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Georgia Today: Secret Tapes, Lawsuits, An Embattled Coach: Welcome To Valdosta High School Football
Secret tapes, scandal, sanctions. It's a story that strikes at the heart of Georgia's passion for high school football. And Valdosta football is the stuff of legend. The Wildcats claim among the most wins of any team in state history. Now, the organization is the subject of multiple investigations and a broiling scandal that's attracting national attention. We'll get into all that and more on Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. This week, a story that strikes at the heart of Georgia high school football. It all starts with a secret recording of a man named Rush Propst, one of the most infamous coaches on the national high school football stage. Propst is — as of today, anyway — head coach at Valdosta High School, home to the Wildcat football program. The Wildcats are a powerhouse with 24 state championships and 900-plus wins. Last year, Propst was caught on tape alleging that Georgia and Florida college football programs routinely shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to attract talented recruits. And that wasn't all.
[TAPE] Nub Nelson: "And he wanted $4,500 a month. He wanted us to buy him a truck, he wanted a gas card and he wanted us to make a house payment."
Steve Fennessy: The investigations into Propst are ongoing. Now, he's been sanctioned by the Georgia High School Association. For more on that investigation and what's happening in Valdosta, I'm joined by New York Times sportswriter Joe Drape. He's also the author of several books, including his latest, The Saint Makers: Inside the Catholic Church and How a War Hero Inspired a Journey of Faith. So, Joe, give me an idea of just how crazy Valdosta, Ga., is about high school football.
Joe Drape: Valdosta is probably the Notre Dame of high school football or the Alabama for your SEC country. It is the granddaddy. It has the most titles — state titles in Georgia: 24. It has the most mythical titles nationally, at six. It's won 939 games, which is the most of any high school program. So it has a massive track record, a rich history and a tradition and a very crazed and committed community that supports it 365 days a year.
Steve Fennessy: So what's the secret sauce there? I mean, what makes that particular community so unique?
Joe Drape: It starts with the coach and it starts with the culture that a coach instills in a program. And Valdosta had two legendary coaches. Coach Bazemore — and Coach Bazemore was a strict disciplinarian, a beloved figure, and was a guy who ruled that program through the 1950s and the 1960s very firm-handedly. He retired eventually and who followed Coach Bazemore was Nick Hyder. He's basically considered the greatest coach in Georgia history. He was the only coach to win more than 300 games in less than 30 years. He was the first to win 200 games in 20 years, won national — three national championships at the highest level in Georgia, and was named coach of the year seven years. And he died suddenly in 1996 of a heart attack. And he was so beloved, Steve, that they laid his body in state at the 50-yard line at the field which now carries his name. Seven thousand people came through to pay their respects. He was dressed in the Wildcats’ black and gold and a football tucked under his arm. And it was a very memorable day to this day in Valdosta city history. So those were the guys who laid the foundation.
Steve Fennessy: One of the things that we hear about when it comes to small-town football, especially in the South, is that this is a playing field, literally, that's "colorblind," that transcends issues of race. Has that traditionally been the case in Valdosta as well?
Joe Drape: Well, in Valdosta, like much of the South, was slow to integration and it came with fits and starts and eventually it got there and teams did excel when it was fully integrated. At the same time, especially in more recent years, Lowndes County, which is the county high school —Valdosta is in Lowndes County — has grown into a suburban power and they have built a very good program now. And in fact, in Valdosta right now, when I was down there, both Black and white, basically told me that football brings everybody together, at least for those weeks and months in the fall. Valdosta, if you look at the history of the city, of Georgia, of the South — of America, I mean, we're living through it with George Floyd and police and everything going on now — race is a push and pull that has been with us a long time, and it very much influences the way choices and decisions get made.
Steve Fennessy: One of the central figures in this drama is a man named Nub Nelson. So who is Nub Nelson and how did he get that name?
