Curtis Blackwell: Mark Dantonio was warned about Auston Robertson as MSU recruit

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Mark Dantonio

Three Michigan State football staff members, including defensive tackles coach and former defensive line coach Ron Burton, and current quarterbacks coach and former offensive coordinator Dave Warner, warned head coach Mark Dantonio that big-time recruit Auston Robertson presented serious problems, before Dantonio green-lighted the signing anyway, according to a deposition given by fired staffer Curtis Blackwell.

The deposition, given in August over 6.5 hours of Blackwell's testimony, was made public, in a slightly redacted form, Thursday in a new court filing in Grand Rapids by Blackwell's lawyers.

"Ron Burton looked at me," Blackwell said in his deposition, which was given under oath. "I mean, what he said to Coach Dantonio and Dave, 'Like I have a daughter on that campus and I wouldn't feel comfortable with Auston Robertson being on campus with my daughter."

Robertson eventually came to Michigan State, despite previous sexual misconduct claims in his home state of Indiana, as well as being kicked off his high school football team and being barred from stepping foot on his high-school campus during his senior year in Fort Wayne. 

Robertson eventually was kicked off the MSU team in April 2017, after allegedly raping a woman — the girlfriend of one of Robertson's MSU teammates — in her mid-Michigan apartment. While awaiting trial, he was allowed to resurrect his career at Garden City Community College in Kansas, where he played a full season. But more legal issues saw him break probation, so his bond was revoked, he was brought back to Michigan, and in December in Lansing, he was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison after pleading down from rape to a lesser charge.

Blackwell, in his deposition, also accuses Dantonio of working with the academic office to get Robertson admitted, despite a substandard academic record.

A spokesperson for Michigan State on Thursday declined comment on Blackwell's testimony and lawsuit, as it has multiple times before. A spokesperson for Michigan State athletics also declined comment, citing "pending litigation."

At the time of Robertson's dismissal from the team in April 2017, Dantonio said Robertson "broke our trust." Dantonio also said, "Obviously, we took a risk. ... We vetted the young man."

At the time of Robertson's signing, Dantonio said he had earned his opportunity at Michigan State, despite Blackwell saying in his deposition that several people from Robertson's high school in Indiana, including the principal, had warned Michigan State against Robertson's recruitment. By the time Robertson announced Michigan State as his choice, several major colleges had already backed away from him.

It was in an on-campus meeting when Blackwell, Burton and Warner all gave recommendations to steer clear of Robertson, Blackwell said. The meeting began with 30 to 40 staffers, Blackwell said, before Dantonio cleared the room of just himself, Blackwell, Burton and Warner. Each spoke for several minutes making their case on Robertson's recruitment. The three recommended passing on Robertson.

"All of these red flags started coming up," Blackwell said in his deposition. "He would be a horrible fit for a college campus."

"He overrode everyone else," Blackwell said of Dantonio.

Blackwell said during his time at Michigan State, he played a role in recruiting between 3,000 and 4,000 kids. He said Robertson was the only recruit he can recall who had been accused of sexual misconduct.

Auston Robertson

Dantonio took on Robertson following the 2015 season in which Michigan State made the College Football Playoff. Blackwell said that given the loss of several key defensive linemen, and given Dantonio's reputation for defense, the head coach wanted Robertson, and had to have him. Robertson, accused of sexual misconduct back home in Indiana, entered Michigan State still in a diversionary program. The program was transferred from Indiana to Michigan; upon its completion, Robertson became eligible to play for the Spartans. He played in seven games as a freshman in 2016.

"Defense is a big focus for Mark Dantonio," Blackwell said in the deposition.

Blackwell said given Robertson's history, Dantonio went on to view Robertson as his "pet project," and even took the unusual step of meeting individually with Robertson every Monday.

Robertson, a four-star defensive tackle, headlined a star-studded 2016 recruiting class that also included wide receiver Donnie Corley and defensive back Demetric Vance from Detroit, and defensive end Josh King from Chicago, three players kicked off the team in June 2017 following their role in that large off-campus party, at which a woman said she was sexual assaulted. Those three players each received probation and have revived their collegiate careers elsewhere, including Corley at Texas Southern.

