Despite attempts to fire him, Fort Worth coach remains on the job

Former Texas Southern head coach Johnnie Cole was hired at Eastern Hills High School in 2013. He was at the center of an internal school district investigation throughout the 2015-16 school year.
Former Texas Southern head coach Johnnie Cole was hired at Eastern Hills High School in 2013. He was at the center of an internal school district investigation throughout the 2015-16 school year. Houston Chronicle archives

This report includes graphic descriptions.

Where Johnnie Cole goes, trouble often follows.

Two years after being fired as football coach at Texas Southern University over accusations that he violated NCAA rules — not his first run-in with the NCAA — Cole was hired as a teacher and assistant coach at Eastern Hills High School in Fort Worth.

Walter Dansby, Fort Worth’s superintendent in 2013, said he didn’t want to hire Cole but faced pressure from some school board members to find the embattled coach a job.

Cole’s connection-laden path to Fort Worth started in controversy and could have ended months ago after he was accused of having an improper relationship with an Eastern Hills student during the 2014-15 school year. An internal report by the school district’s Office of Professional Standards said the student told an investigator that Cole had sex with her, had friends threaten her with retaliation and suggested that she work as a prostitute.

It’s a felony for an educator to engage in sexual contact with a student in the same school or district, including those who are 18.

But the student, now in her second year at a community college, later recanted her accusations, citing stress and wanting to get on with her life, according to documents obtained by the Star-Telegram.

Although no criminal charges were filed, the internal report — which was presented to the Fort Worth school board May 10 — said investigators found “reason to believe” that Cole engaged in the improper relationship.

“We recommended termination of this employee in what we believed to be the best interest of the district,” said Superintendent Kent Scribner, whose administration had earlier called for Cole to resign, documents and emails show.

Trustees voted 5-3 to not terminate Cole’s contract, and he was later reassigned to an off-campus position within the athletic department at Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center, where he makes almost $69,000 a year — and does not have contact with students.

The vote on Johnnie Cole

Fort Worth school board members voted 5-3 on May 10 to not terminate the contract of teacher/coach Johnnie Cole on accusations that he had an improper relationship with a student.

Trustee T.A. Sims, a Texas Southern alumnus who praised Cole’s leadership in an undated letter of recommendation in his personnel file, was one of the five board members who voted to keep him.

“I voted my conscience on the evidence that I have,” Sims said.

Cole told investigators that he did not have a sexual relationship with the student, who was 18 at the time and played basketball and volleyball at Eastern Hills. He said his relationship with her revolved around helping her get into college because of his connections as a former college coach.

“The investigation is done and over. I’m moving on with my life,” said Cole, who is married and has three children from a previous marriage. “Things like this happen. It’s time to move on. It does no good for anybody to even talk about it.”

Cole directed further questions to his Houston-based attorney, Brooks Harrison.

Things like this happen. It’s time to move on. It does no good for anybody to even talk about it.

Johnnie Cole

“Not only does coach Cole refute these claims, the alleged female student independently signed a sworn statement and her statement speaks for itself,” Harrison said.

In a handwritten statement dated Nov. 10 given to police at Weatherford College, where she attends school, she recanted her accusations, stating she did not have a sexual relationship with Cole. The statement says that “he has said sexual words, but we’ve never had sex or anything of that nature.”

Talk of a sexual nature between a teacher and a student is a breach of the Fort Worth school district’s Employee Standards of Conduct.

The student declined to talk to the Star-Telegram, and her grandmother, the young woman’s legal guardian, said she struggles to understand her granddaughter’s change of mind.

“I’m very frustrated because she’s not talking and not understanding the importance of this matter,” said the grandmother, whose name was withheld to protect the identity of her granddaughter. “There’s nothing I can do to make her talk.”

Related story: State wants more money to investigate improper educator-student relationships.

