The members of a middle school basketball team that represented a Jewish Community Center in Omaha, Nebraska, were not expecting the 2001 season to be an auspicious one. The previous season had produced mediocre results, and there was no reason to expect much of an improvement going forward. That all changed, however, when a mysterious coach with no obvious ties to the community center showed up, and made it his mission to whip the boys into shape.
“He was an enigma to everybody,” recalls point guard Spencer Gallner.
The mystery man embodied an archetype that should be familiar to anyone who ever played youth sports. He was too intense, too competitive, and too over-the-top to be taken seriously in retrospect. Many of the kids he coached are now men who live in Nebraska and the Midwest, and over the years they’ve joked with each other about that memorable season, wondering what happened to their “crazy” basketball coach. They couldn’t believe it when their old coach, Rick Singer, went from a punchline to a headline.
“We were scarred in a funny way,” said Alex Epstein, who played forward. “We always brought up Rick Singer, talking about him for like 15 years.”
Singer is now widely known as the mastermind behind the sprawling college admissions scandal that the FBI uncovered earlier this year. Singer founded The Key, a company that spent years using bribes, fraudulent test scores, and phony athletic recruiting profiles to get the children of some of the wealthiest people in the country accepted into the colleges of their choice. Singer eventually became a cooperating witness for the FBI, and the resulting investigation entangled dozens of people, including coaches, administrators, and various Hollywood stars.
A November 2000 article in the Omaha World Herald says Singer had come to Omaha to work for a major telemarketing firm, West Corporation. He had come from Sacramento, where in 1992 he had made his first entry into the college admissions industry, founding Future Stars College & Career Counseling, a company he sold in 1998.
According to those who remember Singer from his coaching days, he was very focused on winning middle school basketball games, as he later would be on getting Lori Loughlin’s daughter into USC.
Deadspin spoke to five of Singer’s former players, a former coach who eventually replaced Singer, and the parent of a former player. Given how many years it’s been, some of their recollections about Singer were hazy, but his intensity made an impression on all of them.
“He was a very aggressive dude,” said one player, Justin. “I remember immediately thinking, ‘Why is this guy coaching a fifth grade JCC team?’”
Practices were brutal. Epstein remembers them always running long: “like four hours.” They featured grueling running and free-throw drills. Singer wasn’t afraid to berate his players, and some of the players independently recalled Singer calling their teammate a vulgar name while throwing basketballs at him. (The player on the receiving end of the abuse stopped responding to requests for comment.)
He also picked on a particular group of players, who he dubbed the “meat packers.”
“Instead of being like, ‘guards, forwards…’ He’d be like, ‘meatpackers, over here,’” said Epstein. “I don’t think anybody wanted to be in the meatpackers. [It] maybe made you a little self conscious of your body fat.”
Singer wasn’t shy about turning his intensity onto opposing teams, either. When game time came, the players said Singer would size up the opponents during warm-ups, and create a plan specific to their strengths. He would stick to it, running up the score.
“I mean he just wanted to kill everyone,” said Epstein. “You’re in sixth grade and you press a team when you’re up 20 points? I mean, that’s pretty crazy.”
True to character, Singer was also not afraid to seek out advantages wherever he could find them. Another of his former players, Ben Gerber, remembered Singer trying to bring in a ringer from a local Catholic Prep School to play on the team for the JCC Maccabi games, a gigantic tournament that brings Jewish athletes all over the US to play each other. There is a similarly-named tournament that brings Jews form all over the world to play in Israel. If the player wasn’t Jewish he would’ve been ineligible to play in the Maccabi games. Two players were able to identify the player, who confirmed that he did indeed train with Singer a few times, and was a member of the JCC, but said that’s all he remembered. So it’s not clear that Singer was indeed trying to break the rules, but he did make the impression on some of his players that he was willing to.
The parent of a player on the Omaha team diplomatically said that Singer’s “behavior on the sideline was intense.”
“He was definitely a Bobby Knight-type character,” said Gallner.
Epstein agreed: “I think he actually did throw a chair.”
The JCC, known in Omaha as the “J,” played as the only Jewish team in a religious league made up mostly of teams fielded by Catholic and Christian Schools. So the vulgarity and outbursts were an issue.
“Mind you, we’re playing in the parochial league, in the JCC gym,” said Justin. “Everyone’s horrified. Looking back it was funny. But I was like, ‘What the fuck is happening?’”
For as punishing and over-the-top as Singer’s methods were, they did produce results. Under his guidance, the team became one of the best squads in the league.
“We went from being one of the worst—well, a mediocre team—to like one of the best select teams in Omaha, because of his coaching and hard work,” said Gallner. “It was fun to win. In retrospect, I think I’m better off.”
The team got good enough to draw complaints from opponents, who started arguing that the JCC shouldn’t have been allowed to draw kids from multiple schools. But the Jewish community in Omaha is very small, less than 10,000, and it wasn’t feasible to form teams from a single school.
“No one in the PAL [Parochial Athletic] League ever cared because it was a bunch of Jewish kids that sucked,” said Epstein. “Well, then this year we just tearing up teams.”
But Singer’s would-be dynasty never came to pass. For as sudden and mysterious as his arrival on the Omaha middle school basketball scene was—Singer didn’t have a kid on the team nor any apparent connection to the JCC—his exit was even more confounding.
Singer’s tenure ended when he tried to pick a fight at one game. The players’ recollections of who Singer wanted to beat up aren’t clear. One wasn’t sure if it was a fan or a coach. Another thought it was the parent of a kid who wasn’t being played. But they both remembered that Singer asked to see the person outside. After that incident, Singer was gone.
“We never saw him again,” said Epstein.
It’s not clear whether Singer was fired or simply stopped showing up. The person that could answer that, Bob Franseze, the athletic director of the JCC at the time, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. When Deadspin contacted Don Heller, an attorney currently representing Singer, he said he never even knew that Singer had coached in Nebraska. He declined to make Singer available for comment.
This wasn’t Singer’s first flameout at a basketball program. The Sacramento Bee reported that he coached basketball at Encino High School before being fired in 1988 due to what a district spokesperson called a “personnel matter.” According to the paper, parents said that Singer had an abusive nature towards referees.
In the end, Singer left his players with plenty of questions that they still don’t have answers to.
“You admire that he took the time to do all that and was passionate and cared,” said Epstein. “You wonder why he cared so much … or why the hell he left in the middle of a basketball game.”
Before long, Singer returned to his roots in Sacramento and the college admissions game. In 2005, the Sacramento Business Journal published a glowing article about his newest venture, a college admissions consultancy called CollegeSource. The article is rather funny in hindsight. It features two of Singer’s affluent clients gushing about his mentorship of their children. What was Singer’s secret to success? His coaching ability, obviously.
“Kids tend to listen to someone else more than (to) their parent,” said Jon Merksamer, the parent of a senior that Singer worked with. “Guys like Rick are as much coaches as they are college counselors.”
Jahd Khalil is a freelance journalist and radio producer. You can find him on Twitter at @jahdkhalil.