McKnight Fall

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

In one portion of the deposition—excerpts of which were attached to a Dec. 12 motion filed by Manly's firm—Finaldi asked Andrade if he thought McKnight could hurt his career.

Hurt my career?

Your current career, if he wanted to.

I don't know. I don't think—I didn't think about that.

Do you think he could? You could think about it for a second.

Possibly.

Maybe if he talked to your boss, he could?

Possibly.

 

Later, Finaldi asked about Mater Dei's reputation:

 

Do you think Mater Dei has the power to get you blacklisted from working in high school sports programs across the U.S.?

Do I think they have the power to?

Yeah.

I'm not sure. I'm not sure. Possibly, but I never thought of it.

Would you agree that they're a pretty powerful school?

Yes.

 

 

DYNASTYLAND

At 172 pages, the 2007 program for Mater Dei High School's boys' basketball team dwarfs the yearbooks of its public school peers. Monarch Magazine is filled with player stats and profiles, pictures, loving ads taken out by proud family members.

It also lists Mater Dei's year-by-year accomplishments—but only goes back to 1982. That's the year McKnight became Mater Dei's boys' basketball coach as a 29-year-old. The Orange County native had bounced between assistant coaching gigs before landing at Mater Dei, the largest Catholic high school west of Chicago.

It was an obvious match. Mater Dei was a football juggernaut, but its basketball program was merely average. And McKnight was never much of a basketball player—a 1989 Los Angeles Times profile quoted his San Clemente High basketball coach, who cut him from the Tritons' junior varsity squad, as saying, "[Gary] was a good kid, but baseball was his best sport."

McKnight quickly surmised that superior talent could remedy any deficiencies in game strategy. McKnight aggressively sought out the best players—Tom Lewis, LeRon Ellis, Miles Simon, Jamal Sampson, and present national high school player of the year candidate King—and played his team against the nation's best schools: next Tuesday, Mater Dei visits Duke University to play Oak Hills Academy, USA Today'stop-ranked boys' basketball team.

McKnight has produced near-cartoonish results: 23 league championships, 19 Southern Section titles, and five state crowns. A 2003-2004 Monarch Magazinecover on display at Mater Dei's Hall of Fame says it best: "Dynastyland," with that year's squad posing in front of the Magic Kingdom.

But scrutiny and criticism followed success. McKnight came along just as a vicious circulation war erupted between TheOrange County Register and the Los Angeles Times. Both papers believed that one of the keys to attracting readers was stepping up their coverage of local high school sports.

Mater Dei basketball was always an attractive subject not only because of its success but because that success brought critics. It was Mater Dei's success that had many local public high school coaches calling for a kind of separation of church and state—separate athletic leagues for public and private schools, separate Southern Section titles—reasoning that Mater Dei's ability to recruit gave it an unfair advantage over its public school rivals.

But some of the most vicious criticism came from coaches, officials and fans of other Catholic high schools, sports boosters who believed that Mater Dei's administrators had turned a blind eye to McKnight's methods. While the California Interscholastic Federation—the governing body in charge of the state's high school athletic programs—has never accused McKnight of violating its rules, many believed that his, and the school's, willingness to push things went beyond sportsmanship and demonstrated an ugly win-at-all-costs mentality.

That criticism has come from within the program as well. According to parents who talked to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, McKnight makes an annual pre-season speech to parents: if you attempt to contact me directly, McKnight tells them, your kid will never set foot on the floor.

It's a measure of how things have changed in McKnight's 25 years at MDHS that one hears far less criticism about McKnight's methods now. What seemed at least untoward and maybe even unfair in the '80s—that a mere high school would go to great lengths to recruit the best players—is now pretty commonplace. Whether McKnight helped create that culture or just tapped it early is arguable.

What's clear is this: the stuff that inspired cries of foul in the 1980s barely gains notice these days. In fact, the newspapers that once liberally quoted McKnight's critics now treat him as an elder statesman. A Times report last year referred to McKnight as "cuddly" and "jolly."A Register piece before last season's state final said these were good times for McKnight in part because "he has no overbearing parents to challenge him."

If the media has ceased scrutinizing McKnight, Mater Dei administrators did as much from the start. The school has staunchly stood by him. Why? Because the basketball team's success led an athletic renaissance at Mater Dei, raising it from one of the most high-profile high schools in Orange County to the Orange County high school best known outside of the county.

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