As navel-gazing offseason memes in college football go, 2011 has been dominated so far by the twin specters of oversigning and cost-of-attendance scholarships. But for a brief period in 2010, at just about this point in the summer, there could be no greater threat to the future of the sport than the corrupting influence of the pro agent. Nick Saban compared agents to pimps. Urban Meyer called agents "predators." Bob Stoops said agents have to be punished. Mack Brown was one of several high-profile coaches who discussed agents wit the NFL. The lengthy "confession" of an ex-NFL agent who claimed he'd paid off dozens of college players made the cover of Sports Illustrated. After agent-related activity in his own program started making headlines, North Carolina coach Butch Davis insisted that "there is no place for that in college athletics."
With that as a backdrop, then, here's the first of three formal charges against ex-North Carolina assistant John Blake outlined by the NCAA in the 45-page notice of allegations it delivered to Chapel Hill on Tuesday:
It is alleged that from 2007 to 2010, then assistant football coach John Blake partnered with Gary Wichard, National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) 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.
Which, if true, makes Blake arguably the single most flagrant offender of the modern, post-Death Penalty era of NCAA enforcement in football.
Since the Association turned SMU into a crater in the mid-eighties, the "rogue coach" has almost always been defined (officially speaking) by what he doesn't know. Even the shady good-ole-boy types who earned scofflaw reputations at schools that landed on probation in the immediate aftermath of the SMU scandal — guys like Jackie Sherrill at Pittsburgh and Texas A&M, Pat Dye at Auburn, Billy Brewer at Ole Miss, and Mike Dubose at Alabama — were accused of turning a blind eye to corruption, not facilitating it. They lacked control, in NCAA parlance, and perhaps willingly relinquished it. But it was always boosters and other third parties who occupied the smoke-filled rooms, operated the slush funds and handed over the keys to recruits. The "smoking gun" that cost Rick Neuheisel his job on NCAA grounds at Washington was a bracket in a basketball tournament pool. When the NCAA emerged from nearly a decade of dormancy to take on USC last year, its final verdict against the Trojans rested heavily on its contention that assistant coach Todd McNair "knew or should have known" about star running back Reggie Bush's longstanding partnership with a pair of wannabe agents in 2004-05, and that link — the only direct charge that anyone at USC actually knew Bush was on the take — was based entirely on circumstantial evidence.
By the same token, it wasn't the corruption that spelled Jim Tressel's doom at Ohio State: It was the knowledge. Tressel's fall from grace occupies a unique place in NCAA history not only because of the squeaky-clean persona he nurtured over the last decade, but because he violated the cardinal rule: He knew about likely violations involving several of his star players, and he simply didn't tell. By NCAA standards, it was the ultimate crime of omission, but one still defined by what the coach didn't do with the knowledge.
But the case against North Carolina is far too sprawling, touching too many people in too many different corners of the program, to allow for ignorance. If there's any charge the NCAA can't levy at Blake, it's inactivity in the face of corruption. On the contrary: By all accounts, he embraced the corruption with vigor. He took one of the most unambiguous, inviolable taboos in his profession, and made it a side job.
Compared to McNair (who's still battling to get his career back), the case against Blake is open-and-shut. The notice of allegations lists the specific dates and amounts of seven payments Blake allegedly received from Wichard between 2007 and 2009, adding up to $31,000, as largely outlined last year in multiple reports by Yahoo! Sports' Charles Robinson. Phone records released last week showed that Blake was regularly in contact with Wichard and with players Marvin Austin and Cam Thomas when they were in California to work out at Wichard's gym in the summer of 2009. (For his contact with undergrads, the NFL Players' Association saw fit to suspend Wichard for nine months last December.) At some point, Blake's pitches on Wichard's behalf apparently began to extend beyond his own school.
Short of the revelation of an unfathomably massive conspiracy to manipulate multiple witnesses, reporters, sources and documents for the sake of bringing down the defensive line coach at a basketball school, Blake has — possibly singlehandedly — redefined the genre of "rogue coach" on the Division I level.
For Butch Davis, the disappointment is personal: He once coached Blake as a young assistant at Sand Springs High in Oklahoma, later won a Super Bowl with him as colleagues on the defensive staff of the 1993 Dallas Cowboys and made Blake one of his first hires when he landed in Chapel Hill in late 2006. For his program, that decision may prove to have been the seed of destruction in the form of vacated wins, a postseason ban and heavily scholarship losses, all of which remain very much in play despite the absence of the dreaded words "lack of institutional control" in the official notice of allegations. That key omission may be enough to save Davis' job, but if the NCAA is as serious about the nefarious influence of agents on campus as it's always said it is, it can't save his team from one very determined hammer.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.