An inside look at case against former UNC assistant John Blake
Blake is accused of working with and steering players to late agent Gary Wichard
Through records, interviews, SI.com has obtained much of evidence against Blake
Blake, who goes before COI Friday, has broken long silence to defend himself
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.
Allegation No. 6
It is alleged that from 2007 to 2010, then [North Carolina] assistant football coach John Blake partnered with Gary Wichard, National Football League Players Association certified agent, and Pro Tect Management to represent individuals in the marketing of their athletic abilities in violation of NCAA legislation. Specifically, Blake was employed and compensated by Pro Tect Management to influence football student-athletes to hire Wichard to represent them in marketing their athletic abilities and reputations.
-- NCAA Notice of Allegations
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."