PROVIDENCE — Gordon “Gordie” Ernst went from giving the Obama family tennis lessons at the White House to cleaning rental cars part-time to make ends meet after his arrest in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, he and his supporters told a federal judge in a bid for leniency as she prepared to sentence him Friday.
Ernst, a one-time Rhode Island high school tennis and hockey legend, also told the judge that the accolades and accomplishments of his remarkable youth in Cranston concealed a darker reality: a father whose insistence on success veered into physical abuse. Richard “Dick” Ernst, who died in 2016, was a Cranston sports legend in his own right. But he was “more of a coach and a tyrant than a dad,” his son wrote.
“At times when I had failed in his eyes, he beat me to the point of bruises and injuries. These were horrific moments in my childhood that have been hard to look past over the years,” wrote Ernst, 55, of Falmouth, Massachusetts. “I remember almost always being braced on the car rides home from a game or at night in bed when he would come into my bedroom wielding a belt or worse.”
Ernst’s letter comes as U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani prepares to sentence him Friday in Boston federal court for his role in the sweeping Varsity Blues admissions bribery scandal. The letter was written in February and entered into the court docket last week. Ernst pleaded guilty to conspiracy, bribery and filing a false tax return in October. Prosecutors alleged he accepted nearly $3.5 million in bribe payments to designate unqualified students as tennis recruits at Georgetown University, where he coached until 2018.
His arrest in March 2019 shocked many in Cranston, where the Ernst name is synonymous with athletic success. His account about the treatment by his father is likely to do the same. Dick Ernst coached at Cranston High School East for more than 50 years. The tennis courts at Cranston Stadium are named after him. The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame describes Dick Ernst as “probably the most prolific tennis and hockey player and coach in the annals of Rhode Island.”
Gordie Ernst’s mother, Rollice “Rollie” Ernst, said the picture her son portrayed in his sentencing letter about her late husband was not true. Dick Ernst was intense, but he was intense with himself, too. And he was not abusive, she said.
“All my kids had a great time growing up,” Rollice Ernst said. “Dick made things fun.”
Was it possible she didn’t see the abuse when she wasn’t around?
“I was always around,” Ernst, of Cranston, said in an interview.
In her own letter to Talwani, Rollice Ernst said her son Gordie has always been thoughtful and loyal.
“He could have stayed in the business world of New York but he chose to follow the career path his father took: teaching and coaching young student-athletes, positively impacting their lives,” she wrote.
Hers was one of 37 letters from Ernst’s family and friends to Talwani that his lawyer submitted in the public court record. Some letters described the humiliation and remorse he feels about his crimes, and his commitment to do better in the future. Despite those pleas, Ernst is all but certainly going to prison. Prosecutors are requesting a sentence of four years in prison, while his own lawyers say anything more than a year and a day would be enough.
One of three boys born to a family of athletes, Ernst’s own prowess in tennis and hockey brought him to Brown University. High-school contemporaries compared playing tennis against him to playing against John McEnroe, or a brick wall. He was drafted by the NHL, but never played in the league. After a brief stint in finance, he accepted a job coaching tennis at Northwestern University in 1997. He vowed, he said in his letter, to be different as a coach than his own father was.
From there he bounced around at different universities before landing at Georgetown University. His first salary, he said, was $50,000 a year.
He first met a man named William “Rick” Singer in 2008, he said. A year later, Singer reached out to him about the family of an applicant that wanted to donate money to Georgetown, Ernst wrote. They talked about how Ernst could help the applicant with the admissions process. Later, Singer told him about how he could be paid.
Singer was the mastermind behind the Varsity Blues scheme that resulted in the arrests and convictions of wealthy parents, coaches and administrators at multiple top universities.
Ernst, for his part, played a leading role, accepting more in bribe money than any other university official and designating 22 students as tennis recruits in exchange.
Even before the federal investigation, Georgetown started its own investigation in 2017. In 2018, the university fired him. He was hired by the University of Rhode Island to coach tennis there later in 2018. URI missed red flags about Ernst’s departure from Georgetown, while Ernst flatly lied about the circumstances when applying for the URI job.
In his February letter to Talwani, Ernst apologized to those he hurt and said he accepted full responsibility. And, he said, he would dedicate his life to helping others. He cited his volunteer work, including helping park elderly people’s cars when they got their COVID vaccines. He said he has a job teaching tennis part-time in Virginia, and has also refereed hockey.
“I want to do good and be redeemed,” he wrote.
Friends are not counting Ernst out. James Bennett, a childhood friend, said in an interview that Ernst understands he made mistakes.
“He’ll get through this, and he’ll be stronger,” Bennett said.