JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — As the head football coach of the Colquitt County High Packers, Thomas “Rush” Propst saw his salary surge by more than 50 percent even as allegations of misconduct accumulated.
Propst's problems eventually became untenable; he was fired in March. But First Coast News has learned that school district officials had serious concern about his conduct dating back to his earliest days as coach.
Documents from Propst’s personnel file show that district officials tolerated multiple incidents of misbehavior and questionable conduct over the 11 years he was with the district – many of which foreshadowed his eventual firing.
Propst, Georgia's state’s highest-paid coach in 2018, was fired after district officials say he gave student-athletes pills, misused school district money and missed at least 21 full or half days of work. He has denied the allegations stemming from that investigation. The Georgia Professional Standards Commission, responsible for certifying and classifying public school employees, said Propst remains under investigation.
In a statement days after his firing, Propst said investigators " developed the conclusions of the investigation before they determined the facts,” adding, “The entire process was extremely unfair to me."
In an additional statement released after his firing, Propst said he wasn't able to comment on the allegations of dispensing medication to students because of the ongoing nature of a state investigation. "I will say that I am very confident the evidence presented will demonstrate clearly that this accusation by [Superintendent James] Howell is also a false, unfounded smear just like the other accusations."
Propst admitted that he missed school days due to health issues.
But according to documents obtained by First Coast News, coach remained in his position long after accusations surfaced involving prescription drugs, sideline temper tantrums and illegally recruiting players.
In that time, he continued to win games. Propst has a record of 119 wins and 35 loses, according to the Georgia High School Football Historian Association. He has won four regional championships and two state titles. Propst earned $141,870 in 2018. The 61-year-old has been a high school football head coach since 1989, in both Georgia and Alabama. At least 53 Colquitt County student-athletes under Propst have signed Division I scholarship offers to schools including the University of Florida, Florida State University, Louisiana State University, University of Tennessee and Auburn University. More players signed to play elsewhere.
Propst did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment for this story. Colquitt School Superintendent James D. Howell declined comment, and would not make anyone else available to discuss the ongoing state investigation. Former Superintendent Dr. Samuel DePaul didn’t respond to emails seeking comment. Former Colquitt Co. High Athletic Director Kevin Giddens declined comment when reached by phone. Georgia High School Association Executive Direct Robin Hines said via email Propst remains in good standing with the organization but, offered no comment on any of the allegations.
The Colquitt School Board investigation centered around four areas of concern – legal compliance, conduct with students, honesty and public funds and property misuse – but limited the focus to the 2018-‘19 school year. But First Coast News found issues dating back to the first few months after Propst walked on campus.
Among the complaints contained in his personnel file:
December 2008: Propst, hired nearly 11 months earlier, received a written reprimand from a former Colquitt Co. Superintendent. He criticized Propst for failing to show up to work, lack of communication and for not finalizing his divorce from a previous marriage.
He also expressed concern about unnecessary purchases, such as a request for sweats in the amount of $8,000 and travel in excess of $1,200 without any prior approval.
The superintendent also questioned his use of a district-owned vehicle for personal use. Also an issue, his sideline behavior. “Your sideline conduct is generally contrary to what is the norm in South Georgia football,” according to the letter, “I fully understand the potential negative ramifications of this document on our relationship and your attitude toward the Colquitt County Schools and its programs including football. To create negatives is not my intent. This is what I consider to be a major effort to document for your consideration what I view to be the major issue that must change…You.”
April 2, 2009: Propst had to be reminded, again and in writing, to cover the $100 fine Colquitt County Schools paid on his behalf the previous November because he was ejected from a football game.
January 3, 2012: Propst writes a $250 check to cover a fine for comments he made to a local paper on Dec. 12, 2011 criticizing referees from a recent game – a violation of GHSA rules.
February 20, 2012: A private investigator sends a report to the Georgia High School Association after being hired by a group of citizens to investigate illegal recruiting practices by Propst. The allegations: Propst recruited multiple players from Alabama to Colquitt County, Ga. by promising their mother economic help. The players were too old to play high school football in Alabama. In a follow-up letter, Propst denied the allegations. The GHSA found no evidence of any wrong-doing by Propst.
Fall 2012: Multiple text messages and emails show attempts by then-Colquitt County High Principal Bob Jones attempting to reach Propst when he didn’t show up for work. Jones did not return multiple calls or text seeking comment for this story.
