Friday, October 28, 2016

Tarnished Heels -- Chapter One

Chapter One
Marvin Austin’s Tweet; initial NCAA interviews

“I live In club LIV so I get the tenant rate. bottles comin like its a giveaway”
When the above words (a reference to champagne bottles and a 30,000-square-foot night club at Miami Beach) were sent out across the internet via the social media site Twitter at 3:07 AM on May 29, 2010, they set into motion a domino effect that would threaten to topple the reputation of one of the most storied schools in collegiate history.  At the time of that early-morning “tweet,” Marvin Austin was a rising senior on UNC’s football team.  A top prospect out of high school, he was one of several star players on a team that many sports analysts felt was a “sleeping giant,” and even a dark horse for the National Championship.  Austin’s ill-advised boast, however, would ultimately all but assure that the program would not be competing for any legitimate and recognized championships for years to come. 
According to, the tweet was “one of several posts that drew attention to Austin's lavish lifestyle – and which ultimately led to Austin's suspension for his entire senior season due to NCAA violations involving extra benefits from agents, middlemen and marketing representatives.”  It was the onset of a mass discovery of evidence that pointed to impermissible benefits and academic fraud – but not only for some of Austin’s fellow football players, as it was first assumed, but eventually also for the school’s more prestigious basketball program.
* * *
In the early months of 2007 Marvin Austin was a top recruit attending Ballou High School in Washington, DC.  He was ranked by the recruiting service as the #1 defensive tackle in the nation during his senior year.  The recruiting service ranked him as the third overall prep prospect in their final rankings, and he was also USA Today’s “National Defensive Player of the Year.”  While at Ballou he played for head coach Moses Ware, but it was another football staff member – assistant coach Todd Amis – who would later play a role in the events that eventually unfolded at UNC.
Austin was considering many top collegiate programs as National Signing Day approached in February of 2007.  Throughout his recruitment several schools had been consistently reported at the top of Austin’s wish list.  These included such powerhouse destinations as Tennessee and the University of Southern California, with yet another top program, Florida State University, rumored to be the leader.  On signing day, however, it was a surprise school which garnered Austin’s commitment:  the University of North Carolina.
The August 30, 2007, edition of the Fayetteville (NC) Observer newspaper contained an article dedicated to UNC football, and how it has been historically difficult for traditional “basketball” schools to succeed on the gridiron – but that the new football head coach, Butch Davis, and the Heels appeared to be turning that stigma around.  Amongst a series of segments and storylines penned by staff writer Dan Wiederer, one in particular stood out.  It gave an interesting and detailed accounting of a specific moment in Marvin Austin’s recruitment, and in hindsight possibly provided some details as to his seemingly quick affinity towards UNC. In a section titled “Mettle of Achievement,” Wiederer outlines the first contact:

Strange as it sounds, the revival of UNC football may have received its most significant boost last December at a Metropolitan Police Department awards banquet in Washington, DC. Inside DAR Constitution Hall that night detective Todd Amis, also the top assistant coach at Ballou High School, accepted a medal of achievement. On hand to support him: Ballou’s star defensive tackle Marvin Austin, widely considered the top defensive prospect in the country. On hand to introduce himself to Austin: Butch Davis.
The first interaction proved momentous. Firm handshake. Sincere conversation. One grand sales pitch from an eager and proven coach to a five-star 300-pound defensive tackle who previously had as much interest in North Carolina football as he had in skipping dinner. Come to Chapel Hill, Davis implored, and we can build a national power. Austin listened to the fantastic proposition and envisioned his future. Inspired Saturday victories. BCS Bowl trips. A paved path to the NFL. They were the same promises delivered by the coaches at Southern California, Florida State and Tennessee, the schools at the top of Austin’s wish list and programs with more substance with which to back those claims. Yet somehow, Davis’ ambition and energy won out.
“I was sold, man,” Austin said.
