John Blake couldn't imagine a more brutal professional experience than getting fired from his dream job. In 1998, when Oklahoma dumped the former Sooner star after three miserable seasons (12-22) as its head football coach, the venom nearly overwhelmed Blake. He had failed, certainly, but the level of hatred from seemingly everyone in Norman shocked him.
"It was like I had committed murder," Blake says.
Blake assumed his work life would never again inflict so much pain. Then NCAA investigators showed up in Chapel Hill, N.C., on a hot summer day in 2010. Someone told Blake, then North Carolina's defensive line coach and assistant head coach, that the people from Indianapolis wanted a word. Getting fired at Oklahoma nearly crushed Blake mentally. Being the target of an NCAA investigation, he says, was even worse.
On Friday, Blake is scheduled to appear before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions (COI) to answer charges that he steered players to agent and longtime friend Gary Wichard. Blake adamantly denies the charges, some of the most serious the NCAA has handed down in years. He says he never steered a player to any agent and he wants to fight to clear his name.
Blake understands the COI can destroy his career if the members don't believe him. He also understands he doesn't have to endure another grilling. He doesn't have to spend money on attorneys to defend him. He could always coach something other than college football, but Blake wants to clear his name.
"Careers come and go in football," said Blake in an exclusive interview with SI.com this summer. "But your character ..."
Blake's case ultimately will hinge on how the members of the COI feel about his character. Do they believe him? Or do they believe the NCAA's enforcement staff? The NCAA has a mountain of circumstantial evidence, including hundreds of calls between Wichard and Blake, wire transfers and a brochure that indicates Blake once served as a key lieutenant in Wichard's company. Blake, meanwhile, has an explanation for almost everything.
Through interviews and public records, SI.com has obtained much of the evidence the enforcement staff will present against Blake, who has broken a long silence. Here is an inside look at what Blake will face at his hearing and a peek at the secretive, sometimes mystifying world of NCAA justice.
During the nine-year span Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto served on the COI, she affixed thousands of Post-It Notes to documents to remind her of questions she needed to ask during the hearing. Current chair Britton Banowsky prefers to write his notes on regular paper, but his first step matches former chair Potuto's. "What I really try to focus on are the issues in dispute," Banowsky says. Unlike a criminal or civil trial, which wouldn't occur but for at least one major disagreement in the facts of the case, the COI can hear entire cases in which the parties fundamentally agree on all the facts of the case.
Schools are unwise to disagree with the enforcement staff -- ask USC -- and in many cases school officials and enforcement staffers have worked hand-in-hand to determine the allegations. If the school agrees on the facts and none of the (usually terminated) employees come to the hearing to fight, the hearing can move along quickly. The enforcement staff tagged Ohio State with two allegations of major violations. School officials agreed with both of them. Former football coach Jim Tressel, snared by smoking-gun e-mail evidence that he had knowingly played ineligible players and had lied to NCAA investigators, came to the hearing but did not challenge the accusation against him. Ohio State's hearing took less than five hours. In 2010, USC officials fought the enforcement staff on multiple points during the hearing to decide the Reggie Bush case. That hearing took three days.
David Ridpath knows exactly how Blake will feel. Ridpath, the former compliance director at Marshall, sat on the school side with his colleagues as they defended themselves against allegations that athletic department officials looked aside while a booster provided improper jobs to football players. Ridpath, now an assistant professor of sport administration at Ohio University and the author of an upcoming book about his experiences in college athletics, considered himself part of the team until his bosses began asking COI members to direct questions toward him. That's when Ridpath realized he was actually the defendant. He was being accused of running a shoddy compliance department.
"I was essentially the institution and the enforcement staff's stool pigeon for the committee," says Ridpath, who was demoted to a job outside the athletic department after the hearing. Ridpath later sued Marshall, and as part of the settlement he reached with the university, several of the accusations against Ridpath were redacted from online versions of the COI's public report.
