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Dantonio responds after recruit's mom attests to NCAA violation

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

A photograph and affidavit filed in federal court Tuesday purport to show former Michigan State recruiting coordinator Curtis Blackwell and then-head football coach Mark Dantonio in the home of a top recruit in 2015, evidence that contradicts Dantonio’s sworn testimony and is an apparent violation of NCAA rules.

In the filing, La Keshia Neal, mother of five-star recruit Daelin Hayes, alleged Dantonio, Blackwell and two other MSU coaches were in her home on or around Dec. 7, 2015. Days later, Hayes committed to Notre Dame. 

From left, Curtis Blackwell, Mark Dantonio. Daelin Hayes, Mike Tressel, and Harlon Barnett at Hayes' home taken in December 2015, according to a court affidavit.

The filing came hours after MSU officials acknowledged for the first time the university is investigating allegations of misconduct and is in contact with the NCAA and Big Ten conference. 

Lawyers for Dantonio, in a court filing on his behalf later Tuesday, said he didn't recall the visit nor authorize Blackwell, who by NCAA regulation was prohibited from off-campus visits, to be there.

The photo and affidavit call into question the credibility of Dantonio, who in a January deposition denied under oath that Blackwell ever recruited off campus, as well as that of athletic director Bill Beekman, who called the assertion "patently false" in comments to the press this month. More significantly, the allegations could prompt an investigation and sanctions from the NCAA days after MSU's hiring of a new football coach.

Neal said she made the coaches breakfast and took pictures of them with Hayes, a defensive end from Ann Arbor Skyline High School.

Blackwell's attorneys attached a photo of Dantonio, Blackwell and Hayes and assistant coaches Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett standing together. Tressel recently was added to new coach Mel Tucker's staff. Barnett attended Saturday's basketball game at Breslin Center in East Lansing, where he sat next to Tressel and wore a MSU shirt.

Another photo in the filing showed the breakfast Neal had prepared.

The filing by Blackwell's lawyers is the latest in a contentious lawsuit over his 2017 termination by Dantonio.

The winningest coach in MSU history, Dantonio announced his resignation via Twitter on Feb. 4, minutes after The Detroit News reported on Blackwell's assertion of NCAA violations. 

READ MORE: Recruiting trouble: Inside the sex assault scandal that threw MSU football for a loss

Thomas Kienbaum, one of Dantonio's lawyers, declined to comment beyond his Tuesday court filing, saying, "We'd like this to be resolved by the court, not in the press."

A message left for Dantonio was not immediately returned.

During his deposition, Dantonio was asked if Blackwell ever went with him to visit recruits in their homes. Dantonio responded, "No."

Dantonio also was asked if that would've been a violation of NCAA rules, and Dantonio responded, "Yes."

Blackwell's attorneys said Dantonio's deposition testimony "may constitute perjury."

Only a set number of coaches are allowed to recruit off-campus by NCAA rule. Blackwell, as a recruiting coordinator and not an on-field coach, was not among them, but was allowed to host recruits on-campus.

Dantonio acknowledged in his deposition that Blackwell may have accompanied him or driven him to recruiting visits, but waited in the car.

Dantonio's lawyers called the perjury claim "false" in their filing Tuesday, saying Blackwell's allegations, "even if they were true, come nowhere near meeting this standard and remain gratuitous libel by Blackwell and his counsel."

When Blackwell's lawyers first made vague claims of NCAA violations late last month, Dantonio's lawyers, in a filing, called them "false" and "scandalous." In an email sent to Blackwell's attorneys, Dantonio's lawyer Kienbaum called the NCAA allegations "not only false, but totally gratuitous."

Dantonio's lawyers said the allegations have no bearing on the case, while Blackwell's lawyers said they point to "Dantonio's lack of credibility on material issues."

In a response Tuesday night, Dantonio's legal team wrote the "allegations do not undercut Dantonio’s credibility ... such a collateral attack on Dantonio’s credibility would not even be admissible if Dantonio were sitting on the witness stand at trial."

Lawyers for Dantonio also said, "While Dantonio does not recall Blackwell being at the location depicted in the pictures, or how Blackwell came to appear in the photograph, he is adamant that he did not drive (Blackwell) there or authorize (Blackwell) to be there."