* * *
Paul “Butch” Davis, Jr. was hired as the head football coach at UNC in mid-November, 2006, replacing Tar Heel alum John Bunting.  Davis arrived on campus with much fanfare, as he boasted work experience at a number of “big name” college teams – as well as most recently serving a stint in the NFL as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
In the college ranks his most notable tenure came when he served as the head coach at the University of Miami.  He was hired in January of 1995 and would go on to lead the Hurricanes for six seasons.  Prior to gaining the head coaching job at Miami, Davis worked as a top assistant for the Dallas Cowboys.  It was during his time in Dallas that Davis first worked with John Blake, who 14 years later would become his UNC coaching mate.  Their connection did not begin at that time in Dallas, however.  It goes back more than 30 years to when Davis taught Blake in high school in Oklahoma in the late 1970’s. 
In 1993 Davis was the defensive coordinator with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and Blake was the defensive line coach.  That arrangement insured that the two worked closely together on a daily basis for several years in a row.  Preceding that job in Dallas was his first tenure (as an assistant) with the Miami Hurricanes in the mid 80’s, and one of Davis’s earliest collegiate destinations (beginning in 1979) was with Oklahoma State University.
* * *
It was announced in December of 2006 that John Blake was being hired as the defensive line coach at UNC, and he would also later serve as the program’s recruiting coordinator and associate head coach – essentially the second-in-command behind Davis.  At the time of Blake’s hiring, the intimate past connection between Blake and Davis was quickly made apparent.  In an online article posted by on December 15, 2006, Butch Davis was quoted as saying, “(Blake) is known throughout the country as a terrific recruiter and teacher. I had the pleasure of working with John when we were both assistants for the Cowboys, and his commitment to excellence both on and off the field is unmatched.”
Blake’s previous coaching stops included the aforementioned stint with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys (alongside Davis), as well as being an assistant at numerous colleges.  These stops included Mississippi State University, the University of Tulsa, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Oklahoma.  He also served a brief and tumultuous stint as the head coach at Oklahoma from 1996 to 1998.  While Blake would eventually gain national (negative) attention due to his role in the UNC football scandal, his more distant past was not without controversial rumors.  He allegedly earned the nickname “Black Santa” during periods of his prior career as being the coach who always had “gifts” for his players.   Whether that meant actual money, or simply arrangements to meet with NFL agents, is unknown.
Former collegiate star and Oklahoma player Brian Bosworth stated in a 2010 Associated Press article that Blake set up meetings between Bosworth and NFL agent Gary Wichard. 
"You have to understand, John was the eyes inside the locker room," Bosworth told the Yahoo! Sports website. "He was the fisherman and Gary was the cook. You've got to have somebody out there who is going to get the bounty, and Gary's the one who then goes and sells the bounty. I don't understand why they would be trying to skirt the truth on that. That is what it was. It was so blatant. And I know I wasn't the only player who saw it."
As more details regarding UNC’s football scandal began to surface in 2010, it became evident that the NCAA was initially focusing on Blake and possible impermissible benefits.  Steve Spurrier, the well-known head coach of the University of South Carolina, made a reference to Blake’s past when he commented, “When you’ve been in coaching as long as I have, we know the reputation of almost all the coaches that have been around a long time. We all have a reputation, especially guys who’ve coached 20 years or so. It’s hard to hide whatever your reputation is.”
* * *
A name mentioned earlier in the chapter was Todd Amis.  As referenced in the Fayetteville Observer news article, Amis was a detective in the Washington, DC, area, but more importantly a top assistant coach at Ballou High School where Marvin Austin played his senior year.  Austin also first met and spoke with Butch Davis at an event where Amis was one of the centerpieces.  This may seem fortuitous and coincidental at first glance, but the details that would emerge later – details that show that Amis was closely associated with not only UNC assistant coach John Blake, but apparently also with NFL agents who provided impermissible benefits to Austin – would suggest that the meeting might not have been such a coincidence after all.
On June 21, 2010, Chance Miller, a member of the NCAA’s enforcement staff, sent an email to UNC to schedule interviews with various football players.  This marked the beginning of a probe into Austin’s extracurricular activities (such as partying into the late hours in the Miami area), but also indicated that the NCAA would be focusing on other team members as well.  As a result, a number of disturbing facts quickly began to surface.  Many of these coincided with the release of the phone records of John Blake’s UNC-issued cell phone, which were provided by the school in early October, 2010, following an open records request by the Raleigh News and Observer newspaper.