September 12, 2012: Propst is reprimanded for getting into argument with a referee. According to the letter, then-Principal Bob Jones told Propst “I cannot, will not, condone the type of physical encounter that you had with the official this past Friday night as the result of a judgement call that did not go our way.”
October 2, 2012: DePaul sends Propst a letter warning, “I want to be clear, if there is any inappropriate action on your part the rest of the season, you have had your warnings. You will be suspended without pay, and further inappropriate action on your part could lead to your dismissal. You have betrayed the two people who were your staunch supporters and will continue to do so, as long as you conduct yourself in a professional manner and exhibit the role model that all us look to you as being.” The letter was sent after Propst publicly chastised Colquitt County School administrators because he was unhappy.
October 9, 2012: The GHSA declines to punish Lowndes County High School after Propst accuses them of stealing offensive play calling signals. Propst accused a former Colquitt County High assistant coach of stealing the signals to help beat the Packers.
October 12, 2012: A mother of a then-Colquitt Co. high football player sends a letter complaining that her son received the prescription painkiller, Ultram, at Propst’s direction. In the letter, she says her son was injured during a scrimmage in Alabama and received Ultram to help with the pain. Her son believed his collarbone was broken despite never getting an Xray or visiting the hospital, and according to the mom’s letter, the pain was substantial enough for her son to cry.
According to WebMd, Ultram may cause withdrawal reactions. In the letter, she wrote “[her son] said he was alright, but he didn’t sound alright. His voice was slurred. I came to see what they gave him, it was Ultram and he had taken all twenty pills. He said [Coach Propst] told him every time he gets up to tinkle take two. The bottle said take one every four hours.”
The mom says in her letter that she never discussed this issue with Propst or the coaching staff.
The letter is at least 12 pages, but only the 11 pages remain in Propst's file. An attorney representing the Colquitt County School Board, William C. McCalley, said via email, “Unfortunately, there is no page 12 or any other page in the files of the Board that anyone knows about. And as you can see from looking at the letter, there is no information on the letter saying to whom it was addressed or delivered to, when it was delivered or how it was delivered.”
August 26, 2013: The GHSA warns Propst about his sideline behavior. He was upset on the sideline because he believed the referees were making the wrong calls.
September 5, 2013: Propst is warned by the Colquitt County School administration regarding his sideline behavior. He is told that any violation of the rules will result in a suspension with days’ pay. Propst request written guidelines for acceptable sideline behavior.
October 7, 2013: Propst, his coaching staff and the Tift Co. coaching staff receive a letter from the GHSA regarding their sideline behavior during a game. The letter says the two staffs were on the playing field pointing and yelling at each other.
April 3, 2014: The GHSA receives a new complaint regarding an illegal recruiting allegation regarding a player from Alabama. This complaint alleged that Propst and his wife, Stephanie, provided an apartment for the player and his family to live in at a cost of $450 per month. Also alleged, Propst promised the student’s mother a better job. Propst and his wife denied the allegations. A local businessman confirmed to investigators that the mother was renting an apartment in Moultrie, Ga from him on Culbertson Rd. The GHSA found no evidence of any illegal recruiting.
The Colquitt County High football team coaching staff was also have alleged to be engaging in harassing the player. Propst did not deny this allegation however, saying in his letter to the school, “I, Rush Propst, do have knowledge of some of our players teasing the student about Alabama vs Georgia football, but I always thought this to be in fun, not teasing. This happens in our locker room every Saturday after college football is played on Saturdays.”
August 15, 2014: Then-athletic director Kevin Giddens wrote a letter of reprimand to Propst for violating the Code of Ethics for Georgia Educators. According to the letter, Propst deposited a check from the Prattville Booster Club to Colquitt County High School for winning the 7 on 7 tournament in June 2014 worth $5,000 into his personal bank account. According to the letter, this should have been a violation of the Code of Ethics for Georgia Educators. Giddens wrote, “After discussing this with you and reading your statement regarding the incident, I agree and believe there was no criminal intent by you to use the money personally. This letter is relative to the lack of procedural responsibility you failed to demonstrate. I understand the time of year the incident took place and your focus was on preparation for the upcoming football season.”
