SAVANNAH - Four white football players recruited by Savannah State University's former coach have filed a lawsuit saying the historically black college withdrew scholarship offers because of their race.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta says Savannah State denied the players scholarships offered by coach Robby Wells after university administrators fired him in January. It says the players were scheduled to sign their letters of intent by Jan. 31.
Savannah State's "discrimination on the basis of race was for the purpose and had the effect of perpetuating segregation in higher education," according to the suit.
Savannah State attorney Joe Steffen said Wednesday the university has no record of scholarship offers to any of the four white players.
"These kids did not have scholarship offers, period," Steffen said. "There is no written commitment between them and the university. We didn't even know who some of these individuals were before the suit was filed."
The four players - Andrew Cannon of Orange Park, Fla., Jacob Farmer of Riverview, Fla., Rico Arellano of Matthew, N.C., and Forrest Hill of Jonesboro, Ga. - say they made verbal commitments to play at Savannah State after Wells offered each full scholarships.
Matthew Billips, the Atlanta attorney representing the four players, did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.
The lawsuit, filed Monday, says university administrators reneged on those offers after Wells was fired less a month before the players planned to sign letters of intent.
Cannon's father, Jim Cannon, said Wednesday he accompanied his son to visit Wells at Savannah state in early January. He said they toured the campus and his son filled out an admissions application after accepting the coach's scholarship offer.
"He said 'you've got a full ride here at Savannah State,'" Jim Cannon said. "There was no doubt in my mind that they had agreed on a four-year scholarship."
However, he said his son called the school later that month and learned that not only had Wells departed, but he was no longer being considered for the football program.
"I think what they did was based on race," said Cannon's father, who said his son will play at Henderson State University in Arkansas.
Athletic scholarships are renewed on an annual basis. Steffen said Wells may have made verbal offers to the players without informing Savannah State administrators, but he said the coach had no authority to promise scholarships without approval from the school's athletic director.
"I feel sorry for the kids if they were led to believe that somehow Savannah State University considered them to be official recruits," he said, "because in no way, shape or form were they."
Steffen said he didn't know if Savannah State recruited any white players this year. But he noted the Tigers' starting quarterback, sophomore A.J. DeFilippis, is white.
The players' lawsuit comes nearly two months after Wells, who became Savannah State's first white football coach, filed his own federal lawsuit against the school in May. Wells says he was fired because he's white.
Arellano's mother, Denise Arellano, said Wednesday her son didn't want to comment. She said he received a football scholarship with another college, but declined to discuss his case further.
Farmer and Hill did not immediately return calls seeking comment.