Lawsuit alleges Mark Dantonio, Michigan State may have committed NCAA recruiting violations

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Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio watches a play against Northwestern during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Evanston, Ill. (AP Photo/David Banks)

EAST LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is being accused of possibly committing NCAA violations, according to new court documents.

A motion filed late Monday night in a lawsuit brought by former program staffer Curtis Blackwell alleges Dantonio had Blackwell accompany him on an in-home recruiting visit, in violation of NCAA rules.

It also states Dantonio’s deposition may have revealed NCAA violations related to a booster “providing the parents of star recruits jobs/employment upon signing to play for MSU,” and that he may have committed perjury, according to reports from our media partners at MLive.

Tom Kienbaum, an attorney for Dantonio, said last week any allegations of Dantonio committing NCAA violations were “false.” He declined to comment on Tuesday morning about the specific allegations made in the latest motion. Mark Dantonio retires after 13 seasons as Michigan State football coach this afternoon.

Blackwell, Michigan State’s former recruiting director, is suing Dantonio, former athletic director Mark Hollis, former president Lou Anna Simon and two university police detectives for wrongful termination and unlawful arrest.

Dantonio was deposed on Jan. 10 for five hours and 55 minutes and lawyers from both sides are arguing about whether he should continue answering questions under oath for an additional 65 minutes to fill a seven-hour time allotment. According to a portion of the deposition released in court filings, Dantonio said Blackwell would accompany him on visits to high schools but would stay in the car while he went in. Dantonio said Blackwell didn’t go with him to visit recruits at their homes because it would be an NCAA violation. (NCAA rules only allow the head coach and the 10 on-field assistant coaches – it was nine assistants when Blackwell was at Michigan State – to recruit off campus).

The motion filed by Blackwell’s lawyers states Dantonio required Blackwell to accompany him and two additional Michigan State coaches on a recruiting visit to the home of a five-star prospect in the metro Detroit area because of Blackwell’s “ties and influence in the high school football community.” Blackwell’s lawyers say they’re prepared to provide an affidavit to support that claim and it can also be verified by the former recruit and his parents, who were present for the visit.

According to deposition, Dantonio denied he ever directed Blackwell to talk to university donor Bob Skandalaris about getting jobs for unnamed individuals who are described in court documents as the parents of recruits. “All of these have been vetted through compliance. Compliance authorized – everything went through NCAA rules.”

Court documents show Michigan State compliance director Jennifer Smith was deposed on Jan. 21. Blackwell’s attorneys allege Smith said she didn’t recall the compliance department approving specific recruits’ parents being employed through a company affiliated with Skandalaris. NCAA rules prohibit “employment arrangement for a prospective student-athlete’s family members.”

“I’m not saying it’s a huge deal or even if it would be a major violation. I think it could potentially be Level II,” David Ridpath, a sports administration professor at Ohio University and former director of compliance, said of the allegation that Dantonio had Blackwell accompany him on an in-home visit. “… The latter issue of saying ‘hey, we’re going to get you a job if your son or daughter comes to Michigan State’ is definitely a more serious issue. If there’s something to that … there’s definitely a lot more to that one being serious.”

Ridpath said Michigan State should be aware potential violations occurred and has an obligation to look into them. He added he wouldn’t be surprised if the university and NCAA have already talked about the matter.

Blackwell’s lawyers claim Dantonio’s deposition undermines his “bogus and inconsistent reasons” for not renewing Blackwell’s contract.

Blackwell, who runs the Sound Mind Sound Body football camps, was hired by Dantonio in 2013. He was suspended with pay in February 2017 for what Hollis called “serious allegations regarding your conduct” amid an investigation related to an alleged sexual assault involving a trio of football players – Josh King, Donnie Corley and Demetric Vance – who eventually accepted a plea deal for probation. Blackwell was arrested by university police for what they determined was interfering with an investigation but never was charged. His contract expired and was renewed on a monthly basis before Dantonio chose to part ways with him in May 2017, calling it a “philosophical change.”

Dantonio’s deposition was cut short when personnel at the federal courthouse in Grand Rapids notified the parties they had to leave to close the building. Blackwell’s lawyers want the deposition to continue while Dantonio’s lawyers filed a protective order to prevent that from happening, arguing the deposition included “absolutely nothing to do with (Blackwell’s) assertion of the Fifth Amendment” related to the coach’s decision not to renew Blackwell’s contract. Blackwell’s lawyers counter that the magistrate was never asked to resolve any disputes about the questions Dantonio was asked.

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