"He had a dramatic effect on everybody who came through his program," says Cox, who played for Shannon from '83 to '85. "He is one of the most honest people I've ever met. Sometimes he would be too honest, and it could hurt your feelings. But that honesty was what helped a lot of people in his program go on and be successful."
In 1992 President-elect Clinton named Shannon one of 53 Faces of Hope. The coach was profiled on television's 60 Minutes. He was even the subject of a book, The Right Kind of Heroes, by Kevin Horrigan, although Shannon has yet to read it. "I've always tried not to get too high or low about all of this," he says. "I've just tried to keep my shoulder to the wheel."
In fact Shannon displayed an almost Zenlike focus in his work—whether he was fighting assumptions that a black team with a black coach could win only through sheer physical prowess (for this reason he taught his players a precision passing offense); or persuading kids that education, not drug dealing, would liberate them from their poverty (when practice was over, Shannon made sure every player could get home safely); or convincing local businessmen to donate equipment to the East Side football team (the Flyers played through part of their famous winning streak in uniforms that were nine years old). He was never deterred by the challenges of coaching in an inner-city school. If an obstacle course was too expensive, for example, Shannon would improvise with a dozen 2-by-12's thrown helter-skelter on the ground.
What Shannon could not abide, however, was that while he was forced to beg for money for his program, school officials could not account for millions of dollars in missing funds. Rumors had been circulating for years that the East St. Louis school system was corrupt, and in the fall of 1994 the state of Illinois began monitoring the school district's finances, as it had those of East St. Louis's city government several years earlier.
What state investigators found was a bureaucracy in appalling disarray: The school district's financial records could not account for an astonishing $10 million. The local superintendent had approved $10,000 in retroactive salary payments to her sister without school board approval. The district had also paid health insurance premiums for former employees and, in some cases, dead former employees. More than $27,000 had been lost in late-payment penalties on monthly utility bills. And the district was losing substantial income by investing $9 million at 1.9% at local banks.
The initial audits were so damning that the state appointed a special oversight committee to seize control of the district's cash accounts last July. The school board and the superintendent cooperated with the committee only reluctantly. In fact, when the committee's auditors caught accounting errors that would have cost the district $50,000, board members blasted the auditors for embarrassing them in public. At one point someone in the superintendent's office flouted the state by cashing checks from a special emergency account and using the funds to buy things like balloons. No one in an official capacity rushed to help the committee determine exactly where that $10 million had gone.
Then, in August, Shannon took his football team to Simeon High School in Chicago for its first game of the '95 season.
Shannon had long questioned the athletic department's use of its funds. The state of Illinois provides the East St. Louis school district with $58 million a year—80% of the district's budget. And yet Shannon couldn't offer his players a hot shower after practice. "Where is all that money going?" he asks. "For 12 years I've been trying to look at my football budget. But they"—the school board and East Side's officials—"always refuse to show it to me."
As the Flyers prepared to go to Chicago in August, May told Shannon that the team would eat four meals during the trip. Unbeknownst to his boss, Shannon looked at the paperwork and discovered that May had requested funds to cover six meals. Shannon confronted May and was rebuffed.
After the trip Shannon was summoned to East Side principal Walter Hood's office, where May explained that he had requisitioned money for more meals than the team actually ate because the official food allowance was "too skimpy" to cover the cost of decent meals. Shannon still considered May's action to be the sort of discrepancy that has long plagued the school district. Shannon agonized over the matter, worrying that if he didn't go public, he would play into the district's decades-old conspiracy of silence.