Football Writers Association of America 2012 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Joe Rexrode, Lansing State Journal

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First of seven stories

EAST LANSING — When most people think of sports agents, they think of fancy suits, expensive cars, slicked hair.

When the people who have witnessed player procurement on college campuses think of agents, they think of backpacks, sandals, spiked hair.

These are the people who make first contact. The "runners." And they are a mysterious bunch.

"Most of them look like college kids," said Jennifer Smith, MSU's associate athletic director for compliance.

Joe Rexrode
Lansing State Journal
Age: 39
College: Michigan State
Background: I started at the Free Press as Michigan State beat writer in August, after serving in that capacity for the Lansing State Journal starting in January of 2003. But I covered those beats as far back as the mid- 1990s for the MSU college newspaper, The State News. Nothing like a little Nick Saban to give a young journalist some humility and a fear of loud noises. I was a part-time reporter at the State Journal for the 1999-2000 year, helping cover Saban's 9-2 breakthrough at MSU and bolt for LSU, followed by Tom Izzo's national championship basketball team. I then spent two years on the news copy desk before switching to the sports desk, then taking over for retiring mentor Jack Ebling on the beats. I also covered the London Olympics for Gannett, and over the years have covered the NBA finals, NFL football, NASCAR, professional golf, college women's basketball and high school sports. I wrote a 2006 book on the history of Michigan State football and have won more than 20 writing awards – including my two favorites, first-place honors from the FWAA. I am married (Katie) with two sons (Jack and Brennan) and a daughter (Caroline).

Some, apparently, are college kids.

"I do think it's very common for many agencies to have runners on campuses across the country," said Bruce Tollner, founder of Rep 1 Sports Group, which represents former MSU football players Javon Ringer and Blair White. "In some cases the agency will pay for the runner's schooling and then the runner's job is to point players in the direction of that agency. It's something we don't want any part of. We choose not to go in that direction and sometimes we're not in the mix at the end with a player because we weren't in it on the front end."

The front end is the concern of MSU and other schools, which do all they can to inform, educate and plead with their athletes to avoid agents. Conversations aren't a problem, but it's against NCAA rules for athletes to accept money or gifts from agents, and anyone who does is ineligible – which is why USC was stripped of its 2004-05 BCS championship and star Reggie Bush stripped of his 2005 Heisman Trophy after a marketing agency reportedly gave Bush $300,000 in gifts while he was still in college.

Bush is an extreme case, a sure-thing star who commanded huge attention and dollars. Much of the interaction between runners and players involves smaller purchases, say those who are familiar with the process.

The goal is the same, though. Get that player to commit to the agent who employs you.

"They'd just befriend them, it's funny how they do it," said Jason Strayhorn, who played football at MSU from 1994-98 and witnessed runners in action with teammates he did not want to name. "You see them together at the bars, at the clubs and all of the sudden this guy's hanging around and he's got lots of money. And obviously guys are gonna gravitate to the guy buying food and drinks for everyone.

"And it's not like he has a promissory note (with him) saying 'You owe me this,' but that's really what it is. I remember seeing that. And at the time you don't even think about it, because you think differently at 21."

Said Tollner: "They're taking them out to bars, buying them stuff and then they'll try to get them down to Miami or wherever and get them tied to the agent at an early stage."

In 1995, when Strayhorn was a redshirt freshman at MSU, Tony Banks was the Spartans' star quarterback. In a 2010 story in Sports Illustrated, NFL agent Josh Luchs said he illegally paid dozens of college players including Banks – whom he said got "hundreds of dollars a month" and in turn became a client when his eligibility was finished.

This story and the others Luchs told did not result in violations for college programs, because they were revealed four years or more after the fact. The NCAA has a four-year statute of limitations on violations.

And MSU has a daily reason to fear them, and the runners who can bring them on.

So who are these runners? Sports agent Molly Fletcher, an MSU grad who grew up in East Lansing, said they are usually younger people trying to break into the business who have not been certified as agents.