Joe Drape: Nub Nelson was born Michael Nelson and he was born in Valdosta and was a tough little kid who went to the Valdosta High School football games with his parents, saw the buzz, saw the crowds. His sole goal in life was to play for the Wildcats, except when he was 13 — he's now 65, so this was in the late ‘60s — he was on horseback and he skittered off the side of the road into a road and got hit by a pickup truck. The pickup truck killed his horse, broke both his arms, fractured his back. He went to the hospital as part of recovery. It didn't go well. His arm got gangrenous and they had to amputate below the elbow. Thus he started naming himself “Nub,” calling himself Nub.
[TAPE] Nub Nelson: I'm Nub Nelson, president of Valdosta High Touchdown Club.
Joe Drape: A powerful story Nub tells is being in the hospital after his arm got amputated below the elbow and Coach Bazemore came to see him and that even sealed his loyalty to the Wildcats from there. Valdosta had a touchdown club, which was a booster organization and their job was mainly to raise money to feed the kids, to make sure they had proper equipment to fund road trips, to do whatever was needed to keep that football program going. And he became more involved in that. And by 22, he was made a member of the board. He eventually became executive director, which was a paid position. What's extraordinary to me, and this is the first I've ever heard of it in a high school program, is Valdosta has families that aren't doing well, that are poverty-stricken. And a prior coach had realized that had become a problem. The guys were losing weight throughout the course of the season. Between him and Nub, they decided to have a feeding program. So they have breakfast and dinner all year round for these players to make sure they get three squares — the lunch was already provided at school. He took a touchdown club that was — cleared 70, 80,000 dollars a year and turned it into a $250,000 a year annual revenues. You know, it started with blind love for the program. That's how he rose to some sort of prominence — or infamy or however you want to put it — into the Valdosta Wildcat program.
Steve Fennessy: And you mentioned Coach Alan Rodemaker. When was he hired and what was the significance of his hire in particular?
Joe Drape: Valdosta was a powerhouse ‘60s through the ‘90s. They fell off and they fell off for several reasons. They went through several coaches and for one reason or another, they did not find the guy, the next Bazemore, Hyder, who could take them in for decades. And they just didn't have any continuity.
Steve Fennessy: They were unremarkable.
Joe Drape: Unremarkable. That's a mortal sin in Valdosta, if you're the football team is to be unremarkable. I mean, this was a community used to the remarkable; used to piling up the victories, used to piling up the titles. So the touchdown club applied itself, put a lot of cohesion in the program. It got a lot more money in the program. They got a lot more commitment. People were excited again. Alan Rodemaker took it over in 2016.
NEWS TAPE: The newly hired head coach, Alan Rodemaker. So what's the pressure like for now, a head coach of the high school?
[TAPE] Alan Rodemaker: Well, I think everybody knows this is the toughest job around and it's the biggest challenge I could have.
Joe Drape: And that first season, he won the state title and it was the first title in 18 years and everybody thought all was right with the world again.
Steve Fennessy: And what happened?
Joe Drape: Well, something out of his control happened, is what my reporting seems to indicate, is that the school board had turned over to a 5-to-4 African American majority, and it was for the first time that it happened.
The superintendent of that school district, a guy named William Todd Cason, who is African American, when it was time to renew Rodemaker’s contract, recommended that Rodemaker be rehired, but the board voted 5-and-4 against him. And it just took everybody aback. And so several weeks later, the community forces the board to reconsider their decision. Dr. Cason recommended that they rehire Rodemaker and by the same vote, 5-4, he was not rehired.
NEWS TAPE: Now, the board meeting, it started with about an hour of public comment. We heard from parents and other coaches saying that Rodemaker doesn't just build football players, he builds young men. We also heard a lot of people saying that they believe that this decision was about race, something Rodemaker's attorney agrees with.
Attorney Sam Dennis: They have fired, or not renewed, a coach that the community overwhelmingly supports and loves. They have ripped apart a successful football program that is way bigger than just football games and Friday nights.
Joe Drape: So what that led into is a lawsuit by Rodemaker and his wife. And it surfaced a whole bunch of other narratives. Who knows what the real truth is, but it's out there somewhere.
Steve Fennessey: Up next, the state lowers the hammer on the Valdosta football program and Nub Nelson is out of a job. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.
