Six days before Christmas, Matt Najieb picked up a call from his son, Alex, an 18-year-old basketball player from Milwaukee who was spending the season at a prep school in Iowa.
"Dad, they’re arresting the coach," Alex Najieb told his father. "They’re putting him in the police car right now."
Alex’s team, Kingdom Prep Academy, had just finished a game in Idaho and was headed back to Des Moines through a snowstorm in Wyoming, when, according to a police video, its head coach, Joel D. Hannagan, had trouble controlling the team van.
The police stopped him and found that he was driving with a suspended license. He was handcuffed and put in a police pickup.
In the end, the police did not press charges. But the coach had to promise that he wouldn’t drive the players home, some 800 miles away. That task fell to Alex Najieb.
For Matt Najieb, the episode was a fitting climax to a semester filled with turmoil. What had started with promises of accredited classes, comfortable apartments, and big-time recruiting attention for a dozen top players had unraveled over arguments about food, unfit living conditions, and more than one conversation with the police.
Prep schools have a long history of molding players into better students and athletes. But a new wave of programs with loose academic ties is testing the virtues of the system.
Kingdom Prep is one of dozens of basketball academies that have popped up in recent years to cater to "postgrad" players—recent high-school graduates who need to improve their standardized-test scores to meet the NCAA’s academic requirements. The programs have also attracted younger players hoping to beef up their basketball skills while completing their high-school diplomas.
Many of these programs have legitimate academic affiliations and have helped players earn Division I scholarships. But some have run into legal problems, including accusations that they abused players or stole their money. Others, including Kingdom Prep, appear to have little connection to education.
The NCAA has tried to crack down. It has placed some 200 schools under an "extended review" to evaluate whether their courses meet its academic requirements. The review is not necessarily a signal of wrongdoing, but it has ferreted out problems at several prominent academies.
In September the NCAA issued guidance on "nonscholastic" programs, singling out two of the nation’s elite training grounds, Huntington Prep, in West Virginia, and Findlay Prep, in Las Vegas. Programs like those, which play a national schedule, have long operated outside the purview of state athletic associations. To meet the NCAA’s new regulations, however, they must be subject to the rules and regulations of a scholastic governing body. If they aren’t, college coaches will not be allowed to recruit in their gyms.
It’s not always clear what schools are compliant, and the NCAA does not publish a list of the offenders. Yet questionable programs continue to attract some of the country’s highest-profile recruits.
Colleges have helped support the system’s growth. Many community colleges schedule games against prep schools, covering their food and travel expenses and providing an honorarium (the colleges almost always win). Kingdom Prep brought in between $800 and $2,000 per game this season, Mr. Hannagan says, playing such teams as the College of Southern Idaho, Garden City Community College, and Hutchinson Community College and Area Vocational School.
Major-college coaches have also played a role. They sometimes encourage recruits to spend a year at a prep school to improve their athletic skills. Such moves preserve the players’ NCAA eligibility and provide colleges with additional control over the talent pool.
"A coach might say, 'I don't have a scholarship for this kid today, but if I put him over here I can get him next year.'"
"A coach might say, ‘I don’t have a scholarship for this kid today, but if I put him over here I can get him next year,’" says Mike McKee, associate head men’s basketball coach at the University of Denver. "The goal is to get him hot when you need him."
But a series of failed start-ups has given the once-quaint world of prep schools a bad name. Last year the top official at a prep academy in California was arrested after four players accused him of physical abuse. At another program, in Florida, up to 20 players shared a small house with one bathroom and were forced to work on construction crews to earn their stay, one player told The Chronicle. The ABCD Prep Academy, formerly based in Dallas, left town after its founder faced accusations of tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid debts and substandard living conditions for players. That didn’t stop the coach. This season, his team started back up a few miles down the road from Kingdom Prep, in Des Moines.
Mr. Hannagan, a fast-talking former shooting guard who played at three different community colleges, says he got his start working for the Central Jersey Academy. After a stint as a coach with the Amateur Athletic Union, a popular youth basketball program, he formed his nonprofit academy, using his parents’ home address, in Johnston, Iowa. He is the academy’s sole employee.
