Oregon released a statement late Tuesday saying officials from the university, the Pacific-10 Conference and the NCAA have been looking into the eligibility of former players, including Michael Dunigan, since Aug. 2. According to several sources, the school was tipped off to possible illegal benefits provided by a sports agent to Dunigan and other players from the 2008-09 and 2009-10 teams.
“They’re looking into our concerns,” UO spokesman David Williford said of the inquiry, speaking for head coach Dana Altman was not available for comment Wednesday.
Former coach Ernie Kent, who recruited Dunigan in his 2008 signing class and was fired after last season, said he has not been contacted by anyone regarding the issue and that he hasn’t talked with Dunigan for about three months. Last week Dunigan signed a three-year deal with Hapoel Migdal Jerusalem, ending his college career.
Former assistant Yasir Rosemond said Kent and his staff never tolerated the presence of agents, but when Kent was dismissed on March 17, the program was a rudderless ship until Altman was hired on April 26.
“If you go (40) days without a coach, anybody can get in there on your program,” said Rosemond, now an assistant to coach Cameron Dollar at Seattle University.
Whatever punishment, if any, the Ducks will face from the NCAA will be determined not only by what benefits the players received but also by when they received them.
If the players were lured to the school illegally, that would represent lack of institutional control. If the violation occurred during the time between Kent’s firing and Altman’s hiring, the NCAA would find it hard to fault the school. Also, the Ducks’ poor showing during the two years in question (24-39) would dissuade the NCAA from vacating victories.
“It might prompt the committee to say, in order to have a sufficiently severe penalty, we’re going to do more going forward,” said Stu Brown, an attorney in Atlanta familiar with NCAA cases.
That might include taking away scholarships, a scary proposition for Altman, who currently has only nine players on scholarship after four players transferred and Dunigan left for Israel.
Another factor that could draw extra attention by the NCAA is the close relationship between former assistant coach Kenny Payne and William Wesley, aka Worldwide Wes. Relationships between players and coaches and the game’s power brokers such as Wesley or brothers Dana and David Pump are very much of interest to the NCAA.
Payne, who could not be reached for comment, left Oregon to join friend John Calipari’s staff at Kentucky on May 26, a month after the Ducks hired Altman. But Altman, who signed a term sheet when he was hired in April, has yet to sign a contract, according to multiple records requests by The Oregonian — another complicating factor.
Some coaches insist on a clause in a contract that stipulates if NCAA violations occurred before his arrival, then years would be added to his contract.
What is, isn’t allowed
The NCAA does not prohibit simple conversations between players and agents, but multiple conversations can be troubling.
That’s the situation the North Carolina football team found itself in when investigators discovered hundreds of phone calls between associate head coach/
recruiting coordinator John Blake and sports agent Gary Wichard, prompting the Tar Heels to bench a dozen players whose eligibility was in question. Blake resigned Sept. 5.
The Southeastern Conference is full of teams that have had compromising relationships with agents. Florida, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina have been implicated in connection with player recruiting by agents.
Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl, in a story that broke the day before Oregon’s 48-13 win in Knoxville last weekend, had his salary and the salaries of his assistants docked 25 percent by the school after it found Pearl had lied to the NCAA.
Then, of course, there is the case of Reggie Bush at USC, which landed the Trojans on probation for four years and made them bowl-ineligible for two after it was determined Bush and his family took money from agents. Bush on Tuesday announced he was returning the Heisman Trophy he won for his exploits during the 2005 season.
“It doesn’t have to be money, a plane ticket, game tickets,” said Brown, the attorney. “It may be consulting-type work, which is what the agent sells, which means the agent has given the player a benefit for free.”
“The more contact there is, the fishier it looks.”