MSU's Mark Dantonio fired Curtis Blackwell from train in Italy; cites pattern of 'friction'

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

It's been more than a month since Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio has answered any questions from reporters, but a portion of his under-oath testimony made to lawyers during his five-hour, 55-minute deposition this month has been made public.

Dantonio, being sued by his former recruiting coordinator, Curtis Blackwell, for wrongful termination, told lawyers that he still has no regrets about hiring Blackwell in 2013, but Dantonio in his deposition perhaps diminished the effect Blackwell had on the program's success.

No questions to and answers by Dantonio about the recruitment of Auston Robertson have been released, and the depositions of former athletic director Mark Hollis, former president Lou Anna K. Simon and the police officers alleged by Blackwell to have wrongfully arrested him in 2017 remain sealed. Current athletic director Bill Beekman also has been deposed by Blackwell's attorneys.

Mark Dantonio

Blackwell arrived at Michigan State in 2013, and Dantonio quickly called him a "game-changer." The Spartans then went to a Rose Bowl (and won), then a College Football Playoff (and lost).

"Team performed very well in '13, '14 and '15 ... that was on the very beginning of Curtis Blackwell's time there," Dantonio said, according to a 57-page excerpt of his deposition which was filed in federal court in Grand Rapids on Wednesday night. "You see the results of recruiting at the tail end of things, usually two or three years later.

"It's a group effort. Everybody's involved in the process. Every single person that's at the university is involved in the process, from the lowest member of people to the tallest — the highest, everybody's involved. No one person, no one ... is able to say, I recruited that guy, it was all me.'"

Dantonio said Blackwell was no more responsible for, say, the Rose Bowl appearance of Jan. 1, 2014, than he was the team's 3-9 record in 2016.

Blackwell, 42, was told by Dantonio in late May 2017 that his year-to-year contract wasn't being renewed, after he had been on paid suspension for three months as lawyers performed an outside investigation into how the football program reported and handled reports of a sexual assault at a January 2017 campus party involving three players on the football team.

Dantonio told reporters at the time the decision was "philosophical," and re-stated that several times in his deposition, while expanding on it. Blackwell insists he was made the scapegoat by a university eager to show it had learned its lesson from the Larry Nassar scandal.

Blackwell is suing Dantonio, the university, Hollis and Simon, and in a separate suit he's seeking up to $5.5 million from two MSU Police detectives over wrongful arrest.

MSU Police arrested Blackwell in February 2017, accusing him of obstructing their investigation into the alleged sexual assault. He declined to be interviewed, was released, and never charged. He also declined to be interviewed by the Jones Day law firm, hired to complete the outside investigation. Jones Day's report, which was released to the public just days after Blackwell was let go, cleared all Michigan State staff members of wrongdoing, except Blackwell.

More: Inside the sex assault scandal that threw MSU football for a loss

More:MSU reviewed Auston Robertson's sex assault record, then admitted him anyway

More:Ex-MSU football staffer Curtis Blackwell: 'This is me standing up for myself'

In his deposition, Dantonio recalled a late May 2017 phone call with Blackwell, telling him he wouldn't be retained. Dantonio made the call from a train in Italy, where he was vacationing. Blackwell's wife was pregnant at the time, and was worried about insurance ramifications.

Dantonio said the phone conversation lasted no more than three minutes, adding he told Blackwell it was "philosophical" but didn't go into details. Dantonio called the phone conversation relatively one-sided, and said Blackwell responded, "I understand."

Blackwell filed his lawsuit 18 months later, in November 2018.

In March 2016, Blackwell was given a significant raise, to $129,000 a year, plus a one-month retention bonus. Dantonio said in his deposition that Blackwell had told him about an offer from Michigan, and "we don't want to lose any coach, any person to the University of Michigan, or to any other program."

But just one year later, Dantonio said there were a number of issues with Blackwell's employment, including a new NCAA rule on satellite camps that limited the effectiveness of Blackwell, hired mainly for his Metro Detroit athlete connections built through years of running the Sound Mind Sound Body camps, plus some "feelings of friction," and a "disconnect," Dantonio said.

Mark Dantonio said Curtis Blackwell was let go for "philosophical differences."

Dantonio said much of this came to light to him during the time Blackwell first was suspended, in February 2017, and when he was let go, in late May.

"Whether you want to call it friction, hostility, workplace environment, attention to detail, disconnect, accountability, structure to some degree, all came into question," Dantonio said in his deposition. "The next thing was the philosophy of who we wanted to control that environment. Did we want an NFL executive to do it, or do we want Curtis to do it in the same way that had been done?"

Dantonio said he was under the gun to make a decision on the future of Sheldon White, who in July 2016 was brought in as a program consultant after being let go as Detroit Lions interim general manager. In his deposition, Dantonio referred to White's early role as an "intern."

In 2017, Dantonio said, White's $350,000 pay from the Lions was set to run out, and he had other offers he was considering. 

"He was on the verge of taking a different job," Dantonio said in his deposition. "So I had to make some decisions as we went forward.

"We had an individual who was currently there that basically was starting to do the job and felt like he could be able to go forward and do the job in a positive manner."

White was promoted to executive director of player personnel and recruiting, taking Blackwell's place.

White was let go by the Lions in February 2016. White's son, Cody, a three-star wide receiver, committed to Michigan State in March 2016. Sheldon White arrived at Michigan State in July.

More:Niyo: Michigan State's Cody White making 'leap of faith' to grab NFL dream

Blackwell's lawyers questioned Dantonio about whether the hire was tied to the recruitment.

"No," Dantonio responded.

Cody White played in 35 games at Michigan State, and finished seventh in program history with 143 receptions, 12th with 1,967 receiving yards and tied for 16th with 12 touchdowns. He opted to leave Michigan State after his junior season, and is eligible for April's NFL Draft.

Things got tense several times during Dantonio's deposition, including when Blackwell's lawyers asked Dantonio, "How was the team performance since Mr. White replaced Mr. Blackwell?"

Michigan State was 39-14 in Blackwell's tenure, and is 24-15 in White's.

"This is just completely irrelevant," one of Dantonio's lawyers objected. "I don't mean to be prickly, but that's a great example of how you're wasting time."

Dantonio's deposition was cut off at 5 p.m. because the courthouse was closing. Blackwell's attorneys are seeking to get Dantonio for another hour and five minutes — for a total of seven hours — but Dantonio's attorneys are objecting, saying Blackwell's lawyers wasted too much time during the deposition day, including excessive breaks.

Now, in response, Dantonio's lawyers are seeking to depose Blackwell for two more days, 14 hours total, in February, regarding his time at Sound Mind Sound Body.

Dantonio's attorneys have subpoenaed Sound Mind Sound Body records, many of them financial.

Blackwell's attorneys have objected to the request, calling it irrelevant to the case — and saying Blackwell already answered Sound Mind Sound Body questions in his earlier deposition, which is the only deposition to have been fully released in court filings. 

"Nothing more than an attempt to annoy and harass the plaintiff," Blackwell's lawyers wrote in a filing responding to the additional deposition requests. "As well as engage in an unwarranted fishing expedition with respect to Sound Mind Sound Body."

The depositions currently are scheduled for Feb. 20 and 21, with financial documents, expense reports and tax statements in relation to Sound Mind Sound Body having been due earlier this week.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984