Sabino vs Empire

TUSD said its probe found Sabino High School violated rules about prior contact with student-athletes. It also said the school improperly used booster funds to pay for a coach.

PHOENIX — The Arizona Interscholastic Association has upheld its revocation of Sabino’s 2018 high school baseball championship because of rules violations committed by former coach Mark Chandler. The executive board did scale down its discipline against the program, however, reducing the team’s previously issued postseason ban to a warning. The Sabercats were initially ineligible to compete in the playoffs for a year.

The sanctions followed a monthslong investigation by Tucson Unified School District that revealed the team violated AIA rules regarding prior contact with student-athletes and used booster funds to pay for an additional coach. The district investigated three other complaints but said those could not be substantiated.

The AIA executive board listened to pleas from Tucson Unified School District Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo and Sabino Principal Russell Doty before making its decision.

Trujillo told the board the investigation took 300 hours and consisted of more than 50 interviews with student-athletes and coaches from Sabino and other schools.

“We’re not here to deny the findings of the investigation,” Trujuillo said. “These are actions we do not endorse.”

Trujillo outlined “sweeping” personnel actions taken by his district, adding that all the involved coaches and assistants are no longer employed in TUSD and are ineligible for rehire. Chandler stepped down as Sabino’s coach last month.

Doty told the board that the investigation into the violations was the most comprehensive he’s aware of in his 20-year history as a high school administrator. The booster program has been disbanded and all leftover funds were transferred into the Sabino baseball club account.

Members of the club and the principal must give prior approval for all purchases out of that account, Doty said.

The accusations against Sabino were reported to the AIA the day after the team’s state championship win, Doty said, adding that the person who made the complaint was aware of the violations for years before reporting them to the AIA. The complainant went straight to the AIA, which referred the investigation to TUSD.

The district has ordered an immediate and comprehensive financial audit of all TUSD sports programs that report to the AIA, including verification of funding for each coaching position, Trujillo said. TUSD audit all booster clubs; it has asked for “exhaustive reports” about all expenditures for the past two years.

The district will also be implementing training for coaches that will focus on AIA bylaws — including prior contact, eligibility, ineligibility and funding sources.

AIA Executive Director David Hines applauded Trujillo and Doty for their thoroughness, saying they demonstrated the intent and mission of the AIA’s self-reporting model and implemented positive changes as a result of their investigation.

The board voted unanimously to remove the postseason ban after returning from executive session, with one member saying TUSD was the model of what the AIA is looking for when it comes to corrective action.

“We didn’t have all the information before the decision was made,” Hines said. “The fact that (TUSD and Sabino) provided a course of action to rectify the situation as we move forward is what we would like every school to follow. This is a model way of doing business with a terrible situation.”

The AIA has no jurisdiction over personnel, Hines said, so decisions about whether to discipline or terminate a coach is left solely to the districts and schools. The AIA relies on its 265 member schools to investigate potential rules violations and report their findings back to the executive board. The board is bound by a specific set of rules regarding types of discipline — which is why Sabino’s championship must be vacated. The Sabercats beat Sahuarita 6-4 in May to secure their first baseball crown in 21 years.

“It’s punishment enough that the kids technically don’t have their state championship,” Hines said. “And that’s always a very, very tough decision by the board, because as educators ... we’re here for kids.”

This isn’t the first time AIA rules have been broken, and likely it won’t be the last, Hines said, adding that it doesn’t happen frequently.

“We want kids to be competitive and the goal is to win, and we’ll never take that away,” Hines said. “However, we’ve got to do it the right way.”

Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at cschmidt@tucson.com or 573-4191. Twitter: @caitlincschmidt

I'm a watchdog reporter covering local government, the University of Arizona and sports investigations.