"These hearings are many times kind of a dance," Ridpath says. Most schools hire at least one independent attorney who specializes in defending institutions against the NCAA. These attorneys typically work with schools and the enforcement staff to mitigate damage rather than to exonerate the accused. "That's why a guy like Mike Glazier is so good," Ridpath says, referring to the attorney from Overland Park, Kan., based Bond, Schoeneck & King who was recently hired by Oregon and Miami to help shepherd those schools through NCAA investigations. "He knows how to basically design and choreograph things. That's how I really look at it, rather than a defense. It makes it land in the most favorable light possible to the institution and to the individuals that they want to protect."
Though the Notice of Allegations suggests the Tar Heels football program was riddled with NCAA malfeasance, head coach Butch Davis was accused of no wrongdoing. Davis was fired in August, months after the investigation had concluded. When it appeared Davis would survive the scandal, he also unloaded blame on Blake. In a press conference on Oct. 4, 2010, Davis -- who has known Blake since he was Blake's biology teacher and assistant football coach at Page High in Sand Springs, Okla. -- said "I'm sorry that I trusted John Blake."
That apology crushed Blake. "It was probably one of the most painful things I've heard," Blake says. "It was devastating for me and my family to hear something like that. Blake believes Davis had little choice but to distance himself from his former friend. "I understand the pressure coach was under," Blake says. "I understand the things brought against me -- unjustly. I understood that, at that time, he felt that the best way for him to relieve some of the pressure that he was under was to say those things."
Blake knew he was the target of the investigation shortly after a North Carolina compliance staff member came to Blake's office on Aug. 3, 2010 and said NCAA investigators needed to ask him a few questions. "Do I need an attorney?" Blake remembers asking. He says he was told he wouldn't need one. When Blake tells this story, his attorney, William Beaver, chuckles. "When someone tells you that you don't need an attorney," Beaver says, "hire two."
After that first interview, during which investigator Chance Miller peppered Blake with questions about his relationship with his friend, Wichard, Blake did just that. He hired Beaver, an Oklahoma classmate who now practices in Orlando, Fla., and Wade Smith, a prominent Raleigh, N.C., criminal defense attorney. Smith will help defend Blake before the COI, but his expertise will come in handy if North Carolina's Secretary of State decides to accuse Blake of breaking that state's athlete-agent law. It's unclear whether that will happen; the Secretary of State's office recently petitioned a North Carolina court to demand that the NCAA turn over the evidence uncovered in its investigation of the North Carolina case, and
At the COI hearing, Beaver and Smith won't be allowed to speak nearly as much as they're accustomed to in court. Especially when discussing the facts of the case, COI members don't particularly care what attorneys have to say. "When it's factual information, I want to hear from the coach -- not the coach's lawyer," Potuto says. "In part because I want the information from the individual directly involved. In part because when you're talking about individuals in terms of consequences, the penalties can be pretty serious. I don't want to be basing a finding or a penalty on something a lawyer said the coach did or thought or felt or said. When it's that important, I want to hear from the person."
COI members will want Blake to answer this question: Did you attempt to steer North Carolina players to Wichard? "Absolutely not," Blake says. "I never steered anyone to Gary."
Miller and the rest of the enforcement staff will present evidence that they believe proves Blake did. They will present phone records, bank records and interviews in an attempt to prove Blake was a "runner," essentially a recruiter for the agent. Enforcement staffers also will discuss the period near the turn of the century when Blake lived in Southern California. They will say Blake worked for Wichard's agency, Pro Tect Management. Blake will say he did not. COI members will have to decide which side they believe is telling the truth.
According to the Notice of Allegations, the enforcement staff intends to use interviews with former Wichard partner Josh Luchs, former Oklahoma star linebacker and one-time Wichard client Brian Bosworth and former Nebraska assistant coach Marvin Sanders. Luchs discussed his testimony with SI.com in a telephone interview. Sanders, in a telephone interview, said he could not divulge exact details of his testimony, but he did describe how he and Blake crossed paths. Bosworth did not return calls from SI.com, but his testimony is spelled out in North Carolina's response to the NCAA's notice of allegations.
