Former University of North Carolina assistant coach John Blake played a role in the signing of at least two clients of NFL agent Gary Wichard, according to two players who experienced the relationship firsthand.
Two former Wichard clients – linebacker Brian Bosworth and tight end Stephen Alexander – told Yahoo! Sports that Blake was the conduit for their relationship with the prominent agent. Blake coached both players during his tenure at the University of Oklahoma. Wichard is currently under investigation by the NCAA, NFL Players Association and North Carolina Secretary of State for potential improper agent conduct. A third former Oklahoma player, defensive end Stirling Luckey, told Yahoo! Sports that he had knowledge of Blake's endorsement of Wichard to elite Sooners players.
Blake's lawyers have repeatedly denied that the former Tar Heels coach acted as a recruiter for Wichard, and characterized recent financial transactions between the coach and agent as loans and gifts. Blake resigned from his coaching position at North Carolina on Sept. 5, less than a month after a Yahoo! Sports report revealed his former position as vice president of football operations for Wichard's agency, Pro Tect Management.
Since Blake began coaching in 1985, Wichard has signed at least 13 players whose college careers have overlapped with Blake's tenure on college staffs. If the NCAA determines that Blake was acting as a "runner" to deliver players to Wichard, the coach could be subject to bylaw 10.1, which determines unethical conduct of staff members. That bylaw bars the "receipt of benefits by an institutional staff member for facilitating or arranging a meeting between a student-athlete and an agent, financial advisor, or a representative of an agent or financial advisor."
Blake's lawyers have said the previous business relationship and recent financial transactions between the two men isn't proof the coach has steered players toward Wichard. Wichard's lawyer, Howard Silber, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
"The fact of the matter is John has testified [to the North Carolina Secretary of State] that he has not functioned in a manner that has, in his mind, has attempted to funnel, push, direct, any athlete toward Gary Wichard," said William H. Beaver II, Blake's attorney. "He has testified to that, or provided statements to the NCAA in that manner, in those words. … To be more specific, John has provided statements that he has never attempted to funnel, coerce, push – toward Mr. Wichard."
That statement was contradicted by Bosworth, who said Blake played a prominent role in his decision to sign with Wichard when he left Oklahoma for the NFL in 1987. Bosworth is currently suing Wichard, alleging the agent negligently encouraged him to sign with a business manager who had previously engaged in "fraudulent activity." The suit alleges the manager's malfeasance cost Bosworth more than $2 million.
Bosworth initially declined comment on Blake in August, calling the coach "a friend" and stating he didn't want to damage Blake’s standing at North Carolina. But he reconsidered after Blake stepped down in September.
Bosworth said he became aware of Blake's relationship with Wichard shortly after rising to national prominence as a star sophomore for Oklahoma in 1985. It was during that time that Bosworth said he formed a friendship with Blake, who had become an assistant on the Sooners' staff shortly after his own college career ended.
Bosworth said Blake's youth and personality made him one of the most trusted men on Oklahoma's staff, often seen as a liaison who could bring player issues to the attention of then-head coach Barry Switzer. And it was in the spring of 1986, prior to Bosworth's junior season, that Blake allegedly broached the idea of a meeting with Wichard.
"John said to me, 'Hey, I've set a meeting up with a guy who I really think you need to know, because he's going to change your world, ' " Bosworth said. "The only way Gary Wichard got to me was through John Blake. John made it clear that Gary was the only guy I needed to be with. Every meeting that I had with Gary was set up by John. John would even pick me up and take me there, whether it was at a hotel or whatever.
"You have to understand, John was the eyes inside the locker room. He was the fisherman and Gary was the cook. You've got to have somebody out there who is going to get the bounty, and Gary's the one who then goes and sells the bounty. I don't understand why they would be trying to skirt the truth on that. That is what it was. It was so blatant. … And I know I wasn't the only player who saw it.
"As time went on, as I realized Gary got Keith [Jackson] out of Oklahoma, then he got Cedric [Jones], and it was like, 'OK, something's going on.' Then Gary got Stephen [Alexander] and then he's got Aubrey Beavers. I was thinking, 'OK, there's a gravy train here, and I hope John isn't involved in it.' "
Jackson, Jones and Beavers couldn't be reached for comment. However, Alexander said it was Blake who set up his initial meeting with Wichard. But Alexander also said he recently signed an affidavit for Blake's attorneys saying he never felt "forced" toward Wichard. Three other players have also signed similar affidavits – Jackson, former North Carolina defensive end Kentwan Balmer, and former Nebraska running back Brandon Jackson.
"That's true. [Blake] didn't force me," Alexander said. "He introduced me."
Alexander said he was being pursued by several agents heading into his final season at Oklahoma, including an incident where an agent resorted to knocking on the window of his apartment. It was around this time that Blake, who had ascended to the Sooners' head coaching position, offered to help Alexander with the process.
"When I went to [Blake], he said that he had a very reputable guy that had represented a lot of OU guys in the past – obviously Boz, Keith Jackson and Cedric Jones," Alexander said. "John basically said he was a very reputable guy, and whenever I was ready to make a decision or ready to try and find an agent to let him know. It wasn't like I showed up one day and he had an agent there. But yeah, he did introduce us."
Alexander said Blake set up a meeting between Wichard, Alexander and Alexander's parents. Alexander added that while he never felt he was being steered, Wichard was the only agent Blake ever introduced him to.
"It was just Gary," Alexander said. "I didn't know if it was right or wrong. But I do know I never accepted money from Gary or John."
Former Sooners defensive end Stirling Luckey, one of Alexander's teammates and a player who was recruited to Oklahoma by Blake, said he believed Alexander's introduction wasn't uncommon among players considered to be potential high draft picks.
"I don't want to sound like I'm trying to put John Blake down, but yeah, he did that stuff," Luckey said. "Stephen Alexander came out after I was already gone [from Oklahoma], but I knew [coach] Blake was the one who hooked him up with that agent. And Cedric Jones, that was my roommate. Guys aren't stupid. We know what went on.
"If someone was a high-profile guy, at some point John was going to talk to him about [Gary Wichard]."
Contact Yahoo! Sports investigative reporter Charles Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org