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Sunday, February 5, 2012

LOVE HIM OR LOATH HIM: Floyd Irons

LOVE HIM OR LOATH HIM: Floyd Irons





The question I am now asked the most often is, “what is your next project?”  I am not sure yet, but if I had my choice, it would be to a comprehensive book on the life and times of Floyd Irons. The controversial former high school basketball coach at Vashon (St. Louis, MO) High School would be a mesmerizing study; part Greek tragedy, part suspense novel and part hero and/or villain, depending on your view of Irons.
I have tried for over a year, through several intermediaries, to get Coach Irons to consider such a book project. He will speak to me, but not on the record. I think he is making a mistake. After spending  time at Roosevelt High School, I emerged with a respect for what Irons accomplished at Vashon that I had not held before my year in the Public High League (PHL). To have built a program within the cess pool of the PHL – like Irons did - that would rise to be for a short period of time the best in the nation, is miraculous.  Did Irons break the rules by recruiting players to come to Vashon? Sure he did, and everyone knew it for years, including the State Activities Association;  who for years quivered in Irons’ wake. It took a gonzo type media outlet, the St. Louis Riverfront Times, to finally find the journalistic courage to say the Emperor has no clothes; bringing about Irons’ downfall. But after spending time in the city schools, I will be the first to say that to simply stop the Irons story where it now stands, with Irons viewed as finally have gotten his just due, is to take the whole Irons saga out of context and not fair to Irons and the pride he brought to a pride starved city school system.

When I was a guest on Demetrious Johnson’s radio show a couple of years ago, DJ took me to task about my comments on his good friend Irons, that I wrote in the book “Riding the Storm Out. I told DJ that I had received numerous e-mails about my portrayal of Irons, split about 50/50, accusing me of both racism for being critical of Irons, while the other half accused  me of cowardice for giving Irons a “free pass” for his cheating ways. I told DJ, on the air, that one anti-Irons critic  had even accused me of “letting Demetrious Johnson write the story.” I remember a comment the articulate and outspoken Johnson made on the air to me, “We (blacks) don’t protect our icons like white people do.”
I would not write a love letter to the enigmatic Irons, but I would be fair in telling a life’s story that needs to be told. Almost all that has been written about Coach Irons has been polarized by race. His apologists in the black media have never addressed the issue of cheating by recruiting, while the Irons critics in the more mainstream white press are blatantly hypocritical when calling Irons to task for recruiting while  turning a blind eye to the same questionable recruiting tactics that have been rumored at area private school basketball powers for years.

There is a real need for a middle of the road and unbiased approach in documenting the career of Irons. His accomplishments deserve no less. I could sift through all the hatred on both sides – Irons, most don’t realize, has many black critics in the PHL – and tell the story. It would be fascinating. So Coach Irons, if you read this, DJ has my number.
Below is what I wrote about Irons in Riding the Storm Out. You can order the book on line at www.stlhsfb.com

One city Coach would not allow PHL glory to die completely.  If the Vashon Wolverines boys’ basketball team and Coach Floyd Irons were going to go down, it would not be without passionate resistance. Irons never, both critics and admirers agreed, backed away from a good fight. Irons thrived on controversy. He diligently built his boys basketball team at the north side school into a 30 year dynasty, storming to 11 state titles won along the way. From the late 1970’s to 2006, Irons’ take no prisoner style had made him both a revered and feared man in the circle of St. Louis area high school athletics.

Despite his many St. Louis area critics, both in the city and the county suburban high schools, Irons remained a constant and defiant voice; a man viewed by many north side residents as a local hero. Irons refused to sit by idly and watch the Vashon boys’ basketball program sink to the sub mediocrity levels that had been the fate of most PHL athletic entities. His success at the poor school was nothing short of amazing, highlighted by over 800 wins. Admires and critics - and there was an abundance of both - saw Irons as either a proud and talented coach who fought for the black community, or as a bully and cheater, always ready to play the “race card” to his advantage when his methods were challenged.