(Through a spokesman, North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour declined comment, citing the NCAA's request that school officials not discuss specifics of the case.)
Luchs says he told NCAA investigators that before he joined Wichard's company in 2000, Wichard said Luchs would need to be approved by his "partner." That partner, Luchs says, was Blake, who had come to California months after he was fired as Oklahoma's head coach in November 1998. Luchs says Blake, who was not working as a college coach at the time and therefore not bound by NCAA rules, helped Wichard and Luchs recruit Fresno State defensive lineman Alan Harper.
Blake says he never worked with Wichard. He says he went to California with the intention of going into business with Wichard, but he decided quickly that he didn't belong in the agent business. "It's not what I wanted to do," Blake says. "I wanted to be a coach." Asked whether he had an office at Pro Tect, Blake says no. "It was more of a storage room," Blake says. "They had boxes in there. There were old desks in there. I would come in there periodically and sit down."
Luchs remembers the room differently. "If it was a closet, it was a closet with a lovely desk and view of the ocean," Luchs says. "People don't typically hang up pictures of themselves with their players in a closet." Blake's attorneys contend that Blake's name never appeared on Pro Tect's tax returns, though they declined to provide any evidence.
During this line of discussion, the enforcement staff probably will call the committee's attention to a copy of a Pro Tect brochure that claims Blake "heads Pro Tect's football operations." Blake says the brochure was produced before he decided whether he wanted to join forces with Wichard. How long did that decision take? Blake moved to California in 1999. The front of the brochure features a photo of Adam Archuleta as a St. Louis Ram and a photo of Todd Heap as a Baltimore Raven. Neither Archuleta nor Heap entered the NFL until 2001. When the NCAA investigator confronted Blake with the brochure during an interview in 2010, Blake broke down in tears.
Enforcement staffers also will mention the Pro Tect credit card that showed up on Blake's credit report. Blake claims that while he was in California, Wichard gave him a credit card with a limit of "$4,000 to $5,000" so Blake could buy supplies for his Chance to Advance football camp. Blake says that he paid the balance on the card after the camp.
Bosworth, who once was photographed wearing a shirt that claimed NCAA stood for National Communists Against Athletes, told NCAA investigators he had no knowledge of whether Blake recruited North Carolina players for an agent. In a 2010 Yahoo! Sports story, Bosworth claims Blake, then a graduate assistant at Oklahoma, helped prod him to sign with Wichard when he left Oklahoma in 1987. "You have to understand, John was the eyes inside the locker room," Bosworth told Yahoo! "He was the fisherman and Gary was the cook."
Luchs says that while he told investigators that he and Wichard signed players from Blake's next coaching stops at Mississippi State and Nebraska, he did not provide any evidence of any wrongdoing while Blake was at North Carolina. The NCAA has a four-year statute of limitations. According to NCAA bylaw 32.6.2(b), the COI can consider violations beyond the four-year period in the case of " ... a pattern of willful violations on the part of the institution or individual involved, which began before but continued into the four-year period."
Sanders, who left Nebraska in February 2011, is the only one of the three who gave testimony relating to the period noted in the allegation. Sanders says Nebraska coaches heard in 2009 that Blake was in contact with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, whom Blake had recruited and coached at Nebraska. Sanders, who had previously worked at North Carolina, was asked to call his former colleagues in Chapel Hill and ask them to ask Blake to stop contacting Suh. According to North Carolina's response to the NCAA's Notice of Allegations, Sanders told investigators he called North Carolina assistant Tommy Thigpen. "Really, it just was a courtesy call to tell them, 'Hey, if this is happening, tell him to leave our player alone,'" Sanders says. Sanders said he never actually spoke to Blake. "They make it seem like I have all this knowledge," Sanders says. "I really didn't." In a signed,
Blake's attorneys also have affidavits from former Tar Heels Kentwan Balmer and
"With Balmer, I told Gary Wichard about him," New York Jets coach Rex Ryan says. Ryan, then the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, visited North Carolina in 2007 and came away impressed with Balmer. Ryan, who also was a friend of Wichard's, says the following conversation took place concerning Balmer.
