John Blake resigns; football players suspended
On August 26, 2010, just over a month after the NC Secretary of State had opened its investigation into possible agent infractions, the NCAA announced that it may have discovered potential academic fraud at UNC. The details were first divulged in an August 26, 2010, email from Joni Worthington, the Vice President for Communications at UNC, to Erskine Bowles, who at the time was President of the University of North Carolina System. The email exchange would eventually be made public, along with a follow-up message he sent to the UNC System Board of Governors later that evening. Bowles is a 1967 graduate of UNC.
The initial email from Worthington to Bowles contained information from a variety of media stories that would soon be dispersed to the public, all based on a news conference that was held at UNC on the evening of the 26th. In the emails were numerous quotes from UNC officials as they had become aware of the academic issues. With the news that the NCAA had expanded its investigations into academics, Chancellor Holden Thorp was quoted as saying, “We are treating this with the seriousness you would expect from this university. We will figure this out… We hope the scope of this is limited.” Athletics Director Dick Baddour indicated that while the current focus was on football, that the school would look at it as an opportunity to look into the tutoring program within other athletic programs. A quote within Worthington’s email from head football coach Butch Davis read, “Nothing is more important than the character… and integrity of this football program.”
Other vitally important information regarding Butch Davis was included in the forthcoming news stories that were documented in Worthington’s email to Bowles. A former UNC tutor was at the center of the NCAA’s current investigation, and Davis revealed that the tutor in question “is someone that has previously been employed by our family.” The woman in question, Jennifer Wiley, was let go from her job by UNC as a tutor – but was then, according to Davis, hired by his family “to be an academic coach and academic advisor. This is someone who worked with our son, and to be honest with you, we’re a little bit surprised and possibly disappointed.”
The follow-up email that Bowles sent to the other members of the Board of Governors stated in part that, “We do not know the extent of these problems at this time. But we are investigating this matter fully and as expeditiously as possible, and we will get to the bottom of it. And when we do we will deal with it appropriately as you would expect the university to do.” The “University,” of course, being the school from where he graduated. And to further punctuate that theme, a total of eleven Board members received their undergraduate degrees at UNC, far out-pacing the other universities in the system. The next highly-represented school had only four undergraduate members on the Board of Governors. When the parameters were widened to include graduate degrees, UNC checked in with well over twenty representatives on the Board of Governors.
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Player suspensions would begin to follow soon thereafter, though only one was mandated by the school. Despite being at the center of the controversy for several months, Marvin Austin had been allowed to continue representing the university and the football team. On September 1st, however, it was announced that coach Butch Davis had suspended him indefinitely for “violating unspecified team rules,” according to various news agencies, including a story that appeared on ESPN’s website. Even still, UNC tried to distance itself from the negative stigma of an NCAA investigation – something that would be a common tactic in the years to come. Instead of referring to the NCAA’s presence as an investigation, whenever a UNC official spoke of the issues it was simply referred to as a “review.” This was seemingly an attempt to lessen the seriousness of the charges in the eyes and ears of the general public.
With regards to Austin, Butch Davis had this to say: “This decision is not a result of the ongoing NCAA review. Marvin has violated team rules and has neglected his responsibilities to the team.” This suspension was issued just three days prior to the team’s season-opening game against Louisiana State University, and early indications from unnamed sources said that the team might be without other players for that contest as well. That same ESPN article reported that the school was exploring the possibility of “rolling suspensions” that would allow them to spread the absence of players over multiple games, in effect lessening the impact on the team as a whole. In what would appear to be an attempted gag order, the school cancelled all scheduled media availability with players prior to the LSU game.
It was also reported that the school was working with the NCAA in order to determine who would and would not be allowed to make the trip, and which players should be held out for precautionary reasons. That is, which players’ names might surface in the near future in relation to NCAA violations. Through past examples of other schools’ transgressions, it was well known that if a player is later determined to have played while ineligible, then the school would have to retroactively vacate any and all team wins in which that player participated. This common understanding would be a major point in the years and events yet to come in the scandal, especially once UNC’s basketball team (and its numerous national titles) entered the fray.