Irons’ Wolverines were not only the scourge of St. Louis area high school basketball, but in time, the entire nation. By the dawn of the new century, the Wolverines were viewed as one of the top programs in the United States. In 2005, Vashon rose to the lofty perch of  the USA Today’s #1 ranked high school basketball team in America, an amazing accomplishment for a 21st century PHL team. While the rest of the league was a local embarrassment, Irons’ teams were now known and respected nationwide. That season would prove to be a high point in Irons’ 30 year iron clad control over Vashon basketball. When the subsequent fall of Irons and the “V” came, his many enemies and critics would show no mercy.

In March, 2005, with Vashon and Irons on the cusp of immortality - an undefeated national championship season - his #1 ranked club was bushwhacked in the state championship game by rural out-state power Poplar Bluff and their white superstar, future North Carolina All American, Tyler Hansbrough.  Irons and Vashon would never again breathe such rarified air. Trouble for Vashon and Irons came quickly and the fall was swift and severe. By the summer of 2007, Irons’ world was collapsing under the weight of a federal police investigation that would eventually lead to his imprisonment. The last proud and deviant voice of the PHL would finally be silenced.

Accusations of illegal recruiting of players who lived in other districts had dogged Irons for years. Many of his legion of supporters in the black community claimed that if Irons was recruiting, then after years of white county coaches raiding city talent under the guise of the desegregation busing program,  Irons was simply reversing the tables by going to the county and illegally recruiting their black stars to move to the city and play for Vashon. As would later be learned, many didn’t even bother to move to the city before they enrolled at Vashon. “

In 2002, a candid as always Irons gave the Riverfront Times his take on who needed who in the St. Louis area high school athletic world and the importance of the city black athlete to the winning programs in the white county schools. "If I had 10,000 white students coming into black schools here, I can see how, football-wise, they might have helped, just in numbers. But would they have helped as much as we've helped them? Let me put it this way: They wouldn't have helped my basketball program.”

Irons’ cockiness during the heady days of 2002 would not last. In four  years it would be another Riverfront Times expose that started the investigation that would eventually lead  to his downfall and imprisonment on federal fraud and conspiracy charges, a fate - depending upon ones view of the controversial Irons - was either Greek tragedy or poetic justice.

In a stinging and critical article published in November 2006, titled Basketball by the Book, the Times documented one smoking gun after another that provided substantiation to what many area coaches had complained about for years: that Irons had illegally enticed talented young black basketball players who did not live in Vashon’s district, to transfer to the city school and become a part of the almost cult like status his teams had attained. The lure of the “V” was strong as player after player, many from the same county district’s that had been raiding city talent for 25 years, found their way to Irons’ mythical program.

The RFT article first paid tribute to Irons: “The gymnasium at Vashon bears Irons' name — testament to a community icon who has been not only a coach, but a father figure to many of his players, visiting them at home and helping out financially when the need arose.”

Then the RFT dropped a bomb shell.   The Times claimed that it’s research showed that the 2004 State Champion Vashon Wolverines had no less than seven players who were in violation of MSHSAA by-laws in regard to residence and/or recruiting.  Then a following shot that registered a 10 on the Richter Scale throughout the St. Louis sports scene:  “a three-month Riverfront Times investigation has revealed that Vashon apparently fielded teams with at least three ineligible players — and sometimes as many as ten — each and every season dating back to the 1998-'99 school year.” The article sent shock waves through local basketball circles. Some were amazed at the depth of the deception at Vashon, and wondered how many city school administrators had been involved in a possible conspiracy, to protect Irons and Vashon over the years; while others paid tribute and expressed admiration to the apparent air tight investigation that the Times had executed; and that someone had finally showed the gumption and fortitude to stand up to the bullying Irons.

The publishing of the November, 2006 article was not the beginning of Irons’ problems. That previous summer, Irons had been unrepentantly and unceremoniously fired by the St. Louis School Board from his positions of district wide Athletic Director of the PHL and the coach of the Vashon Boys Basketball team. The fallout the next day was rollicking. Then Superintendent, Greg Williams, who did not favor Irons’ ouster and publically protested it, was himself fired.

The School Board claimed that an internal investigation had reveled missing funds from the Vashon basketball program totaling tens of thousands of dollars. It was also alleged that several years before, Irons had assaulted a special education student at Vashon. The Social Services investigator assigned to the case recommended that Irons be charged with a felony. But friends in high places, both in the City Prosecutors Office and the School District, had allegedly helped sweep the incident under the rug. The young man and his family had filed a civil suit against Irons and the SLPS. Days before the case was to be heard in court, the young man was found murdered. The apparent homicide has never been solved.