Ryan: "You might want to check on him."
Wichard: "Well, he's not rated high."
Ryan: "I don't give two [expletives] where he's rated. I'm telling you, this guy's got the goods."
Wichard signed Balmer, who was chosen by the 49ers with the 29th overall pick of the 2008 NFL draft. Another player Blake was rumored to have attempted to steer, former Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus, told SI.com that Blake did not try to convince him to sign with any agent. "The only place he tried to steer me was North Carolina," Dareus says of his recruitment out of high school. "That was it."
NCAA enforcement staffers also will produce phone records that show frequent contact between Blake and Wichard, including 20 calls or texts between Blake and Wichard during a period in the summer of 2009 when North Carolina defensive tackle Austin and teammate Cam Thomas were training at a Westlake Village, Calif., facility often used by Wichard and his clients. Such a trip, if not paid for by the players, is considered an illegal extra benefit by the NCAA. During the same period, Blake had 10 contacts with Austin and eight with Thomas. Austin has said he told none of his coaches about the trip. Had Blake known about the trip, he would have been required to report it to North Carolina's compliance department. Blake says he did not know where Austin was. "I assumed he was [home] in D.C. or Maryland working out with his friends," Blake says.
Blake's attorneys will attempt to place the calls between Blake and Wichard in a different context. They have produced a chart breaking down the 176 cellphone calls between Oct. 23, 2009 and June 22, 2010. Of those calls, 158 lasted fewer than five minutes. Only one call lasted longer than 20 minutes. Blake's attorneys will attempt to convince the COI that such a scheme could not be conducted with such short phone calls. Instead, they will offer an alternative view. The number of calls was not that unusual for two close friends, especially considering the fact that one of those friends learned during that span that he was dying.
Blake lettered at nose guard for the Sooners from 1979-82, and when no NFL team would take a chance on a 5-foot-11 defensive lineman, Blake decided to stay in Norman. By day, Blake finished his degree and learned how to coach. By night, he worked in the warehouse of a food distributor, unloading boxes and changing 18-wheeler tires. While working as a student assistant in 1984, Blake played in a pickup basketball game with several of the Sooners. Also in the game was a 6-4 former C.W. Post quarterback named Gary Wichard. At the time, Wichard intrigued the other players because he had represented New York Jets star Mark Gastineau. "I played against him," Blake says. "He was talking noise, and I was, too." After the game, Blake and Wichard struck up a conversation. Wichard told Blake that if he ever needed anything, he should call. Blake did, and a friendship blossomed.
The friendship remained strong for 26 years.
Shortly after Wichard learned in February 2010 that he had pancreatic cancer, Blake was one of the few people Wichard told of the diagnosis. Blake says Wichard wanted to keep his illness a secret because other agents would swoop in and dismantle his business, and Wichard wanted to keep the money flowing in as long as possible to make life comfortable for his family. So when NCAA enforcement staffers asked Blake why he had so much contact with Wichard, Blake says he hesitated to tell them the real reason. Wichard hadn't gone public with his illness, and Blake says he did not want to break that trust even if it might have helped his cause with the NCAA. Repeatedly, a teary-eyed Blake refused to reveal the nature of the calls to investigators. After one interview, Blake called Wichard. "I told him I didn't say anything," Blake says. "He just started crying."
Wichard died March 11.
