The most impactful man in a suit in college football over the past two seasons is not a conference commissioner, not an athletic director, not a TV analyst. He doesn’t sit on the College Football Playoff selection committee, doesn’t work at the NCAA, doesn’t negotiate contracts for coaches.
No disrespect to Jim Delany, Gene Smith, Kirk Herbstreit or Jimmy Sexton, but the most impactful man in a suit is a glib Arkansas lawyer with a zest for hooking bull sharks and University of Mississippi leaders. His work has radically altered both the 2017 and ’18 seasons.
Tom Mars is the reason why Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson has a chance to be the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2018, and why the Wolverines have a chance to make the playoff. Mars is the reason why Van Jefferson currently is the leading receiver at Florida and Tre Nixon is the No. 2 receiver at Central Florida. He is the reason why Deontay Anderson is the third-leading tackler at Houston. He is the reason why Jack DeFoor is playing this season at Georgia Tech, and Jarrion Street is playing at UAB.
That was Mars’ work as the Great Emancipator of Ole Miss transfers attempting to gain immediate eligibility elsewhere. He fought the school, fought the NCAA rules and won.
Last year, Mars’ high-pressure pursuit of an Ole Miss apology to former football coach Houston Nutt led down a document trail that eventually resulted in the discovery of Hugh Freeze’s infamous escort call on his university cell phone records. That led to Freeze’s firing and the elevation of Matt Luke as coach of the Rebels, on the program’s way to an NCAA postseason ban and other sanctions.
Freeze isn’t the only Ole Miss fixture to depart the school since Mars commenced laying siege to it in the summer of 2017. University general counsel Lee Tyner, the point man in dealing with — and sometimes obstructing — Mars’ relentless search for documents, resigned 11 months ago. Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter, who had to navigate the fallout from the football scandal, announced his retirement last week. Athletic director Ross Bjork endures, but bears some Mars scars from months of battle.
Nick Saban wishes he were as intensely focused on victory as Tom Mars.
“Never in my life have I met anyone like him,” said Sean Patterson, Shea’s father. “I call it a Mars thing, where you really can’t understand unless you experience it. He’s committed to you, and you really don’t want to be on the other side of him.”
Mars is committed enough that he was in Michigan Stadium on Oct. 13, wearing a maize-and-blue hoodie to see Patterson lead the Wolverines past Wisconsin. He might be there again Saturday to see Michigan, now 9-1, play Indiana. And he absolutely will be in Ohio Stadium on Nov. 24 to see the Wolverines play Ohio State for the Big Ten East title, a game with huge playoff ramifications.
If the Wolverines win that game, beating their hated nemesis for the first time since 2011, it would bring much-needed validation to Jim Harbaugh’s tenure at the school. In return, the coach ought to give a game ball to the 60-year-old senior counsel with the Little Rock law firm Friday, Eldredge & Clark. Because none of this breakthrough season could happen without Shea Patterson, and Shea Patterson isn’t playing in 2018 without a blunt-force barrister named Tom Mars.
______________ The planets seem to have aligned to bring Mars back in contact with Michigan.
He was given up for adoption at birth in New York and spent the first part of his life in orphanages and a foster home until being taken in by a couple of Michigan graduates. They were academics, but also huge fans of the football program. They raised their adopted son as a Wolverine backer.
“The two events I remember most from my childhood were the assassination of President Kennedy [in 1963], and Michigan beating Ohio State to win the Big Ten championship the next year,” Mars said. “The two most important days in our household were Christmas and the Ohio State-Michigan game.”
But the early football fervor gave way to teenage Tom Mars dreaming of a career in law enforcement. He wanted to be a cop, and wound up getting a degree in criminology from Arkansas State University. After working for a while as a police officer in Lynchburg, Virginia, Mars set his sights on the FBI and sought out a law degree.
An unspectacular undergraduate student, he was rejected by every law school in Virginia but eventually was accepted on a probationary basis at Arkansas. Mars wound up graduating No. 1 in his law school class and earning the top score on the Arkansas Bar Exam.
At varying times, Mars worked with the Arkansans who have most significantly impacted the world: In the 1980s, he was an associate in the Rose Law Firm, designated to support Hillary Clinton; later, he became general counsel and chief administrative officer of Walmart.
And along the way he became friends with Houston Dale Nutt, coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks from 1998-2007. That friendship is what pulled Mars into the hurly burly of big-time college football.
Funny thing: Mars likes football, but has never been a real student of the game. Until now.
“What I know about football couldn’t fill the front of a three-by-five card,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot, though. I could maybe fill the front and back now.”
When Mississippi wound up in the crosshairs of the NCAA during Freeze’s free-wheeling reign, the school made a fatal mistake — it publicly portrayed most of the alleged violations as stemming from Nutt’s tenure. That wasn’t true, and Nutt took offense. He enlisted the aid of Mars to fight back, and college football hasn’t been the same since.
Mars publicly sought an apology from Ole Miss in the spring of 2017. When the school committed the fatal error of not taking him seriously, Mars upped the public ante — he filed a breach of contract suit against the school and Freeze in July. Mars timed the suit for maximum publicity, filing it the day before Ole Miss’ appearance at SEC football media days.
This did not sit well with Sean Patterson, whose son was part of the Ole Miss delegation to SEC media days. A lawyer’s grandstanding put Shea in a difficult position in front of an army of reporters.
“I didn’t think that was a great thing to happen to the kids,” Sean said. “I wouldn’t say Tom and I had a great friendship starting out.”
It would improve to the point that they talked 96 consecutive days in 2018. To the point that Sean Patterson now says he feels like Mars is a brother. “We’ll be close for life,” Patterson said.
