Weber High: Ousted football coach denies recruiting; principal still on leave
BRIAN WOLFER, Special to the Standard-Examiner
Hours before Weber High School’s first football game on Aug. 11, then-WHS offensive coordinator Zac Connors says he met with Weber principal Chris Earnest.
The two discussed the results of an internal investigation, conducted by Earnest, into allegations that Connors recruited two football players from Layton High to Weber, bullied football players in his capacity as WHS offensive coordinator and used foul language at practice.
Earnest, Connors claimed in an interview with the Standard-Examiner earlier this month, told Connors she didn’t find anything to substantiate the recruiting or bullying claims.
Multiple additional sources with knowledge of the investigation’s outcome, but who didn’t want to speak publicly for fear of reprisal, told the Standard-Examiner they were also told by Earnest directly that her investigation couldn’t verify the recruiting or bullying claims against Connors.
Yet almost three weeks later, on Aug. 31, Connors was fired for what he was told by district officials to be “undue influence” in the recruitment of football players. A Weber School District statement issued earlier that day read that “it was ultimately determined a WHS coach exercised undue influence in the recruitment of players,” and a follow-up statement that same day confirmed Connors’ dismissal.
Tim Vandenack, Standard-Examiner
In an Aug. 31 response clarifying the undue influence statement, district spokesperson Lane Findlay said it was Earnest who specifically determined there was undue influence.
Connors’ and others’ claims about what they said they were told about the investigation’s conclusions contradict the district’s statement and additional claims. Connors denies the recruiting and undue influence allegations.
He said he was interviewed by Earnest and another WHS administrator during the initial investigation in early August and was later interviewed by district officials about the same recruiting allegations during a subsequent WSD investigation into Earnest in mid-August.
Connors said the content and questions of both meetings were essentially the same, and he denied the recruiting and undue influence allegations in both.
He’s unsure what changed in the 20 days from when he says he was told the recruiting allegations weren’t substantiated and when he was fired.
“I was shocked,” Connors said. “I just said, based on everything that we had been told, and the information that was shared with us with the two kids’ situations separate from us, there wasn’t anything else that we were expecting.”
In a Monday response to additional questions posed by the Standard-Examiner, the district’s account conflicts with Connors’ claims surrounding his dismissal.
“The district initiated an investigation into how that investigation was conducted and if appropriate administrative action was taken, the latter being the focus,” reads a portion of the district’s response. “It was the District’s conclusion that there was undue influence, and it was the District’s understanding that this was Chris’ assessment, as well.
“The district reviewed the initial investigation conducted by Ms. Earnest, along with initiating a follow-up investigation which involved interviewing and meeting with Coach Conners (sic),” an additional part of the district’s response reads. “During the follow-up investigation, the decision was made to release Coach Connors.”
Connors says he wants to keep coaching football at the high school level. His seven months with Weber High in 2023 represent his third stint with the program, following one-year stays in 2013 and 2021, which were sandwiched around various college coaching roles.
“I sleep really well at night knowing that I did nothing wrong and, you know, it’s — yeah, it’s just, the thing that bothers me is this is my, coaching’s like my passion, what I really love and enjoy doing. And to kind of have that stripped away from you by something that you know is not true and not justified, like, that’s what burns,” Connors said.
The recruiting allegations, dismissal of a coach and more have swirled over Weber’s program since the middle of July.
In late July, Earnest received a complaint alleging Connors had recruited two football players to Weber from Layton High, bullied football players in his capacity as WHS offensive coordinator and used foul/inappropriate language during practice.
She interviewed the team’s coaches, including Connors, and families of players while also reviewing verifications of the two players’ residency in Weber High School’s boundary, the Standard-Examiner has previously reported.
After the meeting with Earnest on Aug. 11, Connors considered himself clear of any wrongdoing since Earnest had apparently finished her investigation.
“All of them: nothing. So everything that got brought up in the claims in her investigation, she found zero evidence of — she told me that,” Connors said.
One or more people — it’s unclear who, or the scope of the response — were apparently unsatisfied with the outcome of Earnest’s investigation and lodged a complaint with the school district about how Earnest handled it.
The district placed Earnest on leave on Aug. 16 and began its own examination. That same day, the two football players at the center of the recruiting investigation had their varsity eligibility revoked, but it’s unclear who made that decision. The two had played in Weber’s opening game against Westlake on Aug. 11.
According to an email from UHSAA counsel Mark Van Wagoner, the families of the two players in question appealed the eligibility decision.
The players initially had their transfer approved by the UHSAA before the season began, after their families submitted information purporting to show they’d each moved into Weber High’s boundary, in accordance with UHSAA transfer rules.