"They want to prove to agents that they can one day become an agent, instead of just a runner," said Fletcher, 39, who recently started her own agency in Atlanta, MWF Enterprises, and avoids football and basketball players because of story lines like this. "These runners are just paid to be visible."

That pay is probably less than $50,000 a year, Fletcher said. Or it could be a small percentage, 1 percent or so, of the contract for a client the runner helps land (agents typically get 4 percent to 10 percent).

Or the runner may be what NCAA vice president of enforcement Julie Roe Lach calls a "subcontractor" – someone working independently to gain influence with a prominent athlete and shop that influence to various agents.

"A million different kinds of people, and a lot of them are involved in AAU (youth basketball) because it's an avenue," MSU men's basketball coach Tom Izzo said.

"It can be anybody in the world," Tollner said. "Someone finishes law school and he buddies up with the future No. 1 pick."

Often, the agencies who use aggressive, rulebreaking runners are fledgling operations, Tollner said, who are trying to break into the business "unethically" and end up flaming out.

But in a 2008 Los Angeles Times story on the accusation that alleged runner Rodney Guillory took $250,000 from a sports agency and funneled it to USC star basketball player O.J. Mayo, a sports agent speaking on condition of anonymity said this of runners: "Overwhelmingly, 95 percent of the time, there's a third party involved. If agents could get players in a fair, representative way without paying money they would, because everyone is a bottom-line businessman. But they can't."

"A lot of guys in that space don't operate with the same level of integrity I want to operate at," Fletcher said of agents who target college football and basketball players. "What a yucky way to live, because at any minute that world can explode."

Second of seven stories

It was a passing moment in HBO's "Real Sports" special on cheating in college athletics, a March 30 investigative report that centered around former Auburn University football star Stanley McClover's allegations – supported by three teammates – that boosters paid them based on their performance on the field.

After McClover described getting cash from a booster at a Louisiana State University camp while he was being recruited in the summer of 2002, a photo flashed across the screen of McClover in MSU gear while reporter Andrea Kremer said: "McClover said there were money handshakes from boosters at other football camps, too. At Auburn, for a couple hundred dollars, and also at Michigan State. All the schools denied any wrongdoing."

Jennifer Smith, MSU's associate athletic director for compliance, was tuned in.

"'Oh (crap),'" she recalled of her reaction, even though the NCAA has a four-year NCAA statute of limitations on violations. "At first I was looking at the time frame like, 'OK, how far back are we?' And then, if they can't give any details about anything, usually it's not very truthful. The statute of limitations (has passed), but it doesn't shed you in a very good light."

Athletic director Mark Hollis agreed, saying he was "frustrated" by the claims of McClover, who did not respond to State Journal attempts to reach him for comment on his mobile phone and on Facebook. The NCAA did inform Smith that it is looking into all of McClover's claims and will get back to her if it finds anything.

Considering what's going on all around MSU, a random allegation of a cash handout from several years ago is rather trivial. The University of Michigan is on probation after the NCAA found it guilty of major violations involving excessive practice and illegal monitoring by coaches, and Ohio State University appears headed for major sanctions in the wake of a scandal that has forced coach Jim Tressel to resign and star quarterback Terrelle Pryor to forgo his senior season.

MSU football hasn't had NCAA problems since it was placed on four years of probation in 1996 for major infractions, including academic fraud, improper benefits from boosters to players and lack of institutional control. (The probation was extended for two years in 1999 because of major infractions in MSU's wrestling and women's track and field programs, the last major infractions for the school).

That probation brought about significant changes, including a full-scale compliance department – compliance previously had been one of assistant athletic director Clarence Underwood's duties -- and a beefed-up academic support staff. And it still resonates, Hollis said.

"Whenever there's adversity, whenever there's a challenge like the NCAA issues we had here, I think it's a wake-up call," Hollis said. "And I think that's what happens as a result of things that happen nationally."

