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Originally published Saturday, September 23, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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"No smoking gun" in Bellevue recruiting charges

A school district investigation into longstanding rumors of recruiting by the Bellevue High School football program has turned up no concrete...

Seattle Times staff reporters

A school district investigation into longstanding rumors of recruiting by the Bellevue High School football program has turned up no concrete evidence of violations. But administrators are concerned about a revelation that boosters are paying the head coach $55,000 a year.

At the request of the Bellevue School District, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) will discuss whether to limit how much money booster clubs may provide to supplement coaches' salaries. The group's executive board meets Sunday and Monday.

The Bellevue district launched its investigation in March, seeking to either confirm or dispel rumors about the football dynasty. Bellevue has won 70 of its past 77 games, including state titles four of the past five years, and are 4-0 this season.

While the lead investigator, a former high-school principal, said she turned up no "smoking gun," she said people involved with the program, including coaches, probably did things that "might be easily perceived as recruiting."

Investigator Karin Cathey cited examples such as giving prospective student athletes tours of the football facilities and weight room, and talking to them or their relatives about the program before they transferred to Bellevue from other schools.

The most recent allegation came from John Bronson, a professional football player and older brother of Demetrius Bronson, a star running back at Kentwood High School. John Bronson said Bellevue head coach Butch Goncharoff called him in January, encouraging Demetrius to transfer to Bellevue.

But Goncharoff denied recruiting Demetrius, saying John Bronson called him first to bring up the possibility.

Sharon Howard, an assistant superintendent and the district's legal counsel, said, "To the extent we can, we've tracked every lead we have and we haven't found any substantiated violations. Tomorrow, if someone calls with something new, we'll try again."

Goncharoff denied ever recruiting a player or knowing of recruiting by anyone connected to his program.

"We knew there was nothing to hide," Goncharoff said. "Part of me is glad it's [investigation] done. ... You get tired of people asking you questions."

The investigation, released to The Seattle Times this week through a public-records request, found roughly 30 players on the Bellevue football roster last year who didn't live in the high school's attendance area. The school's athletic director, Chris Hoffman, said that can be explained by the success of the program, the school's strong academic reputation and, until this year, an "open enrollment" policy that accepted students from outside Bellevue High School's attendance area and even the district's boundaries.

Cathey agreed, saying she believes the large number of transfers results in large part from Bellevue's unparalleled success.

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"My guess would be most of them went there because they wanted to do it, not because they were recruited," she said. "Maybe if you have a top-notch program, you don't have to recruit."

The district's investigation began after The Times published a story in February detailing recruiting violations by the girls basketball coaches at Chief Sealth High School. The coaches were fired and the West Seattle team was subsequently forced to forfeit its 2005 and 2006 Class 3A state basketball titles.

The Bellevue School District received e-mails and letters from community members raising similar issues about the Bellevue football program.

Goncharoff, a former youth football coach, began coaching at Bellevue in 2000. Since then, the Wolverines have been the most successful high-school program in the state. They made national headlines in 2004 by beating legendary De La Salle of Concord, Calif., ending a national-record 151-game win streak.

"It's a high-profile program and it gets lots of headlines, so people have contacted us and heard one thing or another — making accusations," said Bellevue School District Superintendent Mike Riley. "Instead of blowing them off or pretending they didn't happen, we took them seriously."

Riley wrote in an e-mail to two administrators shortly after starting the investigation, "We'll proceed with integrity and diligence, but I'll be damned if we'll let the reporters shape our work."

The district hired Cathey, former principal of Newport and Sammamish high schools, which are in the Bellevue School District. She spent months interviewing about two dozen coaches, players, family members and others with knowledge of the program.

The investigation revealed that the Bellevue High School Football Booster Club began paying Goncharoff in 2003 to supplement his school-district salary of about $5,600.

"I didn't know until the investigation that he was earning that money — I was surprised it was that much," Riley said, adding that he is concerned that one coach in his district is getting paid by the booster club while others are not. "I'm looking for guidance by the WIAA if they think it's appropriate or if rules need to be developed."

Mike Colbrese, executive director of the WIAA, said his group has never discussed this issue.

Most schools in Washington pay head football coaches between $4,000 to $8,000, and assistant coaches about $500. A check of the booster clubs at five Eastside high schools found none that paid head football coaches. Another school district, Kent, doesn't allow boosters to pay head coaches because of inequity issues. The head basketball coach at Mercer Island High School, Ed Pepple, was paid $17,304 by boosters one year, according to the group's 2003 tax filing.

Goncharoff, who owns a printing business and is not a teacher, said the Bellevue booster club approached him after Bellevue won its second state title, in 2002. He was offered, and accepted, a $12,000 stipend for the next season. When Bellevue won a third championship, the amount grew to $55,000. Goncharoff said he never asked for the money or negotiated the amount. He does not believe the pay gives his team an advantage.

Greg Bennett, president of the booster club, said the salary "was related to [Goncharoff's] commitment of time to the kids and how many hours he was involved with that while he was trying to balance family and work."

"It keeps him here rather than going elsewhere," said, Bennett, whose son plays on the team.

When asked about the fairness of paying Goncharoff when most other booster clubs cannot afford to do so, he said: "That opportunity is available to every high school in the school district."

Maggie Bentley, co-president of the Interlake High School Parent Teacher Student Association, said, "It's a message: Are sports more important than academics?"

Bentley was one of the people who wrote to Riley earlier this year, raising concerns about recruiting and describing "the festering anger people are feeling."

Cathey's report showed the difficulties administrators had in advancing beyond he-said, she-said statements.

One widely circulated rumor had the mother of a player at Interlake, which is also in the Bellevue School District, being offered an apartment so her son could play for Bellevue. She denied it, no paperwork was found and the questions ended there.

Michael Ko: 206-515-5653 or mko@seattletimes.com. Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or cwillmsen@seattletimes.com

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