Blackwell's lawyers also have alleged Dantonio helped secure jobs for high-profile recruits, through Blackwell and major MSU donor Bob Skandalaris. Dantonio said in his January deposition that any such arrangements went through the compliance department. MSU compliance director, Jen Smith, testified in her deposition that she remembered an employment agreement that involved Skandalaris, but didn't recall specific situations involving Blackwell or Dantonio.

Beekman, who took over as athletic director after the alleged violations would've occurred, immediately called the NCAA-violation allegations "patently false" when they came to light earlier this month.

On Tuesday, his department admitted telling the NCAA it was looking into them.

"As with any allegation concerning NCAA compliance, MSU is investigating and working with the NCAA and Big Ten," said athletic department spokesman Matt Larson. "We have fully complied with our self-reporting obligations to the NCAA throughout this case."

Asked later Tuesday about the filing of the photo and affidavit, MSU declined further comment, and declined comment from Beekman and Dantonio.

Experts in NCAA compliance matters suggest that, as isolated incidents, the possible violations would not be considered major. But if lumped together, or found to be part of a pattern of misconduct, they could be viewed as more significant.

Dantonio, on the day he announced his retirement, said the Blackwell case and the latest allegations of NCAA violations had "zero" to do with his decision, calling the day a "celebration."

Dantonio has said he's staying in the athletic department in a "special-projects" role that could pay him $1 million a year. Dantonio wasn't at new coach Tucker's introductory press conference last week, as he was on vacation, but he was at the football building talking to Tucker on Tuesday, watching player conditioning drills.

Dantonio received a $4.3 million retention bonus about three weeks before retiring.

Tucker, in his six-year contract that pays him at least $5.5 million a year, has a clause that if NCAA allegations are found that preceded his hire, he would be given additional years on his contract.

Tuesday's filing was made as part of a show-cause order from a federal judge, after lawyers for Dantonio, former athletic director Mark Hollis and former president Lou Anna K. Simon requested the case be dismissed because of unethical behavior on the part of Blackwell's legal team, led by Thomas Warnicke and including Drew Paterson.

Part of the defense attorneys' reasoning were the allegedly false claims of NCAA violations, which were unsupported at first, then accentuated with additional details in early February. The defense also alleges frivolous filings on Blackwell's behalf. Paterson has been fined $10,000 in this case for making public deposition testimony by MSU Police Detective Chad Davis that was ordered sealed. Paterson called it an unintentional, "expensive mistake."

Blackwell's legal team took a public hit last week when high-profile attorney Tom Mars, only about a week after joining the case, withdrew over what he called personal objections to co-counsel's tactics.

Tuesday was the deadline for Blackwell's legal team to argue why the case, which dates to November 2018, should continue.

The discovery period — which has included depositions of Blackwell, Dantonio, Hollis, Simon, two MSU Police detectives and other officials, and still is set to add written testimony from jailed former MSU football player Auston Robertson — is scheduled to conclude at month's end, with a trial likely in the spring or early summer.

Blackwell, MSU's recruiting director from 2013-17, is suing Dantonio, Hollis and Simon for wrongful termination, and two MSU Police detectives for wrongful arrest. He is seeking $5.5 million from police.

Dantonio initially said Blackwell was let go over "philosophical" differences, but in testimony also cited "friction" and other situations, while Blackwell argues he was a scapegoat in the wake of a January 2017 on-campus party where three football players allegedly sexually assaulted a female. Blackwell was let go just days before outside investigators from the Jones Day law firm released their report, which cleared all MSU football staff of wrongdoing except Blackwell in their handling of the allegations.

While the Jones Day firm was investigating, Robertson allegedly raped a woman and now is serving 10 years in prison in the Upper Peninsula. During his deposition, Blackwell claimed MSU and Dantonio knew about Robertson's long history of sexual misconduct, dating to age 11 and which led to his expulsion from his high school and the football team as a senior, and Dantonio took him on anyway over the objections of at least two assistant coaches and Hollis.

Blackwell's lawyers and Dantonio's lawyers met several times in mediation sessions before the discovery period, but didn't reach an agreement on a settlement.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984