Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana is looking for a new start with President Mike Brennan, who will take over on Feb. 1.
The school has been embroiled in hazing scandals involving its champion sports teams, especially football. Brennan will take over from the current president, Father Walter E. Jenkins, who has been in the job only since July.
The scandals include a November lawsuit that, according to the OC Register, “accused Mater Dei and the Diocese of Orange of trying to cover up a brutal locker-room altercation that left the player with a traumatic brain injury.” After that, the Diocese of Orange, which oversees the school, hired Van Dermyden Makus, an investigations law firm, to find out what happened.
And last week the activist group SNAP “filed three complaints with government and church officials over allegations of hazing involving the school’s powerhouse football team” that occurred in November, reported the Los Angeles Times.
“If they really wanted change, they’d have brought someone in from the outside, a champion for child safety and transparency,” said Joelle Casteix, a Mater Dei alum and SNAP’s California spokesperson.
But the Anaheim Independent’s investigation found Brennan put academics and integrity above athletics as the principal of Servite High School in Anaheim for 14 years, ironically Mater Dei’s main sports rival.
“Mike is very student-focused, for them to be good people.” Pete Bowen told us; he was Servite’s president for 14 years and hired Brennan as principal. Before that, he was the ethics officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Last July Bowen became CEO of Giving Children Hope, a non-profit based in Buena Park.
“Athletics and other teamwork programs are good if they make you a good person,” he said. “But if it takes away from that, it’s not good. Mike’s reputation in the CIF is very high. He’s trusted.” CIF is the California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees school sports in the state. And although CIF members mostly include public schools, Brennan, although from a parochial school, was trusted to be the president of the CIF Southern Section Orange County League.
Brennan also became the head of the Trinity League, which is made up of major religious schools in Southern California. It’s unique because three of its football teams, Mater Dei, Servite and St. John Bosco in Bellflower, rank among the top 10 nationally.
Bowen said at Servite Brennan stressed “cohesion in a class,” and gave an example. Brennan could have had a very good basketball team by recruiting five or six great players. “But Mike didn’t do that because it destroys class cohesion. For him, winning is definitely secondary to building good kids.” Brennan also stressed academics, theater and other non-sports program.
According to the MaxPreps website, Mater Dei finished the 2021 season ranked No. 1 in the nation in football, with a 12-0 record. Brennan will step into a storied but troubled program headed by Coach Bruce Rollinson for 32 years, with four national championships under his belt.
For top-ranked teams like Mater Dei, high school football nationally has changed in recent years under the high-stakes pressure of money. That’s because top college players, although banned from receiving pay for the games they play, now sign huge “name, image and likeness” contracts, called NIL.
The best known is Bryce Young, the Mater Dei alumnus who will lead the Alabama Crimson Tide against the Georgia Bulldogs for the NCAA championship on Jan. 10.
Last July, Alabama Coach Nick Saban said Young, the top quarterback prospect in 2020, already had received nearly $1 million in NIL money before even starting a game.
That means the pressure for a top high school to recruit top talent is even greater. Being on a winning high school team means higher NIL contracts before the ink on the diploma is dry. Which in turn makes it harder to make sure academics and character continue to be emphasized above sports.
That’s another challenge for Mike Brennan. But it looks like he’s up to it.