Hours before Mark Dantonio's stunning exit, lawyers detailed alleged NCAA violations

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The latest allegations in a 14-month-old lawsuit against Mark Dantonio were filed in federal court in Grand Rapids late Monday night, just hours before the legendary Michigan State coach stunningly announced his retirement Tuesday afternoon.

Lawyers for former MSU football staffer Curtis Blackwell are alleging that Dantonio committed multiple NCAA violations, while Dantonio's defense team is calling the case a "sham," according to the latest court documents in a case that long has lingered over Michigan State University and the football program.

One of the lawyers for Blackwell, Drew Paterson, filed a response to Dantonio's attorneys late Monday night, detailing the alleged NCAA violations.


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Blackwell's lawyers allege:

►Dantonio orchestrated employment for the parents of two MSU football players, with mega-donor Bob Skandalaris, whose name is on the football facility.

►Dantonio had Blackwell accompany him on a Metro Detroit home visit of an unnamed five-star recruit, when Blackwell, in his role as director of college advancement and performance, wasn't authorized to conduct off-campus visits.

Dantonio, during his press conference in East Lansing on Tuesday night, said the court case and the latest allegations had "zero" to do with his decision, though some university officials have said they were caught off-guard by the Tuesday announcement. The news came just one day before National Signing Day, but two weeks after Dantonio earned a $4.3-million retention bonus.

Asked if Blackwell was telling the truth in the lawsuit, Dantonio said, "That's for the courts. I try very hard to never say anything negative about anybody, and I'll keep that where it's at." The reporter then attempted to follow up, but was cut off by Dantonio, who said, "We're not talking about that. This is a celebration."

Athletic director Bill Beekman, meeting with reporters in East Lansing on Tuesday, said the university would fight the NCAA-violation allegations in court.

Regarding the allegations, Dantonio said in his Jan. 10 deposition that Blackwell never did home visits because it would've been an NCAA violation. He did recall Blackwell once traveling with him to see a recruit, but that Blackwell remained in the car.

In his filing, Paterson said Blackwell "is prepared to provide the court with an affidavit attesting" to the visit of the five-star recruit, which can be "verified by the former five-star recruit and his parents, who were also present during the recruiting visit."

Paterson and Blackwell declined to provide the recruit's name to The Detroit News. Paterson and Blackwell didn't immediately respond to comment regarding the announcement of Dantonio's retirement.

As for the first claim, Dantonio, in his Jan. 10 deposition, said he never directed Blackwell to talk to Skandalaris about employment for family members of "high profile recruits," but he acknowledged that family members were hired — and all were approved by MSU's compliance department, Dantonio said.

Blackwell's lawyers dispute that, citing a Jan. 21 deposition by MSU compliance officer Jennifer Smith, who said she "did not recall the compliance office approving any such arrangements."

The names of the high-profile recruits in question were blacked out in Paterson's filing, which included a new-to-the-public portion of Dantonio's deposition transcript.

Lawyers for Dantonio, ex-athletic director Mark Hollis and ex-president Lou Anna K. Simon — all being sued by Blackwell for wrongful termination — call the NCAA allegations "not only false, but totally gratuitous," according to an email from Dantonio attorney Thomas G. Kienbaum to Blackwell attorneys Tom Warnicke and Paterson.

Paterson made vague NCAA-violation claims, but didn't cite any specifics, in a motion filed last week responding to the lawyers for two MSU Police detectives — whom Blackwell is suing for wrongful arrest, and seeking up to $5.5 million in damages. The detectives' lawyers have petitioned to depose officials with Blackwell's football camp, Sound Mind Sound Body.

"We demand that you withdraw the motion," Kienbaum wrote to Paterson. "We reserve the right to ask for sanctions based on the fact that you chose to malign our clients."

The NCAA allegations are the latest bombshell claims in the Blackwell case, which was filed after Blackwell was let go by Dantonio in May 2017, after four years of employment.

The case gained legs in the public eye last year when Blackwell's deposition transcript was made public, and in it he described the recruitment of highly ranked defensive lineman Auston Robertson of Fort Wayne, Ind. Robertson had a lengthy rap sheet of sexual misconduct, dating to age 11 as detailed by The Detroit News, and was even kicked off his football team and out of his high school during his senior year for sexual-misconduct allegations. Dantonio's staff knew about the high school allegations, and Dantonio accepted Robertson anyway, over the objections of several of his own staff members, and then-athletic director Hollis.

