Ex-MSU football staffer Curtis Blackwell: 'This is me standing up for myself'
Detroit — Curtis Blackwell says he loved his job at Michigan State.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment,” he told The News. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of, I guess, one of the golden ages of MSU football.”
The most recent golden age of MSU football appears, at least, to be over.
The Spartans are just 27-24 since appearing in the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Eve 2015. Blackwell no longer is with the team. And MSU recruiting, according to national experts, has been trending downward.
Blackwell’s impact continues to be felt in a federal lawsuit he filed against MSU, head coach Mark Dantonio and others, in which testimony has peeled back on the curtain on recruiting practices.
Dantonio was deposed Friday in the lawsuit that was filed Nov. 12, 2018; details have not yet been disclosed.
Blackwell’s lawyers have argued he's being made a scapegoat by a university eager to make a statement when he was dismissed in May 2017 following a campus party at which three players allegedly sexually assaulted a female.
Dantonio said Blackwell was let go over “philosophical differences,” even though Michigan State's recruiting rankings had never been higher — Blackwell brought connections from his popular Sound Mind Sound Body football camps — and Blackwell's personnel file showed not one negative comment.
Blackwell received a raise every year, from $80,000 when he got the job, to $129,000 plus a 10% bonus when he re-upped in 2016.
Dantonio hasn’t been one for letting staff members go. Only one previous coach has ever not been retained by Dantonio during his 13 years at Michigan State: Ted Gill, a defensive line coach whose last season was 2012. Blackwell, as director of college advancement and performance, was the other rare staff member let go.
Attempts to settle the lawsuit have been unsuccessful, which surprises public relations experts.
“Any communications adviser would tell them (Michigan State) they should do whatever it takes to make sure they don’t have any more negative news coverage,” said Matt Friedman, co-founder of Tanner Friedman.
“In employment cases, it’s very common for a defendant to not want to say anything or not want to settle the case, because they're concerned about setting precedent.
“If you want to do that, it's your decision. It’s a business decision, but one of the consequences of that decision is the other side will control the story for as long as the case goes on,” he said.
Blackwell, 42, has sued Michigan State, Dantonio, former athletic director Mark Hollis and former president Lou Anna K. Simon and the two police detectives who arrested him on campus in February 2017. Blackwell never was charged with a crime.
He said he’s seeking more than just money, though court filings show he is seeking up to $5.5 million from the police for wrongful arrest. There has been no dollar amount attached to the other lawsuit.
Blackwell says he wants his reputation back. He said he’s been blackballed from other college opportunities.
“This is me standing up for myself,” he told The News in east Detroit, at the new home of Sound Mind Sound Body camps he runs.
“Let people know, ‘Hey, there’s way more to this situation than you can ever imagine.’”
Blackwell was dismissed in late May 2017, just days before Michigan State released the results of an independent investigation into the football program's handling of the sex assault allegations against its players. Blackwell, actively facing the prospect of criminal prosecution at the time, did not agree to be interviewed.
The report found him to have made missteps, but cleared the rest of the staff.
Blackwell, the two police detectives, Hollis and Simon have been deposed. Only Blackwell's deposition remains public. One of the police officer's was public briefly, before a judge sealed it. Part of Hollis' deposition, regarding Robertson, remains sealed, against the wishes of Blackwell's attorneys.
►READ: Curtis Blackwell deposition
►READ: Curtis Blackwell complaint
Blackwell’s attorneys also have received permission to depose Robertson, through written questions. They also want to depose Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who offered Blackwell a job in 2016. Harbaugh is open to answering written questions.
Blackwell, who is black, said in the early days of his suspension in 2019, he met with longtime trustee Joel Ferguson, and that Ferguson warned him he would be made the fall guy because he is black. Ferguson vehemently disputes saying that.
“That's such bull----, it’s outrageous," Ferguson told The News. “I can’t believe he would say that.”
Ferguson did say he was concerned with how the MSU Police handled the arrest of Blackwell, saying the police were “a little bit out of order.”