Steve Fennessey: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by New York Times sports, culture and money reporter Joe Drape. We're talking about a controversy swirling around Valdosta high school football coach Rush Propst. OK, Joe. So, after the school board chooses not to renew Valdosta Wildcats coach Alan Rodemaker’s contract. How did coach Rush Propst enter the picture here?
Joe Drape: They went about a nationwide search, came up with the guy who most of America has at least heard of and offered him the job, and that is coach Rush Propst, who probably was one of the pioneers of reality TV — his Two-A-Days show. When he was the coach at Hoover High in Alabama was a staple on MTV, and that's where he became sort of famous.
NEWS TAPE: Welcome to Hoover, Alabama, home to Hoover High School. It was on Aug. 23, 2006. The city of Hoover first took the national spotlight, flashbulbs, cheerleaders, even the band showed up at the premiere of the groundbreaking MTV show Two-A-Days.
Steve Fennessey: And what was special about him as a coach, Rush Propst?
Joe Drape: Well, he won. And the coaching profession that's what makes anybody special, is you win. And he won with a certain amount of charisma, a certain amount of flash, and with national television cameras on.
NEWS TAPE: Even a decade later, the influence it had on the city of Hoover and the world of sports can still be felt.
Steve Fennessy: His tenure at — in Alabama and then beyond that was not without controversy. Right?
Joe Drape: Yeah, Coach Propst brings a lot of baggage and he got fired in Alabama. Subsequently found out that he had a second family in another part of the state that he was supporting while he was married and had a family there in the community. There was things about grades changing for some players. There was just a lot of complaints in the community about his character and his ethics and how he comported himself. Now, subsequently, he divorced the wife in Hoover that they came to know and married his second family, the mother of his second family, and they are now together. They moved on to Colquitt and went to Valdosta as rivals and down to Valdosta.
Steve Fennessy: So Coach Propst comes in. And what's his relationship with — with Nub Nelson, the head of the booster club, the touchdown club.
Joe Drape: It's interesting. And that's what I guess the crux of the dispute down there now is. I mean, the dispute has evolved from a lawsuit and what happened to the last coach to what Coach Propst wanted to build out of Valdosta and then spoke openly about it on an audiotape.
NEWS TAPE: According to a man named Michael Nelson, a prominent Valdosta booster, the newly hired Propst asked him for a few things.
[TAPE] Nub Nelson: He wanted us basically to support him. He wanted 45 hundred dollars a month. He wanted us to buy him a truck. He wanted a gas card and he wanted us to make a house payment.
NEWS TAPE: Over the course of about 15 minutes, Propst makes clear what he thinks is required for the Wildcats to win. He says he needs "funny money" to pay for rent for the families of players willing to move to Valdosta and join the program.
Joe Drape: It's very clear in a tape that Nelson made is he's used to having some perks that go beyond his $140,000 salary. He basically says, I want ten to fifteen thousand dollars in funny money in my drawer.
[TAPE] Nub Nelson: "So we gotta find some funny money."
[TAPE] Rush Propst: "Funny money."
[TAPE] Nub Nelson: "And how much funny money you think we need?"
[TAPE] Rush Propst: I don't [—audio unclear—] you know, it could be 10,000. First year, it may be $15,000. I don't know who's coming and what they need and all that."
Joe Drape: These are things that he indicated he wanted to happen in Valdosta. And along with that and he starts talking about how big-time college football is conducted across the South and beyond and implicates Alabama coach Nick Saban, Georgia coach Kirby Smart and the late Bear Bryant.
NEWS TAPE: This is the part that has set off alarms in the corridors of the SEC.
[TAPE] Rush Propst: You know what Kirby's doing at Georgia right now? You know why he’s taken that program to where he is? So Kirby's come down and met with the richest of the rich of southwest Georgians, small-time millionaires. Now listen: you know, how much money they spend on a ball player when they get one? Funny money. Ninety to a hundred thousand dollars to sign.
[TAPE] Nub Nelson: Nine to, uh, what?
[TAPE] Rush Propst: Ninety to 150,000 to sign! But that's what Kirby does over — who do you think he learned that from?
