The case against John Blake (cont.)
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, notarized affidavit provided by Blake's attorneys, Suh claims that Blake never attempted to steer him toward an agent.
Blake's attorneys also have affidavits from former Tar Heels Kentwan Balmer and Marvin Austin. Balmer signed with Wichard following the conclusion of the 2007 season. Austin was accused by NCAA investigators of taking benefits from Wichard. Balmer was the only one of Blake's North Carolina players to sign with Wichard, who was not licensed as an agent in North Carolina. According to one of Blake's friends, Blake had nothing to do with Wichard's discovery of Balmer.
"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.
Allegation No. 7
It is alleged that from May 2007 to October 2009, then football assistant John Blake did not report $31,000 in athletically related income from Pro Tect Management.
-- NCAA Notice of Allegations
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.
Allegation No. 8
It is alleged that beginning in August 2010, then assistant football coach John Blake failed to deport himself with the generally recognized high standards of honesty and sportsmanship normally associated with the conduct and administration of athletics by refusing to furnish information relevant to the investigation of possible violations of NCAA legislation when requested to do so by the NCAA ...
-- NCAA Notice of Allegations
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."
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