Some at Weber High objected to this and made claims to the UHSAA about having information showing the families hadn’t moved, Van Wagoner said.
After sitting out games against Pleasant Grove and Roy, the two players had their eligibility restored at a UHSAA hearing on Aug. 30 after their families provided information “tending to prove that they had moved into the boundary of Weber High School and intended to remain in that boundary,” Van Wagoner said.
Connors questioned why a coach would then be fired when the UHSAA cleared the two players and found no wrongdoing.
However, Van Wagoner said, the UHSAA only adjudicated the residency portion of the players’ eligibility at the Aug. 30 meeting and not the recruiting and undue influence allegations.
The next day, Aug. 31, WSD summoned Connors to its office, fired him and released a statement saying a WHS coach used “undue influence” in recruiting football players. He was an at-will employee of WSD, able to be fired at any time without cause.
During the Aug. 31 meeting with the district, Connors said he asked for evidence that proved he exerted undue influence or recruited the two players.
Officials had Venmo transactions showing Connors had been paid for private training for more than two years by the mother of one of the players who transferred to Weber, which the Standard-Examiner independently verified.
Connors, who says he trains numerous athletes, called it circumstantial evidence that doesn’t prove undue influence. If that is considered undue influence, Connors says, it should apply to other high school sports coaches in the district who also conduct private training on the side.
The district apparently disagreed because one of the players Connors was training transferred to a school where Connors coached.
Connors says he wasn’t yet coaching at Weber High when the two players and their families decided to transfer there. After having discussions with some of the team’s coaches over the Christmas holiday period about getting back into coaching, he returned to the coaching staff in January, the same month the two players enrolled.
Connors acknowledges prior ties to one of the players and knew both players’ families had discussed leaving Layton High, and one of the families had asked him directly about the Weber High coaching staff, but Connors denied being directly involved in the players’ transfers.
Findlay says Weber School District officials referred to the UHSAA’s definition of undue influence when evaluating Connors’ case.
Article 1, Section 10-A of the UHSAA bylaws states the “use of undue influence by any person, connected with or not connected with a member school, to secure the enrollment or transfer of a student to a member school for the purpose of participation in Association athletic activities is prohibited.”
The district’s look at Weber High didn’t end with firing Connors.
Earnest remains out as of Friday; she’s been on leave for more than one month.
“During the course of the investigation, other allegations of unprofessional conduct and potential violations of District policies were brought to the District’s attention,” reads part of WSD’s Aug. 31 statement.
It’s unclear when the district’s investigation of Earnest will finish. Per district policy, its Board of Education has final approval in taking action in personnel matters, after recommendations it would receive from human resources, legal counsel and the superintendent.
WSD’s next board meeting is Oct. 4. If it needs to meet before then, it can call a special session with 24 hours’ notice in accordance with public meeting laws.
In the meantime, the district has placed additional administrators at Weber High to help with day-to-day operations. It’s unknown how long the additional administrators are expected to be there. Assistant Principal Ryan Kachold has been the acting principal since Earnest was put on leave.
As far as the football program goes, Weber High self-reported violations in August of playing ineligible players to the Region 1 board of managers in accordance with region guidelines. The region chair then filed a report with the UHSAA that included sanctions the region recommended against Weber.
The UHSAA executive committee, comprised of one representative from each of the 22 athletic regions in the state plus a chairperson, a Utah State Board of Education representative and two ex-officio members, is expected to approve the sanctions at its Oct. 4 meeting, but the sanctions won’t be official until then.
According to a follow-up email from Van Wagoner on Monday, Connors’ dismissal “could make the (recruiting) matter moot and beyond the Association’s jurisdiction.”
Multiple requests made by the Standard-Examiner to Weber School District, the Region 1 board of managers and the UHSAA for complete details of the sanctions have been denied. Typically, sanctions of these types may include, but aren’t limited to, things such as a fine, forfeited games or coach suspensions.
Weber head coach Jayson Anderson served a one-game suspension on Sept. 1 for the Warriors’ game against Wasatch, which was a preemptive decision by WSD in anticipation of the UHSAA executive committee approving Region 1’s recommended sanctions, Findlay said.
Anderson and WHS Athletic Director Trevor Howell directed multiple requests for comment to the district office during this process.
The two players at the center of the recruiting allegations were declared eligible on Aug. 30 and played in Weber’s three ensuing games between Sept. 1-15.
Matt Hammer, the former Weber State assistant and Weber High head coach, is now the team’s offensive coordinator after beginning the summer coaching defensive backs.
The Weber football team had a 2-4 record as of Friday afternoon, before the Warriors’ game at Syracuse High.
Connect with reporter Patrick Carr via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @patrickcarr_ and Instagram @standardexaminersports.