In 2005, the most decorated basketball coach in state history, now found himself without a team to coach, relegated by Board of Education reassignment to the role of a Junior High Social Studies Teacher. In August of 2005, Irons informed the Board he was going on extended sick leave and never did report to his junior high classroom. At the end of the 2005-2006 school year, Irons officially retired.

Irons and his large group of followers did not take the board action lightly, and their response was swift and loud. Threats of discrimination law suits, protesting and picketing at the Board of Education President’s residence and threats to air revelations about “where the skeletons are hid” in the St. Louis Public School System, were publicly levied by irate Irons supporters. It was obvious Irons had friends in high places. The help of US Congressman William “Lacy” Clay” was soon at Irons’ disposal.  When it was first reported that Irons was under investigation and before he was removed as Vashon coach, Clay wrote to the SLPS School Board that: "I can assure you that the political leadership of this community, at all levels, will not stand by quietly while a man who has devoted his entire adult life to helping young people is treated in this intolerable manner."

Despite such threats, all efforts to save Irons’ job at Vashon were to no avail. When practice began that fall, for the first time in over 30 years, the Mighty Wolverines of Vashon had a new leader; Anthony Bonner, ironically Irons’ greatest Vashon player ever. The former Irons protégée, a St. Louis University record setter and National Basketball Association star, was now in charge at Vashon.

And Irons problems would soon only grow in magnitude.

That fall, it was revealed that Irons and several associates were under an FBI investigation and that the feds had subpoenaed all district correspondence involving Irons including, a seizure and search of Irons’ school computer. As rumors spread about Irons legal problems, his world quickly sped out of control.

In September of 2007, Irons pled guilty to one count of mail fraud and one count of wire fraud for his role in a real estate scam. The Riverfront Times outlined Irons role in the scheme as such: “Incorporation papers filed with the Missouri Secretary of State indicate that Best of the Midwest Youth Foundation (formerly known as Best of Midwest Basketball Foundation) is operated by Michael Noll, of Chesterfield. Noll registered the nonprofit with the Secretary of State in 2004. Floyd Irons joined its board of directors in 2005, according to the organization's annual report, also filed with the Secretary of State. According to the court documents, Irons and "Doe"(an unindicted, and thus unnamed accomplice), devised a plan to purchase residential real estate at inflated prices. The pair purchased a total of three homes in 2005 and 2006 -- one in Tower Grove East, one in De Mun and the third in Wildwood. The men obtained loans by submitting false paperwork in Irons' name, and with mortgage broker Mineo's assistance received a total of $120,000 in kickbacks.” Soon after buying the homes, Irons and "Doe" put them up for sale. All the properties were eventually foreclosed upon when Irons and "Doe" failed to make mortgage payments.

In one 2005 transaction not involving Mineo; Irons and "Doe" used Irons' son, Altonio, as a "straw purchaser" of a brownstone "Doe" owned in Lafayette Square. In June 2005 "Doe" bought the home for $135,000. Five months later Altonio Irons purchased it from "Doe" for $167,000. Though Altonio Irons was attending the College of the Ozarks near Branson at the time, “his father submitted a false loan application stating that Altonio planned to live in the house full-time and was employed by Best of the Midwest Youth Foundation, where he was earning almost $5,000 a month. The loan was approved.”

In March 2008, Irons, for his role in the scam, was sentenced to one year in Federal Prison and ordered to pay back $650,000. By state law, as a convicted felon, Irons’ teaching certificate was revoked; making it impossible for him to ever coach again in a Missouri public high school. He had originally faced up to 30 years in prison and fines of up to one million dollars.

Still, Irons had one more piper to pay. He had agreed, as a part of his plea bargain to the Federal charges, to tell all he knew about illegal recruiting, both at Vashon and other St. Louis area high schools. Under court order, he met with the MSHSAA and gave testimony as to both his, and others, roles in the illegal recruiting of high school athletes. It was a day Irons critics had long hoped to see. Facing additional federal prison time- and possible charges of perjury - if not candid and truthful under oath, Irons was finally ready to “sing.”

