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.
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.
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.
Maybe if he talked to your boss, he could?
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?
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?
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.
McKnight's near-instant and sustained success raised the bar at Mater Dei for all sports, and soon the school was a perennial power in not only football, baseball and volleyball, but in such ancillary programs as marching band and cheer. McKnight is so valuable to the school that in a Dec. 14 legal motion pertaining to the Andrade case, Finaldi argued Mater Dei didn't fully investigate Andrade when Nancy's allegations first surfaced in 1997 "because Andrade was a valuable basketball coach for the school, the program brought substantial funding to the school, and administrators did not wish to jeopardize the program." That year, Mater Dei won its sixth straight CIF Southern Section title.
That kind of achievement has made the school one of the most sought after by eighth-graders and their families. And it has meant money. In recent years the school has added two new athletic fields with artificial turf. It built a new pool and wrestling room. But the biggest building project was, fittingly, basketball's new home, the $18 million gym that opened this year.
"This is a great time for Mater Dei basketball," McKnight told the Register last spring.
MURPHY VS. MCKNIGHT
On Jan. 12, Yorba Linda attorney Ernest C. Chen sent a letter to the Weekly demanding we retract and apologize for "McKnight Errant." Chen claimed the Weekly "sullied" the "good name and reputation" of his client, Gary McKnight. Chen's bottom line: the Weekly must "correct, immediately and prominently, the false and defamatory statements of fact and false and defamatory implications" in the article.
That article was based on publicly filed documents, primarily portions of Andrade's deposition. State and federal libel law offer broad protections for publication of statements contained in such documents. Nevertheless, Chen disputed every one of Andrade's claims. Chen asserted Andrade "was not re-employed in any capacity by Matei [sic] Dei" after his 1997 termination. Therefore, Chen concluded, the Weekly was wrong: McKnight could not have and certainly "did not help Mr. Andrade in any way whatsoever to get hired, again, by Mater Dei, let alone having done so without the knowledge or approval of any other Mater Dei official." Furthermore, Chen wrote, "In point of fact, Coach McKnight was not, and had no reason to be, aware or suspicious of any inappropriate or immoral conduct on the part of Mr. Andrade."
Chen's claims are contradicted by Pat Murphy, McKnight's boss, Mater Dei's current president and its former principal. In a 1997 interview with the Westminster Police Department—which investigated Nancy's complaints against Andrade at Mater Dei's request—Murphy told them he ordered McKnight to warn Mater Dei's boys' basketball team about allowing guests into their rooms during team travel. That warning came after students and Mater Dei staff—including Murphy himself—spotted Andrade and Nancy together in the lobby of a Las Vegas hotel. The police report also states that Jason Quinn—a fellow basketball coach who remains a McKnight assistant—told Andrade to stop talking to Nancy because "people might get the wrong idea."
Murphy's account, made public thanks to a motion filed by Manly last year, makes it difficult to believe that McKnight—as both Mater Dei's athletic director at the time of Andrade's dismissal and boys' basketball coach—could not have had any clue pertaining to a possible inappropriate relationship between Andrade and his victim. And new details about McKnight's knowledge of Andrade's activities arose on Jan. 8 when Manly and Finaldi deposed Murphy.
In the depositions, Murphy recalled that McKnight approached him with a fundraising idea for the athletic program a couple of years after Andrade left. One of the points of contact for the proposal was Andrade.
In his deposition with Manly, Murphy said, "I told [McKnight] Jeff Andrade was not to be on our campus. Jeff Andrade was not to be involved in this, that I would—we would—take it to the administrative board" if McKnight involved Andrade.
Though McKnight denies it, Murphy supports what Andrade has already stated: that McKnightallowed his former assistant back on campus, and that Andrade worked with Mater Dei's prep teams for about two years. Indeed, Murphy alleges that McKnight worked to keep the arrangement secret. In the deposition, he told Manly that he didn't find out about the Andrade deal until a couple of years ago, when then-vice principal Martin Stringer—now the school's athletic director—told Murphy he had reprimanded McKnight in person and in a letter and "stipulated that the school was to do no more business with any company connected with Mr. Andrade."
Later in his deposition, Manly asked Murphy if he ever discussed Andrade's molestation charges with McKnight when they first emerged in the 1990s. Yes, Murphy said. He recalled that Mater Dei officials were interviewing Andrade about his relationship with Nancy when McKnight allegedly stormed into the room and "told Jeff not to say anything—not to say anything until he got an attorney." The officials told McKnight to get out, then phoned Murphy about the incident.
"I called Mr. McKnight into my office," Murphy told Manly, "and I told Mr. McKnight if he interfered in this case, that I'd put him on administrative leave." Murphy says he also warned McKnight that police investigators could cite the coach for "obstruction of justice" if he intervened again.
McKnight met with Murphy the following day. "He'd gone home and told his wife what had happened," Murphy told Manly, "and she told him what an idiot he was, and he was coming back to apologize to me."
"Why would he think he could do that?" Manly asked. "Why would he do that?"
"Probably helping a friend, believing he was helping a friend," Murphy replied. "I don't know."
In early February, Mater Dei will host the prestigious Nike Extravaganza basketball tournament. The school will buzz again like it did last Friday night. The students will pack the gym. The teams will trample their competitors. Meanwhile, the Andrade case trudges on.
John Manly doesn't care much about his alma mater anymore. He's never met Gary McKnight—Manly graduated the same year the coach arrived at Mater Dei—but he fully understands McKnight's legacy.
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"We thought McKnight would be a witness and nothing more," Manly says. "I was stunned at what Andrade said about returning to Mater Dei. Despite all we've been through, the notion that a high school—especially a Catholic high school—would allow a child abuser back on campus is honestly inconceivable. Especially in light of what the Orange diocese went through. It's inconceivable and impossible to explain logically.
"The only conclusion I can reach," Manly adds, "is that if you're a good fund-raiser and win basketball games, you can do anything."
Steve Lowery contributed to this article.