NEWS TAPE: The former Georgia running back, Nick Chubb — he's now a star with the Cleveland Browns — and he has denied these allegations on Twitter. As for Alabama and Georgia: They have both declined comment.
Steve Fennessy: So Nub Nelson makes this recording and its its last year, May of 2020. How does that recording get released ?
Joe Drape: Nub sits on it, Nub sits on until January, more or less. And I think he shares with a few people in the touchdown club. And eventually that leaks, he says he did not leak the tape. There was enough copies out there that somebody — it's going to leak. So that's where it sort of came to a head.
Steve Fennessy: So what what prompted Nelson to to record a conversation that he was having with — with Coach Propst at Valdosta High School? What — how did that happen?
Joe Drape: Well, there's two schools of thought, and I can only go with my reporting. Nub cooperated with me. We talked a great deal. I listened to the tape. You know, his side of the story is he didn't like the way things were going, that Coach Propst was trying to pocket money that was meant for the touchdown club and for the program greater. He didn't approve of the paying the players.
[TAPE] Nub Nelson: I didn't tell him that that was recording, because I wanted to be candid about what he was really up to with our touchdown club.
Joe Drape: But now the other side of the story from detractors of Nub Nelson, and he has them, is that, well, there is only room for one big man on campus and Nub thought he was getting pushed out. And that's where it stands at right now.
Steve Fennessy: Coach Propst listed a litany of things, many of which are true, would be scandalous. So what does this prompt the authorities to do? Who's involved now?
Joe Drape: Everybody involved, the compliance directors of Georgia and Alabama, as well as the NCAA. Presumably, they've all reached out and talked to Coach Propst, just to be very clear. Coach Propst nor his lawyers, they all declined to speak with me, as is their right. You know, there's a lot of investigations out there. It seems the Georgia High School Athletic Association has taken the first step and I expect more things are going to tumble out.
Steve Fennessy: Joe, to what degree is this a tempest in the Valdosta teapot or is this something that might have some ripple effects for other programs throughout the state of Georgia? And what about Nub Nelson? Is he still with the Touchdown Club?
Joe Drape: Nub Nelson is not. He was fired. He says he was fired because, basically for talking about this, for having that deposition out there, where it first sort of unearthed and where we first learned there was a tape and for making it national newsworthy. This is the thing that I want to kind of get through is: People — this is an important institution in Valdosta, as it is in many schools, and there's good people all involved all around it. There are no good guys or bad guys. It's not all-out war out there. Yeah, Nub's lost his job and lost some friends. But there's also people who support what he did, and I believe Nub will continue to be a Valdosta Wildcat supporter to the nth degree that he always has. He knows it's a rough period right now, but he's not hiding. Coach Propst is on administrative leave. What happens with him if there's a new coach? A new search has to happen. Who are they going to hire? Will an African American coach be in the mix right there? And then I guess the unfortunate thing for everything is: Now it's a harder job to fill, despite its tradition, despite its success, despite its passionate fan base.
Steve Fennessy: It's a hornet's nest.
Joe Drape: Yes, it's a hornet's nest. It is. And who's A) going to want to go down there when you've been decimated — taking over a decimated program? B) You know, you may only be there for a year or two or three because that's their past performances that surpass records. So, you know, all this is going to go in play. But smart money says Valdosta will rebuild and win more championships.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to New York Times sportswriter Joe Drape. So what's next for Valdosta football? Well, the Georgia High School Association's penalties levy a $7,500 fine on the program and bar it from participating in the playoffs.
NEWS TAPE: The letter from GHSA director Dr. James Hines specifically mentioning Probe saying, quote, It is clear that coach props and certain members of the Valdosta Touchdown Club or other members have acted outside the direct and complete control of the administrative head of Valdosta High School.
Steve Fennessy: Valdosta is expected to appeal. For his part, Coach Rush Propst says he'll wait for the process to play itself out. For more, go to GPB.org, I'm Steve Fennessy, this is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jess Mador is Georgia Today's producer and our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jahi Whitehead. Thank you for listening. We'll see you next week.