According to Betters, 110 students had left Red Lion and the school was approximately $6 million in debt, in part because of outlays to the scholarship program, which was founded to help build the football team. He says the bank was "days away" from foreclosing on the property. "The reputation of this school was shot. It was the laughingstock of Delaware. Things had to change. We had a school to save, and football had to be put into perspective."
He asked all the football coaches to resign with an opportunity to reinterview for their jobs, making clear that FLASH, FOCAS and a national schedule would have to go.
What followed was a hideous divorce, with the football team on one side and the administration on the other. "They made it sound like football was the reason for all the school's woes," says Bashir Bradley, father of Honey Badgers senior receiver Dhameer Bradley, who is headed to UConn next fall. "They tried to push our kids out." Betters insists he wanted the players to stay, but FOCAS was going to be restructured after the school year, so they would face tuition challenges. Sills called a meeting of the players' parents and presented them with three options. The players could go their own ways. They could transfer en masse to an existing charter school. Or they could start their own school. "That was the worst option for me," says Sills, whose son could play almost anywhere and could afford tuition.
But in Delaware, if an athlete transfers after the start of his sophomore year, he has to sit out the following season. For the most promising Lions, among whom there were only two players with scholarship offers at the time, there was no time to wait. The new school was approved unanimously. "I think it's a shroud for the real reason they're there, and that's to play football," Betters says. "But I hope they succeed."
The players de-enrolled from Red Lion in mid-January, and a week later a National Connections executive was at the office in Newport to enroll the students in online classes. Sills incorporated Eastern Christian Management as a nonstock company in Delaware and says he is currently applying for nonprofit status.
After a faculty reorganization at Red Lion, three former teachers joined the Eastern Christian staff. "I told the guys, 'An online school—what are you trying to do?'" says Carrie Timmons, one of the teachers. "It sounds crazy, but I think it's going to work." Guttentag, of Connections Learning, says he was pleasantly surprised by the Honey Badgers' academic performance last semester, though the team grade point average fell marginally from 3.2 to 3.18, according to Sills. Several players say the work is harder, including Irvin-Sills, but he appreciates that he's allowed to listen to music on headphones while he does it.
"I like the program because you move at your own pace," says Bigelow, the defensive lineman. "Some guys need more time with a subject, and they get it; some are ahead, and they keep going." Given the budget cuts in public schools and the push for students to specialize in an extracurricular activity, experts generally agree with him. "For kids who are highly motivated, this is probably a good way to go," says Ted Hasselbring, a professor at Vanderbilt's Peabody College. "For kids who aren't motivated and struggle, it's tougher."
In most sports, particularly basketball, baseball and soccer, club teams are common. Eastern Christian signals a move halfway to club football, raising money on its own and sending it to National Connections. Sills believes Eastern Christian will also field volleyball, basketball and track teams this year. He wants every player to join an "academic team" too, which competes against other schools. He expects to hold a prom in the spring. He looks across the prospective 90-acre campus and imagines a football stadium, baseball diamond and softball field. "We'll never put athletics before academics," he promises, "but we'll probably come closer than most."
Eastern Christian should continue to entice football players, with the reputation of its coaches and FLASH training, but drawing others could be difficult. Tuition is $10,000, compared with $6,030 for National Connections Academy, and it's obvious why. Football programs are expensive, and Eastern Christian is not giving scholarships. Parents can help cover tuition by getting sponsors to buy $1,200 advertisements in the stadium and on Eastern Christian's web page, and Sills says he has partnered with a bank to provide families with 15-year loans.
Sills lives in a development that borders Red Lion, and from his house he can see the lights of the stadium his company built. But he is not allowed to step on the campus, part of a legal settlement with the school, which enabled him to take back some of the equipment he donated. The difference between Red Lion's logo and Eastern Christian's is subtle: four short fingers on a paw instead of five long ones, with the cross in the middle. In the first game the Honey Badgers wore their logo on the side their helmets and the Lions' on the back of their jerseys.