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Sources: NCAA investigating Arizona State football after dossier alleged glut of recruiting violations

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Within the last month, an anonymous person sent a dossier of dozens of pages to the Arizona State athletic department. It included screenshots, receipts, pictures and emails related to numerous potential violations within Arizona State’s football program, according to sources.

The NCAA enforcement staff is in possession of those documents, sources told Yahoo Sports. Among the enforcement staff members working on the case is Vic DeNardi, an assistant director of enforcement. And the arrival of those documents to Arizona State compliance chief Steve Webb has ASU officials conducting internal interviews. (The NCAA declined comment.)

Arizona State vice president for media relations Katie Paquet confirmed the NCAA investigation to Yahoo Sports, which was first reported by The Athletic. She declined further comment on specific allegations.

The documentation includes specific evidence of multiple examples of high school prospects taking illicit on-campus recruiting trips to the Arizona State campus. Those came during the pandemic-inspired dead period that ended June 1. For more than a year prior, NCAA rules explicitly banned players from visiting on campus because of COVID-19. The dossier, according to sources, lays out pieces of both the players' trips to campus and how those trips were paid for.

Sources said members of the football program deliberately, blatantly and consistently broke rules related to hosting players during the dead period, including coach Herm Edwards meeting with recruits. A source added that the evidence included pictures of the visits, including Edwards with a recruit who ended up enrolling at ASU. “It’s clear whoever provided it had a ton of access and knowledge of the football program,” a source told Yahoo Sports. “The stuff in there wouldn’t be provided by anyone outside the football program.”

An Arizona State Sun Devils helmet during a college football game on Nov. 23, 2019. (Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
An Arizona State Sun Devils helmet during a college football game on Nov. 23, 2019. (Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When asked specifically about meeting with recruits and parents during the dead period in a text message, Edwards told Yahoo: “No comment thanks.”

At a time when the application of NCAA rules by the enforcement staff has been fickle, the prospect of ASU committing run-of-the-mill recruiting violations is trumped by the brazen nature of hosting dozens of kids on campus during the pandemic.

Yahoo Sports interviewed more than a dozen current or former ASU staff members this week. Multiple sources indicated that at least 30 players visited campus over a span of months, a practice so common coaches referenced “official visit weekends” in staff meetings, coaches bumped into recruits and families in a back stairwell and a routine developed of facility tours being given around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. at night.

On one weekend in October, there were so many high school kids visiting that a staff member parked a 12-person van in the staff parking lot to tour around recruits. The visits spanned months, sources said, including some in October, the weekend of the UCLA game in December and through the spring game, which one source said “was like an official visit weekend.”

“It wasn’t a secret,” said a staff member with direct knowledge of the visits. “As far as knowing everyone who came into that [football] office, the number is too big and the names are too many. They would bring in parents, their moms and dads and friends. They’d get a facility tour like they were on an official visit. They’d show you the weight room and training room. They’d show you everything.”

In perhaps the most extreme example of how normalized the illicit recruiting had become, one Bay Area prospect — who enrolled at a rival Pac-12 school — worked out with a position coach at a local park. The video of that workout was shot on a cell phone camera and then evaluated in an offensive staff meeting of more than a dozen coaches. Not only was the workout and visit against the rules, but the staffers evaluated the illegal workout on the illegal visit as if it were a recruit's high school game tape. The staff now must hope that same recruit and others like him don't detail their visits to the NCAA, which has leverage over the players' eligibility.

“The confusing part is why you’d put your career on a 17-year-old senior,” said one source.

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The notion of a school repeatedly breaking rules about official visits was offensive to college officials, as it resonates as both a distinct competitive advantage and foolish to attempt to execute during a pandemic.

“It’s a disrespectful thing to do,” Stanford coach David Shaw told Yahoo Sports. “That doesn’t sound overly harsh. But for me being a lifer in this profession and a coach’s kid, I believe in respecting our profession and respecting the other people in the profession. Doing things that you’re not supposed to do just to gain an advantage, I take offense to that.”

Added Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick: “If there was ever a time when everyone following the same rules was critical, it’s now during a pandemic and during a time of such national scrutiny on college athletics.”

'There's too many disgruntled people'

The arrival of the dossier at Arizona State football became the subject of intense intrigue this week, as it underscored the schism that has divided — and could potentially disrupt — the tenure of fourth-year coach Herm Edwards. While Edwards operates as a mostly hands-off CEO, associate head coach Antonio Pierce has accumulated much of the power in the ASU program thanks to his recruiting reach. His rise to power has been enabled by deputy athletic director Jean Boyd, who oversees football.