Jason Strayhorn was a freshman football player at MSU in 1994, watching head coach George Perles fired amid a losing season and mounting allegations of NCAA violations. Perles was cleared by the NCAA of any wrongdoing, but his job was lost and his program skewered publicly for perceived corruption.

Grade changing and claims that St. Louis businessman and MSU alum Robert Miltenberger had given $2,000 to the mother of recruit Hickey Thompson were among the most damning accusations.

When Nick Saban replaced Perles in December of 1994 – bringing assistant coach and current head coach Mark Dantonio with him – Strayhorn said there was "much more discipline and structure" immediately.

For one thing, he remembers the arrival of strength coach Ken Mannie and a resulting "fear of what the next day would hold."

Major NCAA trouble has been avoided since then, through the tenures of Bobby Williams, John L. Smith and Dantonio. Williams was head coach when McClover visited MSU in 2002.

Dantonio said he has never been directly approached and asked to cheat, but he has seen and heard some things over the years. He has no doubt some of his colleagues do things such as getting around the limit on calls to recruits by buying disposable phones, for example.

"One time, I was in a staff room and I was an assistant and (another assistant) coach said, 'Tell you right now, coach, it's gonna cost X amount of money – a lot of money – to get (a recruit) up here for camp, it's gonna cost X amount of money to get him on a visit, it's gonna cost X amount of money to get him here,'" Dantonio recalled. "And the response from the head coach was 'Quit recruiting the guy.'"

Dantonio also saw the HBO special on McClover, during which McClover said he received about $1,000 in cash and sexual favors while visiting Ohio State.

Dantonio, who was Tressel's defensive coordinator at Ohio State at the time, was asked if he believed McClover's stories were plausible.

"I don't know," Dantonio said. "Good question. … I'm not naοve. If people want to cheat they can cheat. They'll find a way. I mean, you know, governments are corrupt. It's a shame. A shame we're sitting here talking about it, really.

"I don't want to be controversial with this, but I do want to tell you what I really feel and tell you the truth. But do I think there's widespread cheating in college football? I do not. I just do not."

Third of seven stories

EAST LANSING — The big-money boosters, the Peter Secchias of the world, have their names on buildings, are always visible at major MSU athletic events, have a direct line to coaches and administrators – which in turn makes them accountable for what they do.

It's the lesser-known, lesser-donating types who cause more concern for MSU officials. They are the ones who have more to gain by giving cash, gifts and favors – "improper benefits" as described by the NCAA – to athletes.

"It's more people who just, they don't really give a lot but they want to be around the program," said Jennifer Smith, MSU's associate athletic director for compliance. "And tell people, 'So-and-so is taking (cash from me).'"

MSU athletic director Mark Hollis said agents are a much bigger worry for him than boosters, although Smith said she is especially wary of boosters in the football world, where there are a lot more players and opportunities for small transactions that could get the athletic department in trouble.

Those transactions can happen with current players or with recruiting prospects.

"You can't be with prospects and you can't be with boosters 100 percent of the time," Hollis said. "What you can do is create a culture where that's totally unacceptable. And that's the case here at Michigan State."

So how is such a culture created? Hollis said MSU has forms for its boosters, outlining the rules of contact with athletes and warning that violators can be officially "disassociated" from the university.

Such forms are standard procedure for major athletic departments, but Hollis said MSU does a good job of limiting and monitoring interaction, and of educating all parties.

Jeffrey Marron agrees. The former MSU walk-on player and assistant coach, who co-owns a New York investment firm, has been involved in the program since the late 1980s and is now what he calls an "upper-middle" level of donor.

"In the last 10 years, I know we've done it right," Marron said. "I'm proud to be a Spartan. We're not Auburn.

"Can random things happen? Sure. But systemically? No way. I just know we don't come in contact with players anymore. Fifteen to 20 years ago, the rules were a lot different. Now you really have no contact."

Still, opportunities to take money are inevitable. A booster may target a recruit he wants to convince to pick MSU. Or an MSU player he wants to come over and hang out with his kids.