Robertson was part of Dantonio's so-called 2016 "Dream Team" recruiting class, and played his freshman year. Within months, he was charged with rape, and now is serving up to 10 years in an Upper Peninsula prison.

Three other members of that recruiting class, the highest-ranked in the 13-year Dantonio era, were kicked off the team following a 2017 on-campus party at which they allegedly sexual assaulted a female in the bathroom of running back L.J. Scott's place. Those three were kicked off the team, pled down and received three years' probation. The investigation into that party eventually led to Blackwell's dismissal, Blackwell says.

Dantonio never has discussed publicly at length the Robertson situation, saying only after his dismissal that MSU vetted him and "took a risk." Dantonio was asked about the Robertson recruitment during his Jan. 10 deposition — despite his lawyers' request to have the Robertson and Larry Nassar topic off-limits — but those portions of Dantonio's deposition haven't been made available to the public.

Hollis' deposition, too, has been sealed by a judge, because of the Robertson content.

Blackwell worked at MSU from 2013 until May 2017, when his contract wasn't renewed for what Dantonio called "philosophical differences." Dantonio, while on a train in Italy, called Blackwell to let him know he wasn't being retained. Dantonio, in his deposition, cited "friction" between Blackwell and the rest of the football department; said NCAA rules had changed regarding camps, which limited Blackwell's effectiveness; and said he had an opportunity to hire longtime NFL executive Sheldon White, who was more than capable of filling Blackwell's responsibilities.

Blackwell continues to say he was made the "fall guy" following the 2017 on-campus party. MSU Police accused Blackwell of obstructing the investigation, which included more than 100 witness interviews and eventually led to pled-down convictions and removal from the team for the three football players. The Jones Day law firm, hired to investigate MSU's handling of the allegations, also accused Blackwell of wrongdoing. Blackwell never spoke with Jones Day, and was never charged. Blackwell has said Michigan State was eager to make a big public statement regarding sexual misconduct under the cloud of the Nassar scandal.

Neither side has expressed an interest in settling the lawsuit, which was originally filed in November 2018.

Meanwhile, things have gotten testy between the counsel for Blackwell and the counsel for Dantonio and Co., with Dantonio's lawyers petitioning the court to have the case thrown out, Paterson fined and Paterson suspended from practicing law.

Dantonio's lawyers cite "continued, ongoing misconduct by Blackwell and his counsel" in calling for the sanctions on Paterson, saying with the NCAA-violation claims he made public "false, scandalous, and wholly unsupported accusations."

"This sham should not be allowed to continue," Dantonio's lawyers continued. They have repeatedly chided Blackwell and his attorneys for an excessively drawn-out discovery period. They claim documents and depositions have been sought that aren't relative to the case.

Dantonio's lawyers say this is the latest in a pattern of inappropriate courtroom behavior for Paterson, citing previous cases in which he was reprimanded.

Curtis Blackwell

Paterson was admonished by a federal judge and fined $10,000 last year when he made public MSU Police Det. Chad Davis' deposition transcript, despite an agreement between the two sides that the deposition would remain sealed. Paterson has called that an innocent mistake. A judge quickly sealed Davis' deposition, though many reporters already had accessed and downloaded it.

Paterson, before Dantonio's retirement Tuesday, told The News that Dantonio's lawyers' claims were "frivolous and meritless."

"It is apparent that Coach Dantonio and his legal counsel have a problem with telling the truth," Paterson said, adding he believes Dantonio might have perjured himself when he said the employment agreements were approved by compliance. "I believe Dantonio may have committed perjury because he testified that he never had Blackwell accompany him to a recruit's home during a recruiting visit when there is evidence that proves otherwise."

Tension started building between the parties late last month, when lawyers for Blackwell requested to depose Dantonio for another hour and five minutes, since his Jan. 10 deposition was cut off at 5 hours and 55 minutes, short of the federally mandated seven hours. Dantonio's lawyers have declined to set up a future deposition, saying Dantonio was only required to appear for one day. Dantonio's lawyers claim Blackwell's lawyers wasted a significant amount of time Jan. 10 with irrelevant questions and excessive breaks.

Dantonio was the Big Ten's third-longest-tenured head football coach, behind Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984