With Pierce’s power has also come division, as coaches have lost jobs, recruiting staff have felt pressure to blindly follow Pierce’s aggressive tactics and multiple sources said that those who insisted on avoiding recruiting gray areas were ostracized. That left a running joke on group texts and in phone calls this week about the mystery of who collected and documented all the receipts, emails and screenshots.

“There’s too many disgruntled people,” said one source. “There’s too many people that have been through that program that are frustrated. It could be any one of 10 people.”

Multiple sources indicated that there were numerous staff members — one estimated a half-dozen — “keeping receipts” on illicit recruiting activity. One said that Pierce fostered an “in or out” culture within the program, which created mistrust and fear as he accumulated power and convinced Edwards to bring in recruiting-focused coaches like defensive backs coach Chris Hawkins and receivers coach Prentice Gill. Neither had on-field experience at a Power Five school. They replaced veteran coaches who Pierce didn’t think recruited well enough.

As a distinct “camp” formed around Pierce and those loyal to him, coaches and staffers began collecting evidence as protection for their own jobs. And that’s why it remains a mystery as to who accumulated and sent the dossier, which one source estimated was more than three dozen pages.

“I don’t know who sent it, that’s what stuns me,” said another source. “I don’t know. When you don’t care [about breaking the rules], and so many people are seeing and knowing what’s going on… When you’re above the law and thumb your nose to it, it’s karma. You reap what you sow.”

How intense are the hard feelings toward ASU? 

As social media rumblings of Arizona State’s issues arose this week, two prominent former ASU coaches trolled their former program on Twitter. Kevin Mawae, the NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman who was passed over for ASU’s offensive line job, put out a bible verse that hinted that ASU’s compliance comeuppance was coming. “For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all.” (He’s since deleted the tweet.)

Dave Christensen, the former Wyoming head coach who retired from ASU in 2020, responded with three emojis — one thinking, one wide-eyed and another with praying hands. (Both declined comment when reached by Yahoo Sports.)

A screengrab of Kevin Mawae's deleted tweet on Tuesday. (twitter)
A screengrab of Kevin Mawae's deleted tweet. (twitter)

Multiple former staff members told Yahoo Sports they’d be happy to speak to the NCAA, an unusual stance in a football culture that frowns on anyone speaking to the NCAA. It speaks to how divided the staff at ASU became.

“People are crossing their fingers, hoping they can talk to the NCAA,” one former staffer said. “There’s not going to be a lot of holding back — video guys, trainers, equipment guys. You’re going to find people very willing to talk. It’s because (Pierce and his followers) were not nice to the people who are good people. Some people were on board. Some weren’t. If you weren’t on board, you got blackballed.”

Multiple former staffers said that the dozens of recruits who came on campus during the dead period should be easy to track by going through the ASU football building and the surrounding area’s security cameras.

It wasn’t uncommon for Edwards and multiple coaches to host recruits in his office. As the amount of illicit activity rose, tensions simmered in the office. Coaches said that hosting recruits would have been too common to get security officials to agree to shut the cameras off every time a recruit came into the building during a dead period.

“The people who walked the straight and narrow were forced out,” said another former staffer. “The culture that had been festering there had been able to bloom full go. I’m not surprised to hear this.”

When Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson, a former agent, hired his old client four years ago, the college football world greeted it with a collective skepticism. The experiment had gone OK so far, with ASU going 17-13 through three seasons. Some of ASU’s biggest wins came on the recruiting trail, as quarterback Jayden Daniels chose ASU over a host of bluebloods and the Sun Devils began casting a national net. That’s included recent commitments from New York, Florida, Philadelphia and Louisiana.

That expanded net, and the success in the Los Angeles area where Pierce coached high school, has raised eyebrows around the country.

That recruiting success will surely be viewed through a more skeptical prism in the wake of this NCAA investigation. Coaches view the notion of having recruits visit during a dead period of nearly a year-and-a-half as significant.

“In this specific case, it’s a definite advantage,” Shaw said. “When it’s the first place you see or the only place you see, sometimes the kids feel special. ...To me, that’s always the double-edged sword. This team cheated to get you. Now they’re telling you to follow the rule, they’re going to hold you to a high standard that you can’t meet yourself.”

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