According to a business filing with the Iowa secretary of state, his organization’s goal is "to provide an opportunity to develop Academic skills and improve college entrance exams scores." He also applied for a federal tax exemption, which the IRS recently approved.
In an interview, Mr. Hannagan said that he started Kingdom Prep in part to give unheralded players a second chance, and that he uses his many connections to help them land scholarships.
"I tell parents, 'If you come to my program, I will find your kid somewhere to go to school and pay little or nothing at all.'"
"I tell parents, ‘If you come to my program, I will find your kid somewhere to go to school and pay little or nothing at all,’ " he says. "Every kid is going somewhere playing basketball."
In a game often criticized for its fill of hustlers, Mr. Hannagan sees himself as one of the good guys. He says he holds weekly Bible studies for players and stays in an apartment near his team to help students stay out of trouble.
Unlike other coaches, Mr. Hannagan says, he has not tried to trade on his players’ talent. But he figured if he could establish a competitive program, he would attract the attention of major colleges, which could help him land a job at that level.
He has attempted to build ties with Division I programs. He helped Stevie Repichowski, who played for him two years ago, earn a scholarship to the University of Tulsa.
After signing Mr. Repichowski, Tulsa’s head coach, Danny Manning, a former college Player of the Year at the University of Kansas, publicly complimented Mr. Hannagan’s coaching. And over the past two seasons, Bruce Weber, head coach at Kansas State University, has recruited two Kingdom Prep players.
In many states, setting up a prep program is as easy as settling on a name. The Kingdom name is well known in the Des Moines area. Kingdom Hoops, a popular AAU program, has about 350 players from grades kindergarten through 11, and its tournaments attract some 900 teams a year.
Before establishing his academy, Mr. Hannagan received permission from Kingdom Hoops to use the Kingdom name. The AAU program also let him rent court time in its new 30,000-square-foot building, in an industrial area just off the interstate.
Among Kingdom Prep’s high-profile recruits this season were Quae Furlow and Jamal Poplar, two past stars of the Michigan Mustangs, a leading AAU team based in Detroit. Mr. Furlow landed in Des Moines in August, days before the rest of the team, and says he was immediately impressed with the gym. But he and several teammates had a different reaction when they saw where they were going to be living.
Before moving to Iowa, several players and their parents say, Mr. Hannagan showed them pictures of the team’s new training facilities and modern, well-lit apartments. But when they showed up, players and parents say, they were taken to cramped apartments with stained carpets.
Parents say that Mr. Hannagan assured them he would have the carpets cleaned, and promised that their sons would be well cared for. The next morning, the team ate breakfast at the coach’s church, and Mr. Hannagan drove them to a grocery to stock up on cereal, peanut butter, and snacks. But food—which cost about $12 a day per player, Mr. Hannagan estimates—became a source of tension. The coach insists he never scrimped on a meal. But several players say they often didn’t get enough to eat.
It wasn’t long, players and parents say, before the coach began complaining about money. Some parents say he reneged on aid—a charge he strongly denies. "People just weren’t paying their bills," he told The Chronicle. Another apparent setback: A large grant he had been promised did not come through.
Prep schools can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars a year to more than $20,000, depending on their reputations (some elite East Coast programs have been around more than 200 years).
Mr. Hannagan charged $9,500, which was supposed to cover room and board, travel to several dozen games, and any tutoring or academic support students needed. The coach planned to give scholarships to his highest-profile recruits but says he expected the majority of players to pay.
It’s unclear how many did. Mr. Hannagan says he budgeted $75,000 for the season but brought in just $49,000. He says he made up the difference with help from his church and family, and with money he saved working temporary jobs in the off-season.
At the start of the school year, Kingdom Prep did not appear to have any academic affiliations.
One of parents’ biggest concerns was the lack of academic focus. At the start of the school year, Kingdom Prep did not appear to have any academic affiliations. That wasn’t a problem for many Kingdom Prep players, who had already graduated from high school. But Mr. Furlow and Mr. Poplar, a onetime University of Michigan recruit, both had one more year to complete.