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On September 3rd, one day before the LSU football game, six UNC starters were initially declared ineligible for “violating school and/or NCAA rules,” the university announced. Those starters included Marvin Austin, which was somewhat expected, as well as Charles Brown, Robert Quinn, Michael McAdoo, Kendric Burney, and Greg Little. Six non-starters were withheld from the game based on the current and ongoing NCAA investigation. Those players were Shaun Draughn, Linwan Euwell, Brian Gupton, Ryan Houston, Da’Norris Searcy, and Jonathan Smith. Furthermore, safety Deunta Williams was declared ineligible late Friday (the night before the game), while two other players – linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter – were cleared to play.
Many of the facts were still unknown at this point, especially in terms of the actual violations. As noted by the various news reports that were referenced at the beginning of the chapter via Joni Worthington’s email to Erskine Bowles, the NCAA was investigating not only possible improper contact with agents, but also looking into allegations of academic misconduct by some of the players. UNC Athletics Director Dick Baddour said in a statement, “We are still working with the NCAA staff to resolve these eligibility issues. The NCAA is focusing on each of their situations on a case-by-case basis. Together we are working to determine their status in as thorough and fair a process as is possible.” It was also revealed on that same Friday that investigators from the NC Secretary of State’s office had subpoenaed Marvin Austin in relation to sports-agent laws. UNC would go on to lose that opening game against LSU, 30-24.
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On September 5th, the day after the LSU loss, another domino in the scandal would fall. John Blake, who had been near the center of the ignominy and its blossoming controversies, resigned his coaching position with the football team. He gave a fairly detailed statement:
“While I have enjoyed my tenure at the University of North Carolina, it has become apparent to me over the course of the past few weeks that my presence has become a distraction to my family and to this great University, too. Consequently, I have determined that it is in the best interests of my family, the University community at large, and the Football Program for me to step down from my position as associate head football coach effective today, September 5, 2010.
“I thank the Lord for the opportunity I have had to work with Butch Davis while at the University of North Carolina. I have grown to love and respect the school, my fellow coaches, and the young men who have worked so diligently to improve both as students and as football players. That love and respect has led me to the conclusion that the best decision for all involved is for me to step aside at this time. I wish the players, the coaches, and the University all the best.
“I thank the Tar Heel Nation for the overwhelming support I have received. The memories I have made here will last a lifetime. May God bless you all.”
Furthermore, statements were also given by head coach Butch Davis and also Athletics Director Dick Baddour. The words from Davis especially stood out, as once again they reiterated the close working relationship that the two men had shared over the years:
“Knowing John as I have over the years, it is clear that this was a difficult decision for him to make. I know how much John loves the players, coaching and the game of football. I am grateful for all of his hard work and effort in helping build this program. As difficult as this situation is, I have accepted his resignation. Throughout his career, I know he has worked hard to help young men become better people and football players. He and his family have made positive contributions to our football program.
“The Tar Heel family has tremendous passion for the University and everything it represents. It’s one of the things that made me want to be a Tar Heel four years ago. All of us who are part of the football program have been both disappointed and embarrassed by recent events. Our student athletes, coaches and I are committed to working every day, both on and off the field, to build a better football program, one that everyone associated with the University of North Carolina can and will be proud of.”
In a somewhat puzzling move, the university chose to pay Blake a prorated amount of his annual $240,000 salary equaling $74,500, which was equivalent to the amount he would have received had he completed the football season through the month of December. This decision was made despite the mounting evidence that seemed to indicate that Blake had broken numerous NCAA rules, as well as put the school in jeopardy for further sanctions.
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Following the resignation of John Blake, it was announced that linebackers’ coach Art Kaufman along with Norris McCleary, a member of the team’s support staff in player development and a former NFL lineman, would take over some of the defensive line coaching duties that Blake had left vacant. Butch Davis also indicated that he would become more involved with some of the day-to-day coaching and meetings than in the past, according to an online USA Today article published on September 7th.
McCleary’s name was one that showed up in great detail within John Blake’s university phone records, and during some troubling stretches of times. His prior background was one that was heavily entrenched in athletics. He played football at East Carolina University, and then had a multi-year stint in the NFL as a defensive lineman. Though he was only officially promoted to an on-field “coaching” position once John Blake resigned, the phone records seemed to indicate that he had a very close relationship with Blake, regardless.
