Stripping the North Bergen High School football team of its 2011 sectional championship, the NJSIAA's executive committee sent a resounding message that recruiting for athletic advantage will not be tolerated in scholastic sports. After a robust debate during an appeals hearing at the association's Robbinsville headquarters on Wednesday, the executive committee voted 24-0 with three abstentions to vacate the North 1 Group IV title, which North Bergen claimed with a 14-13 victory over Montclair.
Only one other gridiron title — Mainland forfeited its 1995 South Group III championship for using an ineligible player – has been vacated since the NJSIAA introduced a playoff system 38 years ago.
Sectional runner-up Montclair initiated Wednesday's hearing with an appeal of a May 3 controversies committee ruling that placed North Bergen on probation and ordered it to follow a corrective action plan after determining the school was responsible for recruiting two star football players.
A maelstrom of criticism followed as a majority of coaches across New Jersey felt the sanctions were too lenient and that North Bergen should have been stripped of its title – in accordance with Article X, Section 1 of the NJSIAA's bylaws – for using ineligible players.
The controversies committee found transfers Eric McMullen (Paulsboro) and Denzell Leitch (Xaverian, N.Y.) registered at North Bergen without proper documentation and received special benefits from legendary head coach and assistant schools superintendent Vincent Ascolese.
"Hopefully it sends the message that will resonate throughout the state that recruiting for athletic advantage is a serious violation of NJSIAA rules," Montclair Athletics Director John Porcelli said of Wednesday's ruling, noting Montclair accepted defeat on the field and its appeal was not to claim a championship through forfeit.
"Our concern was a much larger one, and that was to ensure that everybody plays by the same rules. We feel this ruling clearly states that."
The executive committee listened to arguments from attorneys from both sides Wednesday for more than an hour before voting.
North Bergen can file an appeal of the executive committee's ruling with acting State Department of Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf.
Based on precedent, however, Cerf would almost certainly uphold the executive committee's decision, which would leave North Bergen with no recourse but to take its case to the New Jersey State Superior Court's Appellate Division, if it desired.
"You hate to see anything like that happen, but the state's got to follow the rules and regulations they set forth," Matawan Athletics Director Joe Martucci, president of the New Jersey Football Coaches Association, said of the ruling.
"As school districts, we should all follow those rules to the letter. If we don't, then obviously we are subject to the penalties that are imposed upon us."
Of the 111 assistant and head football coaches statewide who responded to a New Jersey Press Media survey, 93 (or 84 percent) believe North Bergen should be stripped of its championship.
"I thought they (NJSIAA officials) as a group struggled with this (controversy)," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, a longtime critic of the association. "It appears now the right conclusion has been reached and a point of fairness has been achieved."
Burzichelli said the controversies committee's May 3 report generated evidence that seemed to contradict any sanctions it imposed short of vacating North Bergen's title for using ineligible players.
"Coach Ascolese … facilitated (the players') move to North Bergen so that they could play on his football team," the report read. "(One) athlete received monetary benefits and encouragement to transfer to the school from Coach Ascolese's family, including his daughter, his son (a former assistant coach) and his grandson (who played on the team)."
McMullen was an All-County linebacker and star running back who scored a touchdown in the sectional final. Leitch was an All-County kick returner and star defensive back.
Both lived in an apartment Ascolese owned, paying rent below fair-market value. While McMullen lived with his mother, Leitch, a minor, lived alone, in violation of district residency requirements.
The report said Ascolese himself approved McMullen's registration at North Bergen, even though the player provided just one proof of address (not the required two) and failed to submit a birth certificate or parents' identification.
Leitch, according to the report, registered without North Bergen securing a transfer waiver from Xaverian and with a note signed by Ascolese stating Leitch and his father were renting an apartment he owned.
The report said there was no evidence that Ascolese, who retired at the end of last season as the third winningest coach in state history, directly encouraged the players to transfer.