Many state coaches and school officials for years had complained that Irons and Vashon was a “sacred cow” and that the MSHSAA did not have the backbone or the political courage to investigate the city school. It was felt around the state that the MSHSAA lived in constant fear of Irons and his well-known use of the “race card” defense when challenged or questioned about activities at the “V.” Despite the many years of rumored recruiting violations, the feeling was that the MSHSAA did not want to endure the charges of racism which would inevitably come from Irons and his supporters, if Vashon was ever brought to task about eligibility violations.

Now, finally, the long awaited day of reckoning between Irons and the MSHSAA was at hand. The outcome of the information gleaned at this summit would leave most around the state angry at a state athletic board now viewed as refusing to investigate Vashon when they (MSHSAA) had, for years, in their possession obvious probable cause that rules were being broken on a frequent and blatant basis, by a school that had built a dynasty based on a now perceived foundation of cheating.

The real jaw dropper from the court mandated meeting with the MSHSAA was the revelation that Irons admitted paying between $25,000 and $30,000  to house, feed, provide a car and a house keeper for two 6’8 brothers, Bobby and Johnny Hill. The two, who graduated from Vashon in 2005 and 2006 respectively, had transferred to Vashon from Alton, IL High School. A follow up investigation by the media found that officials at Alton High School had traveled to Missouri at the time of the Hills leaving Alton for Vashon, and meet with MSHSAA director Becky Oakes, giving her what they felt was proof positive that Irons had broken the rules in securing the playing services of the Hills. Oakes later commented that since Alton had not filed an official complaint that there was nothing her association could do in the way of an investigation of Vashon. Alton officials subsequently claimed they were never told anything about filing a complaint. Since they were from another state, it would appear that MSHSAA by-laws would not allow for such action by the Illinois school officials.

Alton officials stated that they left the meeting with Oakes under the assumption that she had heard their complaints, saw their documenting proof, and that her organization would do a thorough investigation of the matter. As it turned out, nothing could have been farther from the truth, and Vashon continued to rack up state titles based on illegal recruiting.

The Hills’ affair became a public relations nightmare for the MSHSAA, with many coaches and school officials saying “I told you so.” What had been rumored and groused about for years, that the MSHSAA would nail a small rural district - which could not afford high priced litigation - to the wall for a minor violation; but would cower and look the other way when obvious violations were occurring at Vashon, many now felt had been proven as fact.

Many felt that the MSHSAA’s lack of action against Vashon was rooted in a fear of charges of racism from Irons and his vocal supporters. Several years earlier, the Suburban North Athletic Directors, representing schools located in North St. Louis County, many of them with predominantly African-American enrollments and schools from which several questionable Vashon transfers had occurred; did file a recruiting complaint against Vashon. The complaint was withdrawn when a St. Louis black weekly newspaper penned an editorial accusing the Athletic Directors of racism.

Irons will remain always a controversial figure and a lightning rod for St. Louis area sports fans. Was he a proud black man who, against all odds, fought to build a basketball dynasty that gave at least a glimmer of hope to a down trodden city school system that had seen its best students and athletes taken away for the glory of white suburban districts? Had he fought the powerful suburban districts and beat them at their own game; a man who refused to accept second best for his players, his school and his neighborhood? Or was he merely a bully, always willing to cry racism every time he was accused of not playing by the rules?

Whether Irons’ methods were noble in intend, or corrupt by plan; there is no question that for years the Vashon Wolverines Basketball team stood alone as a source of pride for a success starved Public High League. The rally cry of “the V get ready to Roll,” announced the arrival of the proud Wolverines and their legions of supporters and followers. Chanted with an aggressive pride, it became the symbolic chant of what many non-city residents viewed as the aggressiveness and the danger of Irons’ teams and its thug supporters. But in all fairness, for a community stripped of all other sources of athletic success, Irons and his teams were the pride of the city, a last glimmer of hope. With Irons and his juggernaut teams to grasp on to, the glory days of PHL athletics still lived. However, by 2008, their leader had been publically disgraced and carted off to a Federal Prison. The PHL athletic teams were now totally adrift in a sea of inadequacy and failure.









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