GHSA fines Valdosta $7,500, bans team from playoffs; forfeits likely

Bazmore-Hyder Stadium, the home field of Valdosta High School's football team, in Valdosta, Ga., on April 8, 2021. It’s unclear who will be coaching the next time fans gather to watch the Wildcats. (Aileen Perilla/The New York Times)
Bazmore-Hyder Stadium, the home field of Valdosta High School's football team, in Valdosta, Ga., on April 8, 2021. It’s unclear who will be coaching the next time fans gather to watch the Wildcats. (Aileen Perilla/The New York Times)

The Georgia High School Association fined Valdosta $7,500, banned the football team from the 2021 playoffs and declared five players ineligible, which likely will lead to forfeiting the team’s seven 2020 victories.

ExploreRush Propst comments on appeal process

In a letter to Valdosta school superintendent Todd Cason, GHSA executive director Robin Hines cited the football program for recruiting violations involving the five players, each drawing a $1,000 fine. The GHSA added an additional $2,500 fine for lack of institutional control.

Valdosta coach Rush Propst was placed on administrative leave by the school board last month after allegations from the football team’s former booster club director, Mike Nelson, that Propst sought money to help transferring players pay housing expenses.

“The evidence is clear that this is not an isolated instance (of recruiting) and that Coach Probst (sic) and members of the Valdosta Touchdown Club have on other occasions contacted other student athletes or their families and provided gifts of money, payment of utilities and housing incentives in an attempt to persuade those student athletes to transfer to Valdosta High School,” Hines wrote.

Hines declined to comment Tuesday, per the GHSA’s policy when appeals remain possible.

The $7,500 in fines is among the largest ever imposed on a school by the GHSA. The playoff ban will put the Wildcats, a 2020 Class 6A semifinalist, out of the postseason for the first time since 2008.

Valdosta also becomes the first high-profile sports program in Georgia to face a playoff ban since Milton’s 2013 boys basketball team, which won a state title in 2012 but was penalized for using the summer workouts to evaluate potential transfers.

Valdosta’s 939 victories are the most in U.S. history, and the program’s 24 state titles are a state record. But that all-time victory total likely will take a hit. Games won with players ruled ineligible become forfeits. Valdosta finished 7-5 last season and reached the Class 6A semifinals.

The players declared ineligible were quarterbacks Jacob Garcia and Amari Jones, all-state wide receiver Tahj Sanders, running back Jamad Willis and linebacker Ty’Li Lewis. Garcia, now an early enrollee at Miami, was a four-star quarterback whose move from California broke GHSA rules and sidelined him after one game, a victory that Valdosta forfeited to Warner Robins in September. Garcia transferred to Grayson and led the Rams to the Class 7A champions. The other four are juniors.

Valdosta’s troubles became public in February, when Nelson, a long-time booster-club member, gave a deposition in a civil action against the Valdosta Board of Education filed on behalf of Alan Rodemaker, the coach whom Propst replaced last year.

Rodemaker alleged that his January 2020 firing was unjust and racially motivated.

In the deposition, Nelson claimed that Propst sought the club’s help paying $2,500-a-month rent in cash for star quarterback Jake Garcia, who transferred from California last fall. Nelson also claimed that Propst asked for $10,000 in what he called “funny money” to keep in his drawer and that Propst or his wife cashed a $700 check from an advertiser into a personal account before returning it to the booster club. GHSA bylaws address recruiting and undue influence of transfer players but not financial misconduct within a booster club.

“Things have really been crazy here,” said Phil Jones, a Valdosta sports talk-show host whose live podcast, “Extra Point!” on ITG Next, was more lively than usual Monday when word of possible GHSA sanctions began to spread. “It’s just left Valdosta Wildcat supporters numb and kind of embarrassed by the whole thing. You’re talking about the winningest football program in the country.”

Valdosta Schools has not responded to the news.

Propst, one of the nation’s most widely known coaches for his seven state titles won at Hoover, Ala., and Colquitt County, was reached late Tuesday and declined comment on the GHSA’s decisions or any allegations, saying only, ’'We’ve got to let the (appeals) process play out, and we respect that process, and hopefully we’ll get to the bottom of this.’'

Valdosta has seven days to appeal and is expected to get a hearing Monday before the GHSA’s executive committee meeting.

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