the money it has confiscated.

“No one here is going to a federal penitentiary for Rush Propst and a football player,” the source said.

Nelson said he shared the recording with two other Valdosta Touchdown Club board members. He didn’t divulge what Propst said to him during that meeting until after he was fired by the club on Feb. 22. Nelson said he lost his job as the club’s primary fundraiser after he gave a deposition related to Alan Rodemaker’s lawsuit against the Valdosta Board of Education members three days earlier.

“They were telling me in December to shut it up, but I never could,” Nelson said.

During that deposition, Nelson told Brent Savage, one of the Rodemakers’ attorneys, that Propst sought the Touchdown Club’s help in paying $2,500 in monthly rent for four-star quarterback Jake Garcia’s family to move from California to Valdosta.

“Do you know anything about Rush Propst paying for his parents to come over here?” Savage asked Nelson, according to the 64-page deposition.

“Well, he facilitated that,” Nelson said.

“OK,” Savage said. “Let’s talk about that. What do you know about Propst dealing with Jake Garcia and how did the University of Miami come in?”

“Well, he asked me to come up with $2,500 a month for him for four months,” Nelson said.

Additionally, Nelson said Propst asked him to come up with $850 in cash per month for transfer quarterback Amari Jones.

The Garcias made the cross-country move last summer after high school football in California was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Garcia played only one game for the Wildcats before the Georgia High School Association ruled him ineligible because he and his family hadn’t made a bona fide move, which is a requirement under its rules.

In an earlier ESPN story, Randy Garcia, his father, said that he and his wife, Yvonne, legally separated to meet the GHSA’s transfer requirements.

After leaving Valdosta, Garcia transferred to Grayson High School in suburban Atlanta, where he helped lead the Rams to a Class 7A state championship. Garcia, the No. 18 player in the ESPN 300, signed with Miami and enrolled at the university in January. His father didn’t respond to phone messages from ESPN.

The Georgia High School Association has launched an investigation into allegations that Propst, among other things, requested “funny money” to pay rent for star players’ families to move to Valdosta.

Dr. Robin Hines, executive director of the GHSA, told ESPN on Thursday that the association “wasn’t in the business of commenting about ongoing investigations.”

“[Propst] got me involved in some things I’m not proud of, like digging up cash money for him,” Nelson told ESPN. “That’s one of the things that bothers me — that their amateur status might be in jeopardy. There’s going to be collateral damage, and I’d like to minimize it. I’ve got to think about my kids and his kids and the players.”

Nelson said some Valdosta High fans have criticized him for making the recording.

Jason Sciavicco, the creator and producer of “Two-A-Days: Hoover High,” was back with Propst this past fall, documenting his first season at Valdosta High for another upcoming reality series. Sciavicco said he still has a crew in the city to document the fallout from the latest scandal surrounding Propst.

“You walk around town, even with everything going on, the town loves him,” Sciavicco said. “Yeah, there are some people that don’t like what’s going on, but the overwhelming support he still has in Valdosta is quite impressive.”

The version of the recording that Nelson shared with the board members and that was later posted to YouTube has portions of their conversation missing. Nelson said he removed those parts to avoid embarrassing players on the team and certain Valdosta residents.

“I was trying to fire him before I ever got fired for trying to fire him,” Nelson said. “I didn’t want to change our mission. Our Touchdown Club has been around for 70 years. Our mission was always to take care of the kids.

“I’d like us to hire a coach who gets us back on the right track and does things the way we’re accustomed to doing it. I’m confident we’re going to get there.”

Source: Read Full Article