BOSTON — Manhattan native Michael Center, the former men’s tennis coach at the University of Texas, pleaded guilty Wednesday to taking $100,000 in bribes in connection with the nationwide college admissions cheating scandal, telling a federal judge in Boston he has been on medication to curb his anxiety and get through the nights since his arrest last month.
“I have been seeing someone since this incident, but not prior,” Center said when asked about the state of his mental health by U.S. District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns. Center said he has been taking Lexapro, which treats depression and anxiety, and Xanax at night to help him sleep.
Center, 55, of Austin, Texas, a married father of boys ages 14 and 16, will face up to 20 years in federal prison when Stearns sentences him Oct. 30. But because Center struck plea and cooperation agreements with the government, assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen said prosecutors will recommend a term of 15 to 21 months.
Center has been coaching tennis at the collegiate level for 30 years. Previous to the charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, he had no criminal record. Rosen suggested to Stearns that Center could potentially serve even less time, depending on how much his cooperation helps the feds’ investigation and the prosecution of any other “Operation Varsity Blues” defendants.
Stearns remarked in court that Center was a “well-oriented and highly educated man.” He released him on personal recognizance.
Defense attorney John H. Cunha Jr. told reporters Center “is a very good man who made a bad mistake — a criminally bad mistake.
“He has helped countless people, he has mentored countless people, over the course of a long career. He’s very sorry for what he did and at this point he wants to make amends,” Cunha said as the lanky Center strode away through the Seaport District with supporters.
Cunha said it was “self-evident” that his client was motivated to help students when he accepted $40,000 in bribes on behalf of UT’s tennis program. Prosecutors said Center pocketed $60,000 paid to him in cash.
Center stared blankly at the defense table as Rosen told Stearns what the Kansas native did to find himself so far from home.
Rosen said Center was once at the helm of what has “consistently ranked as one of the top tennis teams in the nation,” but that in the fall of 2014 he conspired with the scheme’s mastermind William “Rick” Singer and Martin Fox, the president of a private tennis academy in Houston, to take bribes in return for getting a high school student from California recruited to UT as a tennis prodigy, “despite that fact that he had limited tennis experience,” Rosen said.
In return, the student’s father allegedly made three donations in stocks valued at more than $631,560 to Singer’s charity, Key Worldwide Foundation. In June 2015, Rosen said Singer flew to Austin and handed Center $60,000 cash.
The student remains at UT, Rosen said. His father was not one of the 33 parents originally charged in the “Varsity Blues” case.
Center, who graduated from MHS in 1982, was a standout in tennis and basketball, winning a singles title — the last Indian to do so — in 1982. He didn’t lose a match, finishing the year 31-0. In basketball, he averaged 11.4 points during his senior season.
He went on to play collegiately at Kansas, becoming a four-year letterwinner (1983-86) for the Jayhawks. In 1985, he captured the Big Eight No. 2 singles title, and became the first player in school history to win 40 matches in a single season.
Center’s coaching career began in 1989 with the women’s tennis team at KU. He later coached the men’s teams at KU and TCU before becoming the Texas tennis coach in 2000.
Center was among dozens of coaches, prominent parents and others arrested last month in the nationwide admissions scam.
Former coaches at Yale and Stanford have already pleaded guilty. Fourteen parents have agreed to plead guilty.
Singer, 58, a college and career counselor from California, pleaded guilty last month to racketeering, money laundering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to defraud the United States. He is free pending his June 19 sentencing. Fox, 62, of Houston, has pleaded not guilty to racketeering.
UT president Gregory L. Fenves announced on March 13 that Center had been fired and that the university was undertaking an internal investigation of the charges against him.