Accusations a ‘damn lie’

According to the internal report, in September 2014, Cole allegedly asked for the phone number of another student’s mother and allegedly commented “about female students’ backsides.” Those allegations could not be substantiated. Cole received a “Letter of Concern” and was required to complete a training course.

The more serious allegation of an improper relationship with a student arose in October 2015, when a secretary at Eastern Hills overhead students talking of a relationship between Cole and the student, according to the report. The secretary told the principal, who referred the matter to the Office of Professional Standards.

Cole was placed on paid leave on Oct. 22, 2015, pending the outcome of the investigation.

The student told the district investigator that she had a sexual relationship with Cole during the 2014-15 school year. She told the investigator that Cole heard she needed money to help her grandmother and mother, who died in 2015 of a heart condition.

An Eastern Hills administrator said in a statement to the school district investigator that the student told her that Cole said, “If I do something for you, what will you do for me?”

A statement was also provided to the investigator by a school secretary, who said she had talked to other students who told her that the student and Cole “had an affair.” The secretary said she later texted and talked to Cole and asked him if he had sex with the student. She said Cole said the accusations were a “damn lie,” according to the statement in the internal report.

As the district began looking into the accusations, a Fort Worth police officer assigned to Eastern Hills initiated a criminal investigation.

A detective investigated the case and had planned to present it to the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, according to the internal report. But that was before the student recanted her claims; the case was “cleared by exceptional means in December of 2015,” police told the Star-Telegram.

The Star-Telegram requested the police report, but attorneys for the city denied the request, saying it describes allegations of abuse, and asked for an opinion from the state attorney general’s office, which is pending.

‘Touched her all over’

Before recanting, the student told school district investigators that Cole and another man had threatened her, according to the internal report.

“If you got something against Cole, just let it go, ’cause I know where you are at,” a man told the student by telephone, according to the report. She later called the man back and asked why he was calling. She stated that the man told her he was “trying to protect his friend and his job.” She responded by saying, “If you were really trying to protect your friend and his job, you would tell him not to mess with no kids.”

The student said she also received a phone call from a woman named “Tanisia” who said she was calling on behalf of Cole and wanted to know what it would take for the student to not proceed with her allegations, according to the report. The student said the woman left two phone numbers for her to call if she came up with an appropriate amount “to make this go away.”

Mr. Cole touched her on her thigh and at first she felt uncomfortable but she knew this was the only way she could help her grandmother financially.

School district investigative report

The first time the student and Cole allegedly had sexual contact came in October 2014 during basketball season, after Cole offered her and a male student a ride home after a game, according to the report. The male student, who sat in the front seat, was dropped off first. The student said Cole then urged her to sit in the front seat.

“Mr. Cole touched her on her thigh and at first she felt uncomfortable but she knew this was the only way she could help her grandmother financially,” the report says. It continues, “Mr. Cole drove somewhere close by his house and touched her all over her body.”

The student told the investigator that she and Cole had sex fives times, three times in Cole’s vehicle and twice at his home. She described the inside of Cole’s residence for investigators.

The report states that Cole would at times pick her up from her job at a pizza restaurant during a break and that they did “sexual things” in Cole’s vehicle. When the investigator asked her to elaborate, she said she twice performed oral sex but stopped because “the second time she threw up.”

The report states that the student stopped the relationship in March 2015 during spring break because, according to the internal report, “Mr. Cole told her she could make a lot of money prostituting down in Houston and that he would purchase a ticket if she wanted him to. She told Mr. Cole no, and that she does not want to have any contact with him anymore.”

O.D. Wyatt ‘declined to accept him’

Dansby, the former superintendent, said he didn’t want to hire Cole because he was concerned about the coach’s past college controversies.

As a college football coach, Cole built a reputation for turning around struggling programs. But he became just as known for run-ins with the NCAA at a string of schools, including his last job as a head coach at Texas Southern University in Houston, where he starred at quarterback in the 1980s.

