Rumors about malfeasance and illegal recruiting have swirled around Gary McKnight and his Mater Dei High School boys' basketball program for years, but such are the burdens of winners. And winners the Monarchs are: 23 league championships, 19 Southern Section titles, and five state crowns in the past 25 years, and a just-opened 3,200-seat gym complete with two Jumbotrons.
Problem for Mater Dei haters is, few of the corruption claims stick. The last time the school's athletic department faced a non-sex abuse scandal was in 1988, when officials with the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section—the governing body for all Southern California high school sports—put Mater Dei on probation for a year. The offense then? An investigation found that assistant principal John Merino illegally influenced an athlete to transfer from Corona del Mar High School. The athletic director at the time? McKnight.
So yours truly imagined he'd find a mother lode of complaints lodged against McKnight and his empire when the Weekly sent a California public records request to CIF-Southern Section officials last month. The letter asked for "any and all documents pertaining to complaints or investigations submitted to or issued by CIF officials against Santa Ana Mater Dei boys' basketball program and/or Santa Ana Mater Dei boys' basketball coach Gary McKnight since 1981."
A day later, I received a call from CIF Southern Section Director of Sports Information Thom Simmons. "I can tell you the answer right now—nothing," he said. "But I'll put it in writing to make it official." A day later, the Weeklyreceived a letter from Simmons stating the CIF Southern Section held "no record of any complaints or investigations submitted to or issued by the CIF Southern Section by officials against" McKnight or Mater Dei's boys' basketball program.
So McKnight is squeaky-clean, right? Not quite, it seems. A Dec. 12 motion filed by Newport Beach attorney John Manly in his case against former McKnight assistant and admitted statutory rapist Jeff Andrade (see "McKnight Fall," Jan. 25) includes a Dec. 7, 2000, letter by CIF Southern Section Commissioner of Athletics James T. Staunton. In it, Staunton responds to a complaint by an unknown person (the name and address is redacted) that McKnight told an opposing team's coach not to accept one of McKnight's former players. Staunton refused to look into the matter because the incident occurred during a summer league game. "However, if you would forward a description of the incident, in as much detail as possible, I will share it with the principal of Mater Dei," Staunton replied. There is no record if the letter writer ever followed through on Staunton's offer.
Manly unearthed the letter as part of his case's discovery process. And he's asking the court for more: the same Dec. 12 motion argues that the discovery process should continue despite Mater Dei's efforts to block it. A judge agreed with Manly, and the discovery process continues. Manly and Mater Dei return to court in February; McKnight and his squad, meanwhile, return to their home court this Saturday.