"If people that have their hand out, they're gonna find it, I'd imagine, from a booster or something," MSU coach Mark Dantonio said.

"I think every player goes through that," said former MSU football player Jonal Saint-Dic, who said he resisted temptation in college. "A coach can tell you 30 times not to take any money from no boosters or any money from a car dealership. Coaches can knock that up your head all day. At the end of the day, it's the athlete's decision."

Fourth of seven stories

EAST LANSING — They've been known to show up in the Clara Bell Smith Academic Center, sidling up to players in study hall. They've been seen – and shooed away by MSU officials -- at practice, in the tunnel after football games, the locker room after basketball games and at team hotels.

When high-profile sports agent Drew Rosenhaus stood outside the MSU locker room after the 2007 Champs Sports Bowl, making himself visible to thenjunior star receiver Devin Thomas, it was a pretty good indication that Thomas wouldn't be back for his senior season.

But at least that's out in the open. MSU is more concerned with the nameless, faceless middlemen who help make connections with people like Rosenhaus. They try to keep them away from MSU athletes, but they can't threaten them with much, because there is no legal recourse in Michigan against agents who break NCAA rules.

"There's not really a lot of punishment if you don't do things right," said Jennifer Smith, MSU's associate athletic director for compliance. "You can get disassociated with the NFL (Players Association). Texas has a rule, Alabama has a rule (with legal penalties for agents who give gifts to college players).

"But how many of them are not doing it right? The thing is, you have all these people that want to be agents and are trying to be agents that really aren't. … I think the big-name agents, they don't need to be dirty at this point in their careers. But it's the people that are trying to be that are (the problem)."

"It's a challenge," MSU athletic director Mark Hollis said of policing agents. "You watch a little bit closer when it's potentially the last basketball game or the bowl game."

MSU's primary strategies are to watch for unfamiliar faces and remind athletes of the repercussions of accepting cash and gifts. Smith and her staffers check the pass list of each player before each football and men's basketball game, to see if any unusual names – potential agents or runners – pop up.

Each year before the NCAA Tournament and bowl game, MSU players sign affidavits, which are later notarized, proclaiming their innocence.

"It protects the institution more than the kid, but it's like, 'I haven't taken anything, I haven't signed anything,'" Smith said. "So we do that before every postseason competition. So it's kind of like another layer. If they had done something and then they played in the tournament, at least we could pull that out and say, 'We went through this. They are lying. It's not lack of institutional control or lack of monitoring. We have told them.'"

Because telling them is really all MSU can do. It's up to the athletes to decide whether or not to listen.

"Once you open the door, it's opening Pandora's Box," former MSU football player Jason Strayhorn said. "Whatever you do in the dark will come out in the day."

Fifth of seven stories

EAST LANSING — It was unsettling at times, this agent search for which Darlene Ringer had no instructional handbook.

Like the time, during her son Javon's junior year at Michigan State, an unfamiliar man walked up to her in Spartan Stadium, shook her hand and said: "I will be talking to you."

Or the call from celebrity Bishop Noel Jones, on behalf of a fledgling agent in California who wanted to make Javon "the face of his program" – an appeal to the Ringers' deep religious beliefs that did not work.

Or the moment she informed Daniel Martoe, an agent who works for Drew Rosenhaus' agency, that Javon would not be signing with them.

"He almost had a fit," Darlene recalled of a conversation that took place after Javon's final MSU appearance in the 2009 Capital One Bowl. "He was shocked. He was saying, 'Is there any way I can talk to Javon?' No, sorry."

And that's rule No. 1 in the handbook Darlene could write for parents now: Keep the agents and their employees away from your child, insist on dealing with them directly and exclusively.

"Keep your head level," Darlene said, dispensing more advice. "Don't let the excitement and hype draw you in. Keep reality there. Don't let the lights blind you and don't buy into someone's pipe dream, 'I'm gonna do this and do that.' Know your child and think about your child's needs instead of your own. Forget about the big house, big car. This is your child's future, not yours."

The