From there a three-pronged dissection of the illegal transgressions of Austin, Blake, and others associated with the school would commence.  The News and Observer did its part.  Charles Robinson, a noted reporter with Yahoo! Sports, revealed a number of facts in early August and then again in late September.  The third source was a bit unexpected, but would prove time and again to be capable of uncovering damaging revelations related to UNC’s improprieties.  That source was the message board portion of a collegiate website,  While football and benefits would be the initial focus, the microscope would eventually reveal the much bigger topics of academic fraud and the school’s basketball program.
* * *
It would quickly become clear that 2010 was not the beginning of Marvin Austin and John Blake’s troubles.  Records that were obtained in part by Yahoo! Sports showed an invoice from Altour International, a business and travel company based in California that has 61 offices on three continents.  That February 25, 2009, invoice was for a trip that Marvin Austin took to California to train at Proactive Sports Performance, a training facility where the rookie clients of NFL agent Gary Wichard had trained since the mid-2000’s.  It was shown that Austin was training with NFL player (and former Tar Heel) Kentwan Balmer – a client of Wichard’s agency, Pro Tect Management – which is conveniently located less than two miles from the Proactive Sports facility.
Numerous other invoices were obtained, as well as copies of checks – and that is where the web becomes more intricate.  A check dated March 1, 2009, was shown from Todd Amis, Austin’s former high school assistant coach, covering his travel costs to California.  A March 3, 2009, check revealed a payment from Pro Tect Management to Amis.  Furthermore, a March 4, 2009, Altour invoice showed that Pro Tect Management paid for changes in Austin’s flight itinerary.  All of this occurred while Austin was a collegiate player and representing UNC on the field.
March 7th through the 14th were the dates of Austin’s first training trip to California, which the above dates/invoices/checks covered.  A March 11, 2009, Altour invoice showed that Pro Tect paid for further changes in the flight itinerary, with a check being sent from Pro Tect to Altour on March 12, 2009.
The paper trail by itself was fairly damning.  First and foremost, Marvin Austin – while still a college student – was taking a trip to California to visit and presumably train at the facility of a registered NFL agent.  Furthermore, the flight was paid for via check from one of his former high school coaches.  What transcends these events as going from “very bad” to “orchestrated improprieties” are details extracted from John Blake’s phone records, and contacts that were made around the pertinent dates above – with all centering around agent Gary Wichard, former high school coach Todd Amis, and Austin.  Records show that on the days leading up to Austin’s initial March 7th trip to California, John Blake spoke multiple times with those three aforementioned individuals – and in many instances within minutes of one another.  Similar patterns showed up numerous times during Austin’s week-long stay on the west coast.
Austin’s impermissible training trips – or the knowledge and involvement of UNC – did not end with that initial March flight to California, however.  Another invoice from Altour International was obtained that showed a date of July 17, 2009.  Again a check from Todd Amis was shown as the method of payment, dated July 22.  Marvin Austin’s second impermissible trip to California was from July 23 to August 1, 2009.
As before, the phone records of associate head coach John Blake gave further details.  Once again calls to (or from) Wichard, Amis, and Austin showed up within close proximity to one another.  This time several contacts were made with head coach Butch Davis as well.  All of the phone data made it clear that at least one member of UNC’s football staff – Blake – was aware of the whereabouts of one of his star players.  Based on his contact with Blake during Austin’s second training trip to California, it is well within reason that Butch Davis could have been aware, too.
* * *
UNC’s football team had a very successful 2009 season when Marvin Austin was a junior, going 8-3 during the regular season before losing a closely-contested bowl game.  The future looked bright for the program, but the downside was that the team had a number of rising seniors who were highly rated by draft analysts and were strongly considering leaving early for 2010’s NFL draft.  That list included defensive backs Kendric Burney and Deunta Williams, linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter, wide receiver Greg Little, and defensive tackle Marvin Austin. 
