Rush Propst comments as Valdosta is expected to appeal GHSA penalties

Valdosta High is expected to appeal its football playoff ban and the record $7,500 in fines by Thursday’s deadline and hopes to get a hearing Monday while Rush Propst, the controversial coach accused of illegal recruiting, made a rare public statement Tuesday evening, expressing only that he was eager for a hearing before the Georgia High School Association.

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“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,” Propst said. On advice of attorneys, Propst declined to defend himself or comment further on the record.

The GHSA has banned Valdosta’s football team from the playoffs and declared five players ineligible, which means the Wildcats will forfeit the seven 2020 victories in which the five played unless the appeal is won.

Valdosta’s appeal would go before a four-person board comprising members of the GHSA’s executive committee. Failing that, Valdosta can appeal to the full executive committee, which meets at 1:30 p.m. Monday at the Upson Civic Center in Thomaston. It’s likely that the GHSA would schedule the first appeal Monday morning ahead of the full executive-committee meeting.

Valdosta’s $7,500 in fines is believed to be the largest in GHSA history, and the playoff ban is the first of its kind for a football team is since Grady was barred in 2014. It’s happened more prominently in other sports, as state-winning boys basketball teams at Milton in 2012 and Southwest Macon in 1979 were banned from the next season’s playoffs.

The appeals don’t affect only the football team, but five players. Ruled ineligible were quarterbacks Jake Garcia and Amari Jones, all-state wide receiver Tahj Sanders, running back Jamad Willis and linebacker Ty’Li Lewis.

Garcia has graduated and is enrolled at Miami, but the other four are juniors who lost eligibility not only at Valdosta but all GHSA schools.

Sanders is a three-star wide receiver prospect with offers from ACC and SEC schools. Jones is a 6-foot-4 quarterback with Division I and Ivy League offers. Sanders, Willis and Lewis had played for Propst at Colquitt County. Jones, who finished as Valdosta’s starting quarterback, transferred from Carver High in Atlanta.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

The case of Garcia prompted the GHSA to change its rules in November, and that’s why the juniors are now banned.

Garcia came to Valdosta from a school in California, which had postponed its football season until spring. Garcia planned to be an early college enrollee, so he sought a football-playing state and landed at Valdosta. Garcia played one game and was declared ineligible for failure to make a legal move in residence to Valdosta, and Valdosta’s opening victory over Warner Robins was forfeited. Garcia then transferred to Grayson and led the Rams to the Class 7A championship.

To prevent that from happening again, GHSA changed the rules to state that players declared ineligible at one school can’t regain eligibility at another for one calendar year. That effectively ends the GHSA sports careers for Sanders, Willis, Lewis and Jones. The four may play in another state or in another state association, such as the Georgia Independent School Association.

Garcia’s move to Grayson was legal, and Garcia’s ineligibility doesn’t jeopardize the Rams’ state title, the GHSA has confirmed.

But many more questions remain in a saga that has drawn national attention - such as why is Propst still the coach? Who would replace him if he is fired or steps down? How did Valdosta get itself in this mess?

Propst is on administrative leave while under investigation by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which can take away teaching certificates. Many in the fan base, booster club and school board have stood behind him.

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

The interim coach is Shelton Felton, a Propst assistant at Colquitt County in 2013 and 2014 before becoming head coach at Crisp County, his alma mater, and leading it to a historic 13-1 finish in 2016 that ended in the Class 3A semifinals. Felton then took a college job and worked his way up to Jeremy Pruitt’s staff at Tennessee. But in January, Felton was fired during an investigation that revealed recruiting violations in the football program.

Another frequently mentioned name is Shawn Sutton, a long-time Propst assistant and respected offensive coach. Pelham hired Sutton as head coach earlier this month, but Sutton resigned suddenly Monday, citing personal issues that reportedly have taken him back to his native Alabama. The timing of his resignation was coincidental to the Valdosta news.

The Valdosta story goes back nearly two years. Valdosta — already famous as the football program with the most wins in U.S. history (939) and 24 state titles — has been a program divided since January 2019, when it fired a popular coach, Alan Rodemaker, by a 5-4 vote of the school board. Rodemaker had been coach for four seasons and led the Wildcats to a state title in 2016.

Rodemaker, now on Colquitt County’s staff, claimed the firing was racially motivated, as the vote went along racial lines, with five Black board members voting to oust him. Rodemaker is white.

A lawsuit for wrongful termination was filed on Rodemaker’s behalf. During a deposition in the case in February, Valdosta’s booster club director, Mike “Nub” Nelson, alleged that the new coach, Propst, sought money to help transfer players Garcia and Jones and their families pay living expenses. Nelson also said Propst asked for $10,000 in cash that Propst called ’'funny money” to be kept in Propst’s desk drawer.

Accused of slandering the coach, Nelson was fired as booster club director on the day that his deposition became public. His words launched investigations by the Valdosta school board, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission and the GHSA.

GHSA executive director Robin Hines cited Nelson’s deposition and a secretly recorded conversation that Nelson had with Propst when notifying Valdosta of its penalties. Hines also took into account Valdosta’s own internal investigation.

“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.

The aftermath has been stunning in Valdosta, a city called “Titletown” because of the success of its football teams, which include Lowndes High and Valdosta State University.

’'Things have been really crazy here,” said Phil Jones, a sports-show host who does live podcasts called “Extra Point!” on ITG Next. Jones has done talk shows for more than 10 years in Valdosta and summed up mixed attitudes of the community.

“The people, to be honest, are kind of numb from the whole thing from when Coach Rodemaker’s contract was not renewed, which had people reeling,” he said. “Though Valdosta went through a fairly successful season with Propst (7-5 record, Class 6A semifinals), there still was a fan base that remained divided between the old and new coach. And then these allegations came out, it further divided the fan base, and it’s left Valdosta Wildcat supporters numb and kind of embarrassed by the whole thing. You’re talking about the winningest football program in the country.”