December 4, 2015: During a football game, Propst appeared to headbutt a player wearing a helmet. The incident, caught on camera, caused Propst’s head to bleed afterwards. According to the school board investigation report, video of the incident revealed that only Propst’s visor touched the player’s helmet and there was not any head to helmet contact. Their report says, the bleeding came when “Propst’s visor made contact with another player’s face mask causing his visor to sink into his head causing Coach Propst’s head to bleed.” According to a letter from then-Superintendent DePaul, the school district didn’t believe this violated any standards of the Georgia Code of Ethics for Educators but they reported the incident to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.
The GHSA, told school district officials, the incident was a “non-issue” on their part, not requiring any sanctions or a letter of concern. Propst is told by then-school principal Stephanie Terrell, that any future behavior like this “will be constructed as insubordination and will result in additional consequences.” Initially, the PSC decided to suspend his teaching certificate for “inappropriate physical contact with a student” for a year but overturned it after a Propst won an appeal.
“It seems pretty clear that there were a number of things that were in the personal file that were not looked at that closely,” said Jacksonville-based attorney Peter Goplerud.
He has experience conducting similar investigations for colleges. Goplerud has no affiliation with Colquitt County Schools or Propst.
“This is a situation where you have someone who has not conducted themselves the way you would want a high-profile member of your leadership team or athletic team [to do].” Goplerud said. He also said the school district’s initial internal investigation was a step in the right direction.
“It looks to be pretty thorough,” Goplerud said. What is unclear is why it took so long for any action against Propst, despite years of warnings.
“You have the reference to him handing out pills allegedly in 2012, but the first real report of it didn’t come until the last two months. You have to wonder why that wasn’t dealt with in a different fashion.”
According to the March investigation, Propst is accused of providing pills to student athletes, misusing school funds and owing $443,000 in state and federal taxes.
In Goplerud’s mind, the most shocking allegation: providing players pills. The district’s investigation lists two people, Colquitt County High Athletic Trainer Ryan Kebler and team doctor Gary Swartzentruver, personally witnessing Propst giving players pills or recommending players be given pills.
“I have seen and heard about Coach Propst giving players medicine during this past 2018 season, to control pain and /or swelling,” Kebler wrote. “There were times during this 2018 season I would see him give a player medicine from his pocket, call a player to his office, or have the player meet him at his truck. Players would also come to me with an injury issue and upon having a conversation with them, they would say things like, ‘Coach gave me some medicine,’ and ‘I got some pain pills from Coach Propst.’”
The report adds, “Coach would talk about this player or that player needs to take some Celebrex to reduce their swelling. If the team [doctor] deems it was necessary, then I would handle the medicine part for that player. Other times, coach would take it upon himself to determine if a player needed medicine and how much they would get, because he would give it to them,” Kebler wrote.
Celebrex is a prescription medication used to treat mild to moderate pain.
Kebler says in his letter, he first witnessed Propst allegedly giving pills in 2012 after a regular season game. Kebler and Swartzentruber confronted Propst, according to documents, but Kebler says he continued to “hand out medicine.”
There is not any mention of the mom’s complaint from 2012 regarding her son receiving the prescription drug Ultram at the direction of Propst while at an out-of-town scrimmage.
It is unclear if Colquitt County Schools ever investigated the mother's claim.
The initial internal investigation was turned over to the PSC and expected to come to a resolution soon. The school board attorney could not confirm if the district has turned over the personnel file requested by First Coast News.
Hines said the GHSA has investigated Propst twice, but found no fault either time, and have no further comment regarding any of the allegations.
Most of the Colquitt County administration mentioned in this story have moved into new roles or retired. DePaul, a former superintendent, retired from Colquitt Co. in June 2016 and now serves as the executive director of the North Georgia Regional Educational Service Agency. Giddens, Colquitt Co.’s former athletic director, now works for the GHSA. Terrell, a former Colquitt Co. High principal, retired in 2017.
Jones, the other former Colquitt High principal, retired from the school system in 2013. According to a Moultrie Observer article about his retirement, Jones said, “it was just time to move on,” and, “it’s not about who’s right, it’s about what’s right.”
“There is clearly a responsibility placed upon the leadership of the program to carefully watch their coaches,” Goplerud said. “The most troubling is the fact that there were so many things in the personal record and none of it was put together as a complete picture until recently.”
Propst is still getting paid by Colquitt County Schools as he remains under contract through the school year. He has been replaced as head coach by Justin Rogers. The Packers face two teams from northeast Florida and southeast Georgia this season – Trinity Christian Academy and Camden County.
Propst is expected to face a Professional Standards Committee Board – leading the investigation into all these complaints – sometime this year.