To the surprise of many in the college football world, however, those six rising seniors shunned the upcoming NFL draft and left millions of contract dollars on the table.  Instead, they announced on January 4, 2010, that they would all be returning to school for their senior year.  With this unexpected turn of events, UNC was vaulted to the top of the projected standings for the 2010 Atlantic Coast Conference football season, and the team was immediately inserted into early discussions about the National Championship.
Following that announcement to remain at UNC, and while still unknown to the NCAA and the public at the actual days and times they were occurring, more questionable activities were going on by Marvin Austin behind the scenes.  All of those events would eventually come to light, and in reality should have been noticed much earlier (by either the school or the NCAA).  They showed a similar pattern and lifestyle as later displayed in his infamous Twitter message from the nightclub in Miami, with red flags abounding.
Based on numerous Twitter pictures posted by Austin, he was in Washington, DC, on April 23 and 24, 2010.  He tweeted the following on the 23rd"Jus got to DC an (sic) I’m feeln (sic) a shopn (sic) spree . . . nobody gon (sic) be fresh as ME!!!", as well as posting pictures showing himself and University of South Carolina player Wesyle Saunders in a DC hotel.  Aside from boasting about going on a shopping spree and posting pictures of an expensive hotel, the bigger implications came once again from John Blake’s phone records.  Some interesting contacts took place not only on the actual days Austin was in DC, but also on the days immediately before and after the trip.
            Austin and Blake spoke once on the 20th, once on the 21st, and twice on the 22nd.  The above tweet was on April 23rd.  Austin and Blake then spoke nine times on the 24th, and then once on each day, the 25th, 26th, 27th, and 28th of April – the days following the trip.  The connections did not stop there, however.  At 10:27 PM on April 23 (the night of the tweet), Blake spoke with NFL agent Gary Wichard.  And then on the 24th (when Blake had spoken to Austin nine times), Blake also spoke with Wichard seven times.  And to top things off, the third party from the previous California trips – Todd Amis – made his appearance in the records as well.  On April 24th, only 23 minutes after getting off the phone with Austin, Blake spoke with Amis for 20 minutes.  Less than an hour before those calls – and then a little over an hour after them – Blake spoke with Wichard. 
Approximately two weeks later Marvin Austin was back in the nation’s capital for another visit, and more incriminating pictures and tweets would follow.  On May 7th Austin tweeted a picture of a Gucci gift certificate card, and followed that up the next day by tweeting the message, “Tables, bottles, beautiful (sic) people!!!!! LIVE…”  On May 10th Austin ate dinner at a Cheesecake Factory restaurant, and then posted the picture of his $143 bill on Twitter.  He also included a picture of a dozen doughnuts, price tag $40.
As with the first DC trip, more information from John Blake’s phone records give insight as to the days leading up to the trip, during the visit, and then immediately following.   On the 5th of May (two days before the Gucci tweet) Blake spoke to Austin six times.  That same evening, he spoke with NFL agent Gary Wichard.  On May 10th (the date of the Cheesecake Factory dinner) Blake spoke to Austin seven times, and with Wichard three times – all in close proximity to Austin’s calls.  Then on May 11th Blake spoke to Austin three times, Wichard twice, and then Todd Amis once – though it was only two minutes after getting off the phone with Austin, and the call with Amis lasted 14 minutes. 
There would be two other incidents of note on May 11th.  The first was a Twitter message from Ed Shields to Marvin Austin:  “Marvin I will bring the wallets to u today.”  It was established earlier that Todd Amis was Austin’s top high school assistant coach, and had worked under head coach Moe Ware.  Ware resigned after Austin’s graduation, and the new head coach at Ballou was Ed Shields.  The next occurrence was a phone call that took place on John Blake’s phone, immediately between calls with Todd Amis and Austin.  Blake spoke with sports agent Melvin Bratton, as opposed to the usual suspicious contact with Gary Wichard.  Bratton was a former collegiate player with the Miami Hurricanes in the mid 1980’s, and helped lead his team to the 1987 National Championship.  He went on to spend two seasons in the NFL before injuries ended his career.  An interesting note is that Bratton’s years at the University of Miami coincided with Butch Davis’ first stint at the school as an assistant coach.  This would seemingly only further complicate matters regarding UNC and the contact that some of their players (and coaches) were having with agents – especially those who had close prior relationships with some of the coaches.