That bonding began at this time last year, when Mississippi had been hit by the NCAA with a two-season bowl ban. Sean Patterson joined with fellow parents of Rebels players from the 2016 recruiting class in seeking out Mars for help navigating a transfer from the school with the hopes of gaining immediate eligibility and avoiding the standard year sitting out. Their argument: Ole Miss lied to the players in that ’16 class about the severity of NCAA allegations, and thus the players basically were signed under false pretense.
Mars agreed to assist, estimating that it would require 3-5 billable hours of his time.
“In hindsight, that was the biggest math mistake of my career,” he said. “This turned into a full-time project. I told everyone, ‘This is first-and-goal at the 3-yard-line. We’re good here.’ That might have been an overstatement of my confidence level.”
What followed was a five-month expedition through NCAA rules and procedures, as Mars tapped into his acumen for document research and tireless work ethic on behalf of college athletes who felt wronged. He also hunkered down for another pitched battle with Ole Miss, which did not sign off on the players’ waivers for immediate eligibility. (“You’d think they would not oppose the waivers, thus avoiding another public relations fiasco,” Mars said. “Amazingly, they continued their pattern of ignoring me.”)
Thus Mars continued his pattern of cranking up the public pressure on Ole Miss, with Patterson as the lead test case for the entire group of six players. This wasn’t exactly a welcome approach with Michigan’s NCAA compliance department — schools are much more comfortable handling everything behind the scenes while striving for collegiality. Now here came a lawyer firing broadsides at anyone who opposed Patterson’s immediate eligibility.
“I decided that to maximize the chances of these kids becoming eligible, we need to think outside the box,” Mars said. “I thought from Day 1 we could win if we took this case to the court of public opinion. … I admit I was very deliberate about saying things that would antagonize Ole Miss and make it easier to win the PR war. I knew the harder they fought, the worse they’d look, and all of that came to pass the way I thought it would.”
How it came to pass: The NCAA abruptly amended its transfer rules, and Ole Miss agreed to support Patterson’s waiver if he would drop the accusatory language in his waiver application. That allowed Mississippi to save some face and Patterson to play immediately. Mars had to miss most of a bull-shark fishing expedition with his son, Thomas, to help rewrite Patterson’s waiver application at the last minute, but he got it done.
Last April, a settlement was reached. Patterson and his five teammates had been set free by the Great Emancipator.
“It was one of the most challenging, exhausting, high-risk things I’ve ever undertaken as a lawyer,” Mars said. “But it’s given me more personal satisfaction than some of the big jury verdicts I’ve won.”
______________ On Dec. 2, 2017, Shea Patterson asked for his release from Ole Miss. The resulting backlash from a five-star recruit and starting QB opting out was vicious.
“We were getting death threats,” Sean Patterson said. “Shea was called a snake, people said they hoped he broke both his legs.”
He left Ole Miss without any guarantee he would play in 2018. Shea didn’t want to sit out the year, having ridden the bench for nine games as a true freshman before playing the last three. He put his faith in Tom Mars and moved north.
Shea moved into a Michigan dorm on New Year’s Day 2018. He was accustomed to life as an Oxford celebrity in the balmy South, and now here he was a stranger on a deserted campus in the frigid Upper Midwest. The homesickness was real.
One day in February, Shea called his dad and asked if they were going to come visit anytime soon.
“Yeah,” Sean responded. “When is a good time?”
“Tomorrow,” Shea said.
The family drove to New Orleans and flew to Michigan. During the visit, Shea looked his dad in the eye and asked the question that a thousand strangers had asked him since he arrived in Ann Arbor:
Do you think I’m going to be eligible?
First-and-goal on the 3-yard-line, who doesn’t score from there? But not every drive reaches the end zone. Sean said he hoped so. The phone calls to Mars continued.
“It was like being on a Cedar Point roller coaster,” Sean said. “There was some shaky moments. He just kept telling us, ‘Don’t worry about this. I’ve got this.’ ”
It all worked out in the end. And Michigan football had the piece it desperately needed in a vital season for the coach.
Jim Harbaugh sent Mars a thank-you email, but the two still haven’t met. They should, because think of where Harbaugh’s team — and, thus, Harbaugh — would be if Patterson were sitting out this season under NCAA transfer rules.
Possibly right back where it was last year.
Michigan ranks 15th nationally in pass efficiency. That’s an improvement of 101 spots over 2017. Michigan also ranks fourth in third-down conversions, a 112-spot jump from last year. Last season’s Wolverines were positively inept throwing the football while going a disappointing 8-5. These Wolverines are far from an aerial circus, but Patterson gives them a playmaking QB who is simultaneously avoiding major mistakes.
He hasn’t thrown an interception in four games, while tossing seven touchdowns in that time, as the Wolverines have gotten progressively stronger. It took Michigan a game to figure out its identity — a costly game, losing at Notre Dame — but since then the defense-first Wolverines have settled into an offensive ratio of just about two runs for every pass. Patterson’s job is to make those passes count.
As the Michigan victories have piled up, so have the calls to Tom Mars. From other athletes at other schools, seeking guidance in navigating the NCAA transfer waters. The fathers of four quarterbacks called, but that’s not all. He heard from a tennis player, a soccer player, a baseball player.
“I’ve gotten at least 30 phone calls [since the Ole Miss transfer saga began],” Mars said.
In other words, his impact on college sports may just be starting.
Mars would love to sit down with the NCAA staff that oversees transfers to discuss the way the system is constructed. But that’s not all — he’d like to do work for NCAA enforcement, or even be an investigative journalist.
“There’s a lot of things I don’t do well,” Mars said. “But ever since I was a police officer, I’ve had a knack for finding information and building cases against people who have done something wrong. … In the course of this, it seems like I’ve unintentionally rebranded myself.”
As the most impactful man in a suit in college football.
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