In the transcript of the deposition, Blackwell continues to paint the picture that he was made the scapegoat in his firing, following a party attended by as many as 20 or more Michigan State football players where an alleged sexual assault occurred.

"It's me against the world," Blackwell said, describing his mental state ahead of his deposition.

Robertson, meanwhile, was the whistleblower on the case, originally telling Dantonio — during one of those one-on-one Monday sessions, in January 2017 — about a large party he attended with several other players. Dantonio, according to Blackwell's deposition, immediately told Robertson to report what he knew to the university's Title IX office. 

Roberton then met with Blackwell, who said he told the player, "If you didn't do anything, you know, why are you concerned? You know, just go in there and tell the truth."

According to the deposition, Blackwell first heard about the party from Corley's father, who had reached out to inquire if any players, specifically his son, were in trouble.

"Hard to tell at this point," Blackwell texted back.

That's when Blackwell started reaching out to his players to get a sense of what had happened.

Blackwell said he was doing his job as director of college advancement and performance, and mentoring his players. He said in his deposition that he talked to several other players who were at the party, but didn't attempt to steer them out of any trouble.

During his deposition, a defense lawyer said, "You were out to protect your players, weren't you."

Blackwell responded, "I was doing my job to mentor student athletes at all times."

Meanwhile, Blackwell was accused by police of interfering in the investigation, and nearly a month after the party, on Feb. 8, 2017, was arrested and handcuffed, and had his cell phones seized by university police, though no charges were brought. Blackwell also is suing the two arresting officers, whom he said mischaracterized his comments in the police report. 

"They greatly exaggerated my testimony," said Blackwell, who is suing for unlawful arrest.

FEB. 8, 2017: Curtis Blackwell is arrested by MSU Police for obstructing the investigation. The following day, he is suspended.

In his follow-up correspondence with Blackwell, Dantonio said he was being let go because Dantonio "had to move in a different direction with the position." In later discussions with reporters, Dantonio said Blackwell's dismissal was due to philosophical differences.

Blackwell, 41, was placed on administrative leave until May 2017, when, upon the recommendation of the university-commissioned Jones Day report, he was fired from his job that at first in 2013 paid him $80,000 a year, before raises every year eventually brought the salary $129,000 in April 2016. He is suing, claiming he unfairly took the fall in the sexual-assault investigation at Michigan State, which at the time was operating under a dark cloud amid the Larry Nassar case.

Blackwell said he believes Lou Anna K. Simon, then university president, ordered his dismissal.

"I think she was feeling the pressure based upon what was going on on campus at the time with Larry Nassar," Blackwell said in the deposition.

Blackwell's hiring came when he was founder of the successful Sound Mind Sound Body football camps. The camps proved to be big recruiting tools, particularly among kids from the inner-city, and also stressed academics, life skills and character development. "We teach them to tell the truth," Blackwell said.

The Detroit News has filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for any electronic correspondence between Dantonio and Blackwell, and was told there was no such correspondence. The Detroit News also requested documents, receipts and travel logs from Michigan State's recruitment of Robertson, and that request was denied, the university citing privacy.

Dantonio, former athletic director Mark Hollis and Simon haven't yet been deposed by Blackwell's lawyers, despite repeated attempts to schedule sessions. The two police officers haven't been deposed yet, either. Simon also is facing criminal charges for her handling of the Nassar situation.

"We have been cooperating on the deposition," a university spokesperson said Thursday. "The university offered up dates in August, but the other side did not accept those.

"We continue to work on finding new dates that work for both sides."

Part of Thursday's filing is a request for a judge to order Dantonio's deposition within the month; Blackwell's lawyers claim Dantonio's lawyers have unnecessarily delayed their client's deposition, saying Dantonio was unavailable during any of the several dates proposed by Blackwell's lawyers. Dantonio's lawyers also are trying to limit the scope of Blackwell's lawyers' questions, a request at odds with Blackwell's lawyers. Robertson has "nothing to do with the case," Dantonio's lawyers argued in emails to Blackwell's attorneys.

The current deposition date being offered to Dantonio is Oct. 7, which is two days after the Spartans' game against Ohio State, and five before their game against Wisconsin.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984