On the afternoon and evening of the NCAA’s first on-campus interviews with UNC players, John Blake spoke with McCleary four different times. These calls were within close proximity with contacts Blake made with Todd Amis, NFL agent Gary Wichard, and several players who were under scrutiny by the NCAA. All told, Blake and McCleary had over 350 phone contacts between April and September of 2010, some of the prime months of the blossoming agent portion of the scandal. These were often closely intermixed with calls Blake had to (or from) players such as Marvin Austin, Robert Quinn, and Quinton Coples, and also with NFL agent Wichard.
McCleary’s departure from the school was unceremonious and apparently without fanfare, as few news stories on him are to be found. According to his LinkedIn page, his employment with UNC ended in December of 2012. As of late 2013 he was listed under several job capacities. He was working as a coach with the West Charlotte football team, he was a broker in the Charlotte area, and was also CEO of Mack’s Player Development. Regarding the latter position, he indicates on that same LinkedIn page that he “train develop current college an NFL players. I've train 1st round picks and college free agents.” One area that catches the eye is that from early 2008 until March of 2010 – his date of hire at UNC – he was self-described as being involved in “Pro Athlete Investment.” As evidenced by his own stated past work parameters, he was involved with the training and apparent integration of professional athletes both immediately before and immediately after his coaching tenure at UNC. Whether coincidentally or not, the many phone contacts he had with John Blake show a timely connection with NFL agents – again, while he was on staff at UNC.
Another member of the football team’s assistance staff who (on paper) held a relatively minor role was Johnny Vines. Like McCleary, however, he appeared to play a much larger role based on his contacts with John Blake. Vines was a simple video coordinator for the football team at the time, but phone records show a pattern very similar to that of McCleary’s. The contacts Blake had with Vines were often surrounded by names such as Marvin Austin, Gary Wichard, and others who were entangled in impermissible benefits. And along with McCleary, Johnny Vines was the only non-player whom John Blake contacted during that late night flurry of calls on July 11th, just prior to the first NCAA interviews.
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According to a USA Today article published during the second week of September, 2010, several of the university’s decision-making organizations had finally begun to take notice of the scandal. Bob Winston, the chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees, indicated that the issues would likely be discussed during their next meeting. Furthermore, the university’s 92-member faculty council was scheduled to get a briefing in the following few days from Chancellor Holden Thorp. Regarding that upcoming meeting, faculty chair McKay Coble said, “I think it will be respectful. And I think there will be some pointed questions.”
All of the negative attention was something that many who were associated with the university were unaccustomed to. At the time, only seven programs in what were considered college athletics’ “marquee” conferences had gone as long as the past 26 years without a major NCAA infractions case. UNC was one of those, which undoubtedly contributed to the “Carolina Way” mantra that had been repeated by its supporters over the years. According to Chancellor Thorp, “We’re concerned and devastated to be in this situation. We’ve had 50 years here without having to go through this sort of thing. The way we respond is really important.”
Board of Trustees Chairman Bob Winston displayed a similar sentiment, saying “Everybody has the same idea… that we’ve got to get to the bottom of this, whatever it is it is, and deal with it and, if there are changes to be made, make the changes. But this isn’t the way we’re going to do business.” Winston went on to reiterate, “We will look ourselves in the mirror at the end, and make sure the answer is it’s incidental.” That line of thought was often repeated at the beginning of the scandal by those who represented the school, either athletically, administratively, academically, or via the alumni – that the university would do whatever it took to get to the bottom of the issues. As documentation would later show, that tone would change a number of months later – once football was no longer the sole athletic program that had exhibited questionable practices.
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After a couple of weeks of relative silence, more bad news surfaced on September 22nd with an official suspension (via the NCAA) of defensive players Kendric Burney and Deunta Williams. The offense was receiving improper benefits, and the NCAA stipulated for Burney to miss a total of six games and Williams four. As covered in Chapter One, Burney and Williams were among six underclassmen who chose to return to UNC for their senior seasons instead of entering the NFL draft, along with fellow suspended players Marvin Austin and Greg Little. The final two players, Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter, had recently been cleared by the school. Any potential NCAA penalties against them were still up in the air at that point in time.