All told, John Blake had contact with Bratton a minimum of 13 times during 2009, and a minimum of 30 times during 2010.  When the NCAA’s sanctions against UNC were finally levied a year later, agent Gary Wichard of Pro Tect Management was discussed and represented.  No mention of Bratton was ever made.  Whether that was due to his complete innocence in the scandal is unknown.  Another scenario could simply be that the NCAA may not have known about his past connection to Butch Davis, not to mention his current connection to John Blake – including the aptly timed calls surrounding Blake’s contact with key figures such as Marvin Austin and Todd Amis. 
* * *
The next major chronological event to happen in the spring of 2010 was the one that first tipped off the NCAA and media to possible infractions – the Miami club tweet that was mentioned at the onset of this chapter.  Quickly following his earlier excursions to California and DC, Austin was off on another trip to southern Florida.  Aside from the tweet that was sent out at 3:07 AM from the night club, other evidence of questionable activities also emerged from that jaunt, including a photograph of Austin and fellow rising senior Greg Little that appears to have been taken at poolside during an agent’s party.  Timestamps and records would show that Austin and Little were in the Miami area from May 29th through the 31st.
The eventual email from Chance Miller of the NCAA to UNC would be sent on June 21st, and a full investigation would soon be underway.  Those first interviews were conducted with players in Chapel Hill on July 12th and 13th.  Once again, the phone records of John Blake would turn up some interesting trends.
Calls placed on the night of July 11 would show that Blake called numerous players very late that evening, which was just prior to the first round of NCAA interviews.  While seemingly harmless on the surface, it should be noted that the NCAA forced Georgia Tech to vacate their 2009 football championship game victory in part due to members of their coaching staff forewarning players that they would be interviewed by the NCAA.  The Association’s first email to UNC was on June 21, and according to an interview with Athletics Director Dick Baddour on July 15, “One of the things that they instructed us in very clearly is that we are to maintain the confidence of their visit and their review.  They’ve requested that we not discuss it publicly.  Obviously, we’re going to fully cooperate with the NCAA in every way that we can by making things available to them and in particular by following their instructions on discussing it publicly.”
Despite this warning, it appears as if John Blake may have committed one of the same offenses that caused trouble for Georgia Tech.  On the night of July11, the day immediately preceding the first player interviews, Blake made a number of late-night calls to team members who would eventually be interviewed and/or investigated, as well as two members of the program’s staff who, once more information was uncovered, seemingly had a very close relationship and confidence with Blake.
At 10:21 PM on July 11th Blake called player Robert Quinn.  At 10:26 he called then player-development assistant Norris McCleary, whose name will become more prominent later.  At 10:28 Blake called player Quinton Coples.  At 10:29 he called player Marvin Austin.  At 10:32 he called player Robert Quinn.  At 10:33 he called then video/media assistant Johnny Vines, who like McCleary would become more prominent later.  And at 10:37 Blake called player Michael McAdoo.  The very next morning the NCAA interviews would commence.  Was Blake calling to warn them?  To set up a meeting where possible tactics could be discussed?  Those details may never be known because the timing of the calls was never addressed by the NCAA when the official allegations (and later the sanctions) were eventually released.
* * *
To further augment the university’s rapidly increasing problems, on July 21st the North Carolina Secretary of State began its own investigation into laws that were potentially broken by sports agencies tied to the school and its players.  As the summer would wear on, this would be a harbinger of things to come as more and more issues would continue to arise.  The most serious – academic misconduct tied to the school’s basketball program – was still over a full year away.
* * *
The essential (and unanswered) questions:
-- Was there more to Marvin Austin’s sudden recruiting affinity towards UNC than simply meeting head coach Butch Davis at a Washington, DC, function?
-- Did members of UNC’s staff other than John Blake have connections with sports agents?
-- Why were the (public) social media accounts of UNC players not being adequately monitored by the school?
-- Why were John Blake’s school-issued phone records not being adequately monitored by the school?
-- Did Blake forewarn members of the football team regarding the impending NCAA interviews?

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