McKnight Fall

Gary McKnight built an athletic empire at Mater Dei. Will his role in a pedophiles return to campus destroy it?


Mater Dei is Latin for "Mother of God," but the Santa Ana Catholic high school's mascot is the lion, and in gymnasiums around the nation, Mater Dei High School's boys' basketball team has displayed nothing of the Virgin Mother's nurturing qualities—her meekness, mildness, mercy—instead mauling its opponents on the way to becoming a prep basketball dynasty.

Last Friday, before the team's home game against JSerra, students inflated a tunnel resembling the King of Beasts 15 feet high and 30 feet long. The lights dimmed. Strobe lights twirled. The capacity crowd in Mater Dei's new gym ($18 million, 3,200 seats) roared. Sort of: this being high school, the roar was more like a high-pitched scream built atop a modest basso profundo foundation. Then came an image that few seemed to have thought through with clarity, the synthetic feline belching up some of prep basketball's best players: six-eight Taylor King, the top scorer in Orange County high school boys' basketball history, now committed to Duke University! Arizona-bound center Alex Jacobson, seven feet of wiry resolve! Then followed the Wear twins, Travis and David, mere sophomores and already 6-foot-10! These giants of local basketball were trailed—joyfully, proudly—by young men who might have lettered anywhere else but who chose instead to warm the bench at MDHS.

Mater Dei's pep section, the Red Wave. Photo by Jennie Warren
Mater Dei's pep section, the Red Wave. Photo by Jennie Warren
The coach at rest, photo by Jennie Warren
The coach at rest, photo by Jennie Warren

On the sidelines, watching the introductions with what appeared to be studied disinterest, was Mater Dei head coach Gary McKnight. Now in his 25th year at the school, McKnight looks like one of Thomas Nast's Tammany Hall caricatures. He's short, shorter at least than his players—you can catch a glimpse of his bald pate above his team's shoulders during timeouts. Ruddy-faced. Perpetually squinting. Bears an enormous, Hitchcockian gut. Waddles. During games, McKnight's arms rest on his wide-open legs while sitting; while standing, his arms lock onto his hips. McKnight rarely deviates from these two positions. He doesn't have to.

The introductions finished, the lights came up and the lion went flaccid. The game that followed was lions and Christians, a joke. The Mater Dei Monarchs began with a 24-3 run and didn't slow until the final whistle. By then the score was 84-58. Mater Dei fans spent most of the time admiring the gym's two Jumbotrons, its Mater Dei Hall of Fame and Wall of Champions, the banners hanging from the rafters commemorating league, section, state, even national titles.

Welcome to Hoopster Heaven.

Now get ready for its Day of Judgment.


John Manly wanted to attend last Friday's game, but the Newport Beach attorney was boarding a Seattle-bound flight so he could depose Jesuits.

The Mater Dei alum (class of '82) has become internationally known for suing the Roman Catholic Church from the Arctic Circle to Orange County over sex-abuse cases. Manly's Newport Beach law firm played an instrumental role in forcing the Diocese of Orange to settle 90 cases alleging sexual abuse at the hands of church employees. The plaintiffs got $100 million—then the largest payout in Church history, still among its top two or three. Eleven of the 90 cases had something to do with Mater Dei, far more than any other Orange County Catholic institution. The accused in those 11 cases involved principals, administrators, teachers and coaches. Manly represented six Mater Dei cases, but he's not done yet.

In mid-2005, a former student (we'll call her Nancy) contacted Manly and claimed she was sexually assaulted a decade before by Jeff Andrade, one of McKnight's assistants. While still a student, Nancy complained to school officials; they investigated her claims and, in 1997, forced Andrade to resign. But Andrade never faced jail time, and the school never offered Nancy a financial settlement. In fact, it was Andrade who acted the victim: Andrade successfully sued Mater Dei after a school spokesperson told TheOrange County Register Andrade was dismissed because of his relationship with Nancy.

Manly took Nancy's case and filed a civil suit against Andrade and Mater Dei. And now he finds himself in that delightful phase of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal: discovery. As part of their discovery effort, Manly and his partners Ryan DiMaria and Vince Finaldi say they'll depose every Mater Dei official administrator involved in the school's original Andrade probe if necessary. Some have moved on, of course, but many remain at Mater Dei. While you read this, diocesan lawyers are working hard to stop Manly (see "Hardwood Babylon," April 27, 2006). So far, Manly's doing to them what the Monarch basketball team does to its opponents.

Most documents in the case have not been disclosed, but portions have entered the public record. The excerpts, in some ways, reveal nothing new—just more of the lies, spins and forced admissions county Catholics have learned to expect from diocesan leaders dealing with the church's sex-abuse scandal.

But an unexpected figure has emerged as key to the Andrade case: Gary McKnight.

And now Coach McKnight finds himself in a weird place: he's an underdog.


The first hint of McKnight's role in the scandal appeared last year during Andrade's Nov. 28 deposition (see "McKnight Errant," Dec. 21, 2006). In it, Andrade dropped nearly a decade of denials and admitted he had sex with the then-15-year-old Nancy—had sex with her in McKnight's office, even. Andrade also revealed that his last visit to Mater Dei was in 2000 or 2001 while working for Varsity Gold, a company that organizes fundraisers for high schools. Andrade told Manly he never actually met with students—just their coaches—but received a contract to work with Mater Dei's track, volleyball and basketball squads thanks to Coach McKnight. Mater Dei worked with Andrade and Varsity Gold for two years, and Andrade said he didn't know if Mater Dei officials asked McKnight why he brought back someone whom the school had fired for inappropriate relations with a student.

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