The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ex-Georgetown tennis coach sentenced to 2½ years in admissions scandal

Gordon Ernst helped secure admissions to Georgetown University in exchange for bribes

Gordon Ernst, former Georgetown tennis coach, departs federal court in Boston on March 25, 2019. (Steven Senne/AP)

The former head tennis coach at Georgetown University was sentenced Friday to more than two years in prison for taking over $3 million in bribes to help wealthy families game admissions to the school.

The sentence for Gordon Ernst — who pleaded guilty last fall to conspiracy and bribery charges — is the harshest punishment yet administered in a sweeping national college-admissions scandal that exposed the intense anxiety families feel about access to elite universities, and how vulnerable the system could be to corruption.

Federal prosecutors described a scheme in which a college consultant in California, William “Rick” Singer, offered wealthy parents, including some celebrities, access to schools that decline most applicants — helping students to cheat on admissions tests and bribing coaches and others to label applicants as coveted recruits, even if they had no particular athletic talent.

More than 50 people, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, coaches and business executives, have pleaded guilty or been convicted in the scandal nicknamed “Varsity Blues” by federal prosecutors.

Ernst, the former head coach of men and women’s tennis at Georgetown, was so well regarded that he had coached Michelle and Malia Obama. But for more than a decade, federal officials said, Ernst helped at least 22 students get into Georgetown as purported tennis recruits in exchange for nearly $3.5 million in bribes. He did not report all the income on tax returns, according to the office of Rachael S. Rollins, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts.

‘Three spots’: Alleged bribery of tennis coach stings Georgetown admissions

Attorneys for Ernst did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

Ernst grew up in Rhode Island and graduated from Brown University, where he played tennis and hockey. He eventually began coaching tennis at Northwestern University and the University of Pennsylvania before moving to the job at Georgetown in 2006.

Prosecutors said he regularly used at least two, and as many as five, of the six recruitment slots Georgetown allowed him each year to recruit students in exchange for bribes.

Georgetown raised questions about Ernst’s recruiting methods in 2017 and asked him to resign in 2018. The university changed internal protocols to review athletic credentials of recruits.

Ernst later became head coach of women’s tennis at the University of Rhode Island. He resigned from that role in 2019, according to the Providence Journal.

Last fall, Ernst, who is 55 and lives in Rockville, Md., and Falmouth, Mass., pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit federal programs bribery, three counts of federal programs bribery and one count of filing a false tax return.

U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani sentenced Ernst to 30 months in prison and two years of supervised release, with the first six months to be served at home. He was ordered to forfeit $3,435,053.

Monika Mathur contributed to this report.