Jennifer Levitz and Melissa Korn:
Seventeen years before he pleaded guilty to running the nationwide college-admissions cheating scheme exposed by federal authorities last year in Operation Varsity Blues, William “Rick” Singer made a strong impression in Omaha, Neb., where he showed how far he was willing to go to propel a mediocre youth basketball team to victory.
Mr. Singer, who had already sold his first college-counseling business, was in Omaha in 2002 as part of a career detour into managing telephone call centers. When he arrived to take a job at the Omaha-based West Corporation, he volunteered to coach a slumping team of middle-schoolers at the Jewish Community Center. The young crew didn’t know what hit them.
Practices, once just an hour long, now ran for two or three hours. Mr. Singer raced along the sideline during games, cursing, barking orders and chewing out players who didn’t seem to be trying hard enough. The effort paid off. The second-rate squad began dominating the league, and former player Alex Epstein remembers his coach somewhat fondly: “I think he inspired me to want to get better because he was hard on us.”
But Mr. Singer pushed still harder. He encouraged the team to rack up embarrassing leads, he hounded referees. Mr. Epstein remembers him once challenging a parent from an opposing team to step outside. While prepping the JCC’s high-school boys’ team for a huge summer sports competition for Jewish athletes, he brought in a tall student whom the other teens suspected was a ringer from a local Catholic prep school, says a former player. “The kids were scared of him, and the parents were half-scared of him,” recalls Bob Franzese, then the JCC’s athletic director. “He wouldn’t take his foot off the gas. He took this as a personal challenge, and it went too far.”