The impermissible benefits given to Burney and Williams were associated with trips to California, Atlanta, and Las Vegas for Burney, and two trips to California for Williams. Based on comments made by head coach Butch Davis on his radio show, the players would apparently only face penalties from the NCAA. “If and when they come back,” said Davis, “they’ll certainly be welcome additions.” Dick Baddour described the length of the suspensions as being “unduly harsh.”
Sources familiar with the situation at the time told the Associated Press that the “agent” in Burney’s case was Chris Hawkins, a former football player initially at UNC (from 2001-03) before getting kicked off the team. He would eventually continue his career with Marshall University. A week prior, in response to questions regarding Hawkins, Athletics Director Baddour said that Hawkins had been around the players and program “periodically” over the years. According to a source that spoke with espn.com for a September 2010 article, UNC players told investigators that Hawkins had contacted several sports agents about their interest in representing UNC players in the NFL draft. Hawkins was designated as an agent by the NCAA in part due to his connection with University of Georgia receiver A.J. Green. Hawkins purchased a jersey from Green for $1,000, which would land Green with a multiple-game suspension.
A UNC official stated (in the same ESPN article) that Hawkins had frequently visited the North Carolina football facility during the previous few years, including a visit during the summer of 2010 in which he worked out with former UNC (and Pittsburgh Steeler) player Willie Parker in UNC’s weight room. According to the school official, Hawkins had often described himself as Parker’s manager. At the time of Burney’s suspension announcement Hawkins had pending felony charges of trafficking cocaine, as well as misdemeanor charges of possession of marijuana. The legal troubles would later continue for Hawkins. In May of 2012 he was arrested by the Kinston (NC) Department of Public Safety and charged with discharging a weapon into an occupied dwelling.
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Despite having already resigned from UNC’s staff, a huge blow was dealt to the reputation of former associate head coach John Blake with the release of a Yahoo! Sports article on September 29th. The investigative article (penned by Charles Robinson) detailed just how closely Blake was associated with NFL agent Gary Wichard, and supplied even deeper details into their professional relationship. The four-month investigation by Yahoo! Sports showed that Blake and Wichard had engaged in multiple financial transactions over the prior three-plus years. Hotel receipts from one of Marvin Austin’s California training trips were obtained, and they listed Austin’s name along with Pro Tect Management, which was Gary Wichard’s agency.
A myriad of facts were presented, which included evidence of at least six wire transfers from Wichard’s private bank to Blake, a $45,000 personal loan to Blake from that same bank, and a credit card in the name of Wichard’s NFL agency – Pro Tect Management – issued in Blake’s name. As previously established, Todd Amis wrote checks to cover Marvin Austin’s flights to California, and Blake was often in contact with Amis – a minimum of 80 times in 2009, and a minimum of 69 times in 2010.
Shortly after the release of Charles Robinson’s article, UNC head football coach Butch Davis issued a bold statement: “Let me tell you, here’s how I feel: I am very sorry that all of this stuff has tainted the football program. But I’m going to tell you what I’m more sorry about, I’m sorry that I trusted John Blake. I can promise and tell you, that if we would’ve ever known that if any of these allegations were absolutely true, Coach Blake would have been dismissed. I would have fired him.” This was in reference to a man whom Davis had taught in high school, whom he had coached with on the same NFL defensive staff, and whom he had hired away from Nebraska to be his associate head coach and recruiting coordinator. A man whom, by all indications, Davis was very familiar with – and for a very long time. And a man whom the university chose to pay nearly $75,000, despite the fact that Blake resigned by his own accord, and could have soon been fired for just cause regardless.
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More bad news would surface less than two weeks later when, on October 11, 2010, football players Gregg Little and Robert Quinn would be declared permanently ineligible by the NCAA. According to an espn.com article, Little and Quinn received travel accommodations and jewelry, and then lied about it to investigators in three separate interviews. In a twist of irony, it was not fully revealed until late 2013 that Little was never completely honest even then, and that the NCAA was unable to uncover the true amounts of illegal benefits. It was only during the series of Secretary of State indictments (covered in a later chapter) that those full details would emerge.