According to bank records provided to the NCAA by Blake, Wichard wired seven payments totaling $31,000 to Blake's account. The first payment, on May 21, 2007, was for $10,000. The next six ranged from $1,000 to $5,000. The final payment was for $5,000 on Oct. 15, 2009. Blake says that the payments were gifts to pay private school tuition for Blake's son, Jourdan. Why would a major college assistant with a six-figure salary need help paying private school tuition? Blake admits he has never been good with money, and he says he was still climbing out of debt when he arrived in Chapel Hill in 2007. When he was fired at Oklahoma in 1998, he received a $610,000 buyout. At the time, he had just built a huge home in Norman. But because the environment was so toxic after a miserable three-year stint as the Sooners' head coach, Blake quickly packed up his family and moved to Tulsa. Blake says his dream home, with its $4,000-a-month mortgage payment, sat on the market for almost a year and a half. Blake rented a house in Tulsa and then rented another house when he moved the family to California in 1999. Blake says he and his family burned through the buyout money while he was out of coaching. When Blake returned to coaching at Mississippi State in 2003, his salary was $110,000. After Jackie Sherrill's staff was fired, Blake moved on to Nebraska. Once again left owning a house he couldn't immediately sell, Blake left his wife and son in Starkville.
In Lincoln, Blake moved in with wrestling coach Mark Manning, who Blake knew from his time at Oklahoma. Manning says Blake stayed with him for more than a year because Blake couldn't afford to buy a house. One night, Blake told Manning his debts had piled too high. He asked Manning if he could loan him $4,000. "He was kind of ashamed to ask me," Manning says. "I said it wasn't a big deal. I knew John would pay me back." Manning says Blake paid back the loan. When Blake finally moved out of Manning's house and bought his own home in Lincoln, he used his Cowboys Super Bowl rings as collateral.
When Blake left Nebraska for North Carolina, he still didn't consider himself on firm financial ground. "I didn't really feel like I was on my feet," he says. "I was still paycheck to paycheck." So, Blake says, he asked Wichard to help. "They were gifts for my son," Blake says.
NCAA investigators wanted to see documentation regarding a $45,000 loan Blake received from the First National Bank of Long Island -- the same bank from which Wichard sent the wire transfers -- on Dec. 26, 2007. Blake did not turn over that documentation. That act alone can be punished by a "show cause" penalty that essentially renders a coach unemployable at an NCAA institution, but Blake's attorneys say they didn't feel it necessary to turn over any additional documentation after Blake had been terminated by North Carolina. Blake says he took out the loan to consolidate debt at a lower interest rate. He says no one cosigned the loan. His attorneys say the loan has been paid back. Asked if Blake was the only person who made payments on the loan, his attorneys say they do not know.
After the enforcement staff, the school and Blake have finished arguing the allegations involving Blake, Blake will be free to leave. His collegiate coaching fate will rest in the hands of COI members. Following the hearing, COI members will remain in Indianapolis through the weekend to deliberate, reach a verdict and determine penalties.
It is only at this point that a COI hearing resembles a jury trial. The COI must reach a consensus to find an accused coach or program guilty.
When the COI renders a guilty verdict, the NCAA offers a wide variety of punishments for teams and athletic programs. But the only tools at the COI's disposal for disciplining a coach are suspensions and the show-cause, which typically bans a coach from recruiting activities for a prescribed period of time. As Blake -- recognized as one of the nation's best recruiters -- can attest, a coach who can't recruit is essentially worthless. COI members understand that once a coach is tainted by a show-cause, he may get blackballed even after the show-cause ends. Still, they can't let sympathy get in the way of their duty to the NCAA's member schools. "We don't make it personal," current COI chair Banowsky says. "We just feel like we have a responsibility. It's a hard job. The people that serve on this committee come from various perspectives, but they all try hard to get it right."
As for Blake, who won't learn his fate until early next year, he just wants to clear his name. "It's important to me that they know [I'm] an honest and good man," he says. "We all make mistakes in life. But my character, my integrity means a lot to me."