Bellevue School District officials are planning to fire the head coach of the Bellevue High School football team, according to a letter sent to the coach by a top district official and obtained by KING 5.
The move to fire Butch Goncharoff, which is expected to be finalized as early as next week, comes after the release of a scathing independent report that found the powerhouse Bellevue Wolverine football program cheated its way to victory for years.
The investigation, commissioned by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, concluded that coaches broke recruiting rules, boosters paid large amounts to coaches, and some players were sent to a private school where their grades were artificially boosted so they could remain eligible.
After the release of that report on April 26, the Bellevue School District launched its own investigation. District investigators cleared Goncharoff of most the findings reached by the WIAA.
But Jeffrey J. Thomas, the top human resources officer for the district, did find that Goncharoff accepted payments from boosters beyond what district policy allow.
In his letter to the coach, Thomas wrote: “My investigation revealed that you knowingly and repeatedly violated District Board Policy No 5251, Conflict of Interest and Board Policy No. 2151, Interscholastic Activities. The conflict of interest policy, in part, states:
“Staff members will not engage in nor have a direct financial interest in any activity that conflicts with his/her duties and/or responsibilities (such as coaching a summer camp).”
Goncharoff strongly denied the district's findings and said he was "stunned" by the decision to fire him.
“I’m going to battle to the bitter end here and whatever the decision I’m still fighting," he said.
Goncharoff produced emails showing that the team booster club reported to the school district in 2007 that it was paying him to teach summer football clinics. The district's top official at the time, Mike Riley, acknowledged the notification from the booster club and did not object to the payments.
“We all agree that the school district will not interfere with coaches; opportunities for employment outside of their regular school-assigned coaching duties. If, for example, a coach were to run a camp sponsored by an outside agency, the district would not be involved in the administration of the program, including setting salaries for the employees of the camp,” wrote Bellevue School Superintendent Mike Riley on October 29, 2007.
In 2014, Goncharoff said the district informed all coaches and teachers that accepting payments for teaching clinics during the summer months was prohibited. Goncharoff said he stopped taking payments for teaching the clinics after that notification was made.
"We had board approval, we had emails with board approval and superintendent approval," Goncharoff said regarding the allegation that he violated policy on outside payments before 2014. " I don’t understand and I absolutely don’t agree.”
Regarding allegations that Goncharoff directed or encouraged football players to attend an alternate high school to garner easy grades, Thomas wrote: “I believe this allegation is unfounded."
Goncharoff told KING 5 that he has a message for his players: "I want them to know that I’m not quitting on them because this isn’t fair to them.”
Team supporters, former players and their families decried the conclusions reached in the separate WIAA investigation. Some boosters alleged that the investigation was tainted with racism since many of the players singled out for receiving improper academic and other support were all African American.
After hearing the news Thursday that the district plans to fire Goncharoff, the Bellevue Wolverines Football Club issued the following statement:“We are outraged that the Bellevue School District staff is calling on the school board to terminate Coach Goncharoff.
“It is clear to us that this recommendation is horribly flawed in its reasoning, and is motivated by political expediency.
“We find it more than curious that the district cleared Coach Goncharoff of any of their original allegations, and in a shocking change of direction based their recommendation to fire him on a vaguely worded policy memo that they have belatedly raised after the fact.
“Those of us who have had the opportunity to play for Coach Goncharoff or work alongside him know him to be a man of exceptional character. He does not deserve the treatment the district is giving him, and we will stand alongside him as he works to set the record straight. The district’s misguided actions will affect not only the Bellevue High School community but likely every other school and team in the district.“We have been in communication with our members and countless other parents and former Wolverine players and we intend to voice our support for Coach Goncharoff when the board meets next Tuesday.”
Bellevue School District officials declined to address the firing. Spokesperson Elizabeth Sytman only said "the letter speaks for itself".
"I'm not surprised," countered school board member Steve McConnell, "We're not done yet. We still have to wait for KingCo (Athletic Conference) to come back."
KingCo is expected to weigh in on additional penalties for the program and its staff after a meeting with district officials earlier this week.
The Wolverine football program is the most successful team in state history -- winning 11 state championships in 16 seasons under Goncharoff.
Watch Susannah Frame's three-part interview with Goncharoff from early May:
Follow Susannah Frame on Twitter: @SFrameK5.