At the time, Athletics Director Dick Baddour said that head coach Butch Davis continues to have “my complete support.” He went on to say, “I feel very strong about our compliance staff, about our compliance program. I feel very strong about this football program, as I do the other programs that we have. I think we’re in good stead. I’m going to fight the institutional control issues because of what we had in place and because of the way we’re handling it.” Baddour went on to acknowledge that the football program should have done more to monitor its high-profile players. “We should’ve been doing something else. We should’ve acknowledged the level that these guys are and that there were going to be people coming at them… I wish we had done more. I’d like to relive that part.” Regarding Greg Little’s illegal benefits, Baddour was quick to point out that none of those impermissible extras were received during Little’s 10-game stint as a reserve on the university’s prized basketball team during its Final Four run in 2008.
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A disturbing story of potential bias surfaced on November 14, 2010, via the Raleigh News and Observer. It reported that Cynthia Reynolds, formerly the UNC football team’s academic coordinator, had filed an age discrimination grievance against the school with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to documents that were filed a month earlier, Reynolds claims she was moved out of her position because head coach Butch Davis wanted a younger “face” for the academic support program for recruiting purposes. Reynolds, 56 years old at the time, had been hired by the university in 2002 as an associate director of the Academic Support Program for Student Athletes. She had primarily worked with the football program until she was reassigned to Olympic sports in August of 2009, and she was eventually not renewed in August of 2010.
Reynolds’ replacement was 29-year-old Beth Bridger, whom Reynolds described as an “excellent learning specialist” who also was in charge of hiring and training the mentors and tutors. Coincidentally, Jennifer Wiley – one of the primary suppliers of impermissible benefits during the football scandal – was a tutor with the school. Her significant role will be further expanded upon later. Reynolds originally filed a grievance with the university, reported the News and Observer, but that was denied by the panel of the EPA Non-Faculty Grievance Committee. She was notified of that decision via a letter she received from Chancellor Holden Thorp. Reynolds stated, “I think it’s important to make the point that even though I was an ‘at-will’ employee, you can’t get rid of somebody (because) you want someone younger in the position. There are policies, and you have to follow them.”
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In late 2010 the university released a list of names of individuals known to have provided impermissible benefits to football players. One was the previously-mentioned former tutor and student with the school, Jennifer Wiley. Amongst the remaining names was a Florida-based jeweler, three individuals tied to professional sports agencies, a former Maryland football player, and three former UNC football players – Hakeem Nicks, Omar Brown, and Mahlon Carey.
In a November 18th meeting of the school’s Board of Trustees, Chancellor Holden Thorp spoke (along with Athletics Director Dick Baddour and head football coach Butch Davis) in order to update the Board members on the scandal. Thorp concluded his comments that day by saying, “I hope you can see how diligently and sincere the three of us have worked on this. This is a challenge and a difficult thing that the University has gone through, but the difficult decisions that we had to make are ones that everybody agreed were in the best interest of the University. As a leader, what you look for is when you have a group of people responsible for doing difficult things, if everybody feels like they had a chance to speak their mind (and) if everybody agrees at the end to do what's best for the University. That's what makes me feel good about Butch Davis being our football coach, about Dick Baddour being our athletics director and about the football program at the University of North Carolina.”
Head football coach Butch Davis made platitudes of his own, stating, “There is no one single player and there is no one single game and there is no one single season worth the character and integrity of this institution and this University. That's my commitment and my pledge to you as we move forward into the future of this program.” Despite the mounting negative stories surrounding the school, many of which threatened its long-standing solid reputation, some affiliated with the school’s Board appeared more interested in how athletics were faring. When it came time for follow-up questions from the members, an unidentified trustee could be heard on the live video feed of the meeting asking Butch Davis how the ongoing review was “affecting recruiting.”
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The essential (and unanswered) questions:
-- Did the heavy representation of UNC graduates on the Board of Governors play a role (at any time) during the scandal?
-- Why did the university choose to pay John Blake nearly $75,000 in pay that he had, by all indications, not earned?
-- What larger role (if any) did people like Norris McCleary and Johnny Vines play with regards to the football issues?
-- Why did the team allow a former player – who had been kicked out of the program years prior – to have on-facility access to their current players?
-- Why did head coach Butch Davis personally hire a former UNC tutor – even after it was known that the tutor had essentially been fired by the university?