published Friday, January 24th, 2014

Former Marion football coach gets judicial diversion, pleads guilty

  • photo
    A vandalized shed near the Marion County field house had not been repainted before their prep football game against South Pittsburg at Marion County High School in Jasper, Tenn., in this Nov. 1, 2013, file photo.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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JASPER, Tenn. — One of the two former Marion County High School assistant football coaches charged in a vandalism scandal at their own school last November pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor vandalism under terms of judicial diversion after action in that county's General Sessions Court today. He will also pay court costs.

In a hearing before Judge Mark Raines, Joe Dan Gudger, originally charged with vandalism $1,000-$10,000, pleaded guilty to vandalism under $500 in the judicial diversion arrangement. Gudger also was originally charged with possession of alcohol on school property but that charge was dismissed as part of the arrangement.

Judge Raines ordered Gudger to perform 48 hours of public service and restitution will be set later.

Codefendant and former assistant coach Michael Schmitt, who is charged with the same original vandalism charge as Gudger, is set to appear next week and could agree to similar terms, court officials said.

The arrests came amid a vandalism investigation begun in early-November on the day of the football game between cross-county rivals Marion County High School in Jasper and South Pittsburg High School. The Jasper school hosted the game and lost to South Pittsburg 35-17.

The scandal began with the discovery of vandalism on Nov. 1, 2013, when orange and black spray paint — South Pittsburg's school colors — used to scribble vulgarities was discovered on Marion County's field house. The colors were intended to make it look like South Pittsburg Pirates supporters were the culprits.

Schmitt, also a teacher, was arrested Nov. 13, 2013, and Gudger was arrested Nov. 19, 2013,

In the fallout of the investigation, head football coach Mac McCurry resigned the day after Gudger's arrest and the Marion County school board relieved assistant coach Tim Starkey of his position.

No students or football players at either school were ever indicated in the investigation.

Marion County Director of Schools Mark Griffith called the vandalism the day it was found "extremely embarrassing" and vowed that once the vandals were caught, "we will prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law."

What had started as a ploy to motivate players and humiliate a rival team led to the series of alleged criminal acts and state athletics violations by the Marion County High School football program.

The scandal threatened the very existence of the school's football program.

Just after the incident, South Pittsburg High School principal Danny Wilson said the vandalism was "extremely disturbing and disappointing to me and our school."

"Our senior captains came to me and asked if they could go up there and help clean it up because they're as embarrassed as I am and they don't want people thinking we allow thugs like that in our school," Wilson said in November.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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