Coach Hannagan took them to two local high schools to try to get them enrolled. But after meeting with school officials, both players were turned away. According to the players, the state rejected their applications, saying that transfer students must prove that they are relocating to "make a home"—not just to play sports.
Mr. Hannagan next approached officials at Ankeny Christian Academy, a private school near where the team was staying. Tuition was more than $6,000 per player, an amount that Mr. Hannagan had not budgeted. But with help from his church and his family, he says, the two players were enrolled. By then, the school year was three weeks old.
Mr. Hannagan promised the rest of the team that he would hire tutors and have classes to help them prepare for standardized tests. Some players say he gave them an ACT prep book. But the classes never happened. And when the players asked about tutors, he put them off.
The coach says he was proud that he helped Mr. Furlow and Mr. Poplar get into school, but feels bad for the others. "We just didn’t have the money," he says. "Something had to give."
With little else to do, players say they often just sat around in their apartments playing video games and watching television.
Although he had permission to use the Kingdom name and rent gym time in the building, Mr. Hannagan’s team was low on the pecking order at Kingdom Hoops. His players couldn’t get practice time most nights until after 9 p.m. So with no school to attend and little else to do, players say they often just sat around in their apartments playing video games and watching television. The idle time contributed to a series of off-court problems. Several times last year, the local police responded to calls about noise. On more than one occasion, neighbors also reported smelling marijuana.
After returning from a tournament in Kansas, Mr. Furlow noticed that his new $500 flat-screen was missing. The players say they asked Mr. Hannagan for help, but he told them to call the police themselves. (The coach disputes their account.)
Frustrated at his lack of support, several players say, they broke into the coach’s apartment and stole some $5,000 worth of items, including two laptops and 13 pairs of Air Jordans.
When the coach reported the incident to the police, he initially did not know who was responsible. He later found the culprits when one player tried to sell his shoes on Twitter.
Mr. Hannagan confronted the player, and his merchandise was returned. He did not press charges, he told the police, because he feared it would implicate too many players and the team would have difficulty finishing its season.
By then, though, many Kingdom players were already leaving. After the incident in Wyoming, Mr. Najieb headed back to Milwaukee. He has since accepted a scholarship to play basketball at a community college in Arizona. Mr. Furlow says he is taking online classes, and hopes to complete his high school this semester.
In mid-November, Mr. Poplar told the coach that he planned to return home to Michigan. But the coach didn’t want him to leave. The two got into a heated argument outside the players’ apartments, and someone called the police. With a crowd gathered, Mr. Hannagan kicked a grill and, according to a police report, started yelling at the player, saying he had invested a lot of time and money and didn’t want him to "throw it away." Once the police showed up, everyone cooled off. But days later, the star player moved out.
Mr. Poplar returned to Iowa in January to give Kingdom one more go. But a month later the program had just four players, and Mr. Hannagan had moved them into the basement of his parents’ home.
Mr. Poplar thought the coach’s heart was in the right place, but he says he regrets ever leaving his home state: "I could have played my senior year" in Michigan "and never had any problems."
Next season he plans to play for the College of Southern Idaho, one of the country’s top-ranked junior-college programs. He met the team’s head coach, Jeremy Cox, a former University of Kentucky assistant, through Mr. Hannagan.
As for Mr. Hannagan, he has not figured out a plan for Kingdom Prep to join a scholastic association. That would continue to limit NCAA coaches from recruiting his players. But he has not given up his dream. He was overlooked more than a few times himself on the court, and he knows there are plenty of players out there just like him, looking for another shot at the big time.
He says he needs to pay more attention to the character of players before signing them up.
But he plans to be ready next season. He recently met with a local foundation leader about combining operations. And he says he has hired a fund-raising consultant.
"If I get $50,000, $75,000 donated to my program, I’ll be able to make some money off this," he says. In the meantime, he hopes to keep working with Ankeny Christian and Kingdom Hoops.
"I have a school, a gym now. Now kids are going to be in a classroom setting. I feel like I’m really on the verge."