He was fired there in April 2011, four months after he led Texas Southern to its first outright conference championship in school history. The NCAA put the school on probation through 2017 and handed Cole a three-year show-cause penalty, making it prohibitively difficult for him to land another NCAA coaching job.

An NCAA report detailed multiple violations in football and other sports. Cole was accused of allowing a booster to recruit players on his behalf, actively encouraging improper contact with recruits and for three consecutive years giving more scholarships than the NCAA allows.

He had previously been connected to NCAA inquiries during coaching stints at Tennessee State and Alabama State.

“We decided to take a chance on him,” said Glenn Lewis, a prominent Fort Worth attorney and former state representative who chaired the Texas Southern University board of regents when Cole coached there. “We stipulated in his contract if he did anything to bring the NCAA to our campus, regardless of the findings, it’s grounds for termination.”

Dansby said he did not want to take such a chance but caved to pressure from some trustees.

“I was concerned about it,” said Dansby, who retired in 2015, before the improper-relationship allegations against Cole surfaced. “It was brought to me for hire and to be placed in the athletic office and I refused. I kept getting pushed to go forward to hire him.”

“Our records do not indicate there was a formal interview,” district spokesman Clint Bond said. “When a new principal was appointed to Eastern Hills High School on July 24, 2013, the principal was advised by the then-superintendent that Mr. Cole would fill the physical education position currently vacant at the school, as well as a coaching position.”

School district administrators said Cole applied at O.D. Wyatt High School before getting the job at Eastern Hills. Bond said the principal at Wyatt “declined to accept him.”

Cole was placed on paid leave during the Fort Worth investigation. The school district told the Star-Telegram that Cole is now classified as a “teacher on special assignment” and reports to the district’s athletics department. His duties at Wilkerson-Greines include supervising custodians and preparing “startup” funds for football games, among other game-related activities.

‘Bring us those text messages’

Based on the school district’s investigation and report, administrators recommended to the school board March 22 that Cole’s employment be terminated. But no action was taken, and trustees sent the case back to administrators for more information.

The recommendation was presented to the board a second time May 10.

Three trustees voted in favor of terminating the contract — Jacinto Ramos, Ashley Paz and Matthew Avila. Trustee Norman Robbins was not present.

Ramos said he voted on the side of caution because the issue involved a student.

Asked why she voted to terminate Cole’s employment, Paz answered: “… When I studied the details and content of this investigation, I felt the only reasonable action for me was to support and vote for the staff’s recommendation that we terminate that employee. It was the obvious and sensible course of action.”

She recanted her statement. Did that mean it didn’t happen? Or was she paid? She said it didn’t happen. That’s what I go on. … There was no reason to believe it happened.

Trustee Christene Moss

Avila declined to discuss his reason for voting to terminate, saying it was a personnel matter.

The five trustees who voted to keep Cole are Sims, Christene Moss, Ann Sutherland, Judy Needham and Tobi Jackson. Needham and Jackson declined to comment on their votes.

Moss said: “She recanted her statement. Did that mean it didn’t happen? Or was she paid? She said it didn’t happen. That’s what I go on. … There was no reason to believe it happened.”

Other board members said they didn’t believe there was enough information to back up the student’s allegations. They wanted to see evidence such as reported text messages between Cole and the student.

According to the statement from the school secretary, another female student told her she had seen “several text messages from coach Cole to [the student] asking for sex.”

Those text messages, however, could not be verified during the internal investigation.

Sutherland said the lack of that key piece of evidence led her to vote not to terminate Cole’s contract.

“We sent the case back the first time for more research,” Sutherland said. “I said, ‘If there are text messages, then that is significant evidence that would show proof of an improper relationship.

 ‘Bring us those text messages and I’ll vote for firing then.’ 

School administrators said should circumstances in the case require additional scrutiny, Cole’s contract could go before trustees again.

Staff writer Deanna Boyd and staff researcher Cathy Belcher contributed to this report.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1

Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan

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