Coach-agent ties probed
You can follow Charles Robinson on Twitter at @WindyCityScribe
Three sources close to an NCAA probe into the University of North Carolina football program told Yahoo! Sports that investigators are focusing on ties between assistant coach John Blake and prominent NFL agent Gary Wichard.
The sources said the NCAA’s inquiry into Blake has focused on his one-time position as vice president of football operations for Pro Tect Management – an agency founded and run by Wichard since 1979. Blake is now a defensive line coach for the Tar Heels, and oversees All-ACC tackle Marvin Austin, who is also facing NCAA scrutiny.
The sources said the NCAA is investigating trips Austin took to Florida, as well as his travel and training in California in the summer of 2009, when he worked out at Proactive Sports Performance with former Tar Heel and current Wichard client Kentwan Balmer.
The NCAA’s inquiry at North Carolina is one of multiple investigations underway at several institutions. The association’s enforcement staff has been in contact with at least nine Division I football programs since June, in what appears to be a more aggressive posture following major agent-related sanctions against the University of Southern California.
Since releasing its findings in the USC investigation on June 10, the NCAA has visited North Carolina, South Carolina, East Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Clemson while conducting various inquiries. Some, like the one involving Blake and North Carolina, have expanded into significant probes. Others – such as a visit to Clemson to inquire about football players’ Facebook pages – have been minor in stature.
A training firm for a wide array of athletes, Proactive Sports is located in Thousand Oaks, Calif., less than two miles from Pro Tect Management offices. The website for Proactive boasts 12 clients who are currently signed with Pro Tect Management, and has trained many of Wichard’s draft picks since 2005.
Reached by Yahoo! Sports last week, Wichard said he has not been contacted by the NCAA and described Blake as nothing more than a close friend. He also denied any impropriety involving Austin.
“If the center of this controversy is my relationship with John, there’s really no controversy,” Wichard said. “If that’s what [the NCAA] is investigating, I think it’s just absurd. … I hope – I really, truly hope – that Marvin Austin’s whole case is based on me and John Blake. I hope that for Marvin Austin’s sake. At the end of the day, there’s nothing to investigate.”
Email and telephone messages for Blake were not returned. An interview request for Austin was not returned. Messages left at Proactive Sports seeking comment were not returned. Messages seeking an interview with Balmer were not returned.
North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour issued the following statement: “NCAA representatives were on campus this week as we work with them on the review. The University of North Carolina continues to fully cooperate with the NCAA and we are working hard to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.”
In a 92-minute telephone interview, Wichard repeatedly questioned why the NCAA would be looking into his relationship with Blake. Asked if Blake had ever been a Pro Tect employee, Wichard repeatedly stated that he hadn’t.
“No, no, no, no,” Wichard said. “John lived [in California] after he was the head coach at Oklahoma. He lived out in [Los Angeles]. We’ve socialized. We’ve been friends. His son is my godson. It has nothing to do with that. He hasn’t worked for me at all. I don’t get where that is coming from.”
Asked if Blake had ever been the vice president of football operations for Pro Tect, Wichard replied, “No. When he left Oklahoma, all he ever did was work out some of my veteran guys. He had his own camp out here. He was doing his own thing.”
After being fired from his head coaching job at Oklahoma, Blake directed a part-time “Chance to Advance” football camp from 1999-2002. However, Wichard’s statements about Blake never having been employed by his agency appear to contradict a Pro Tect Management brochure obtained by Yahoo! Sports.
Prepared for prospective clients, the brochure contains multiple pictures of players, including a handful who were selected as recently as the 2001 draft. The inner cover features large photos of both Wichard and Blake. Under Blake’s picture, his title is listed as “Vice President/Football Operations.” The brochure goes on to detail Blake’s role in the company with several statements:
• “Joining forces with Wichard, his close friend of nearly 20 years, John Blake heads Pro Tect’s football operations, bringing a most distinguished resume.”
• “Blake made the move into athletic representation because he feels he can have a greater on-going positive impact on the careers of athletes than merely coaching them in college for four years.”
• A quote from Blake: “Together with Gary, I can utilize what I’ve learned and be there for our clients to help lead them down the road to NFL prominence.”
• A quote from Wichard: “John brings the knowledge of someone who has actually evaluated players as a coach at college All-Star games, the Combine and individual player workouts. He will be able to pass along firsthand to our clients his experiences so they can benefit and be better prepared to maximize their value through the draft process and beyond.”
When informed that Yahoo! Sports had a copy of the brochure, Wichard said that although Blake had worked with some of his players, the brochure was “meaningless.”
“The brochure is [from] like 1997 or whatever,” Wichard said. “He was on the brochure for whatever, dealing with football-related situations. But it has nothing to do with anything. He was not working as a coach at that time. The relevance to me is ridiculous.”
“I don’t care what the brochure says. That brochure is so old. He worked with some of my players. He got Dwight Freeney ready for the combine when he was coming out. That’s kind of what the situation was. Then he went back into coaching.”
” [The brochure] doesn’t prove a thing. It’s absolutely meaningless. John coached my guys in between coaching jobs.”
But sources say the NCAA has taken great interest in the brochure, and it may have triggered a second visit by investigators to North Carolina last week. The school has not detailed why the NCAA was on campus again, after investigators previously visited in July. The NCAA’s probe has also prompted North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall to launch an investigation into potential agent impropriety.
While sources said the NCAA is investigating whether Wichard and Austin have had improper contact, Wichard said he never spoke to Austin while he was in California working out at Proactive Sports.
“I spoke to him once,” Wichard said. “I told him to go back to school when Kentwan Balmer put him on the phone in January. I said go back to school and be [like] Ndamukong Suh and make some money. … I’m not even recruiting the kid. I’ve never said one word to him about the business other than football – go back to school. Now, if I wanted to represent him in January, I could have said ‘Come on out, guy. Let’s roll. Let’s make some money.’ That’s not who I am.”
Wichard said he assumed Balmer had paid for Austin to travel to California, and also to work out at Proactive.
“I never even talked to Marvin,” Wichard said. “Kentwan met me [at Proactive Sports] and I gave him shoes and I saw these two guys with him. They were out on the field. A couple of guys who played with him. That’s all. How did [Marvin Austin] get out here? Kentwan Balmer paid for him. They were hanging together. I can’t tell you exactly what went on from that standpoint, but they were all together.”
Asked if he spoke to Balmer on other occasions while both Balmer and Austin were in California, Wichard said he had not.
“No. Heck no,” Wichard said. “Heck no. [Kentwan] knows that I’m not interested in that.”
If Balmer paid for Austin or other former teammates at North Carolina to travel and train at Proactive, it would likely constitute an NCAA violation. According to a bylaw on “Preferential Treatment, Benefits or Services” an athlete can’t receive travel and training benefits that are derived because of their athletic skill. Under precedent in previous cases, Balmer having been Austin’s teammate and friend would not constitute enough of a pre-existing relationship for the benefit to be allowed.
As for Blake, Wichard told Yahoo! Sports he met the coach in 1985 during a pickup basketball game, and that their friendship has grown over the years. An accomplished agent with many big-name clients, Wichard said he signed only one player – Oklahoma tight end Stephen Alexander – while Blake was a head coach with the Sooners.
But a review of NFLPA records show Wichard signed multiple players whose college careers overlapped with Blake’s coaching journey. Among them:
• Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth. Blake was a graduate assistant for the Sooners during Bosworth’s final season at Oklahoma. Bosworth signed with Wichard and was a first-round pick in the NFL’s 1987 supplemental draft.
• Oklahoma linebacker Aubrey Beavers. While serving as linebackers coach for the Sooners, Blake coached Beavers from 1990-1992. Beavers signed with Wichard and was a second-round pick in 1994.
• Alexander. Blake overlapped with Alexander while serving as the Sooners head coach from 1996-1998. Alexander signed with Wichard and was a second-round pick in 1998.
• Oklahoma defensive back William Bartee. Blake oversaw all but Bartee’s final college season while serving as the Sooners head coach. Bartee signed with Wichard and was a second-round pick in 2000.
• Mississippi State defensive lineman Tommy Kelly. Blake coached the Bulldogs’ defensive line in 2003. After that season, Wichard signed Kelly, who was picked up by the Oakland Raiders as an undrafted free agent.
• Nebraska running back Brandon Jackson. Blake never coached Jackson directly, handling Nebraska’s defensive line from 2004-2006. Jackson signed with Wichard after Blake’s final season with the Cornhuskers and was a second-round pick in 2007.
• Balmer. Blake became coach of the Tar Heels’ defensive line in 2007. After Blake’s first season, Wichard signed Balmer, who was a first-round pick in 2008.
Wichard reiterated several times that signing players who crossed paths with Blake was irrelevant, and that many other agencies represent both coaches and players from the same schools.
“If somebody wants to accuse me of something, bring it on,” Wichard said. “But don’t sit here and ask me about John Blake. He’s my best friend and that’s all I can say about it. Whether he worked out my players or didn’t, it doesn’t matter. Tell me what’s wrong and we’ll go from there.”
NCAA investigations have triggered a condemnation of agents from several high-profile football coaches. Among them, Florida’s Urban Meyer labeled unscrupulous agents “predators” and suggested that defending against them was becoming “an epidemic” for schools. UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel said rogue agents should be banned permanently by the NFL’s licensing body, while Alabama’s Nick Saban went as far as suggesting the college game should shun the NFL until the league begins punishing offenders more seriously.
“I don’t think it’s anything but greed that’s creating it right now on behalf of the agents,” Saban told reporters. “The agents that do this – and I hate to say this, but how are they any better than a pimp?”
The NFLPA’s own executive director, DeMaurice Smith, promised the union would sanction offending agents heavily, and in some cases, would consider pursuing prosecution.
“I think that any agent or contract adviser who [engages in rule-breaking], and preys upon kids like that in college, is something that we’re going to deal with extremely aggressively,” Smith told ESPN radio. “Frankly, God help those agents if they’re found to be in violation, because I’ve given our [licensing body] the green light to take the most aggressive steps that they want to take. … If those steps include me or someone else in our office making a criminal referral under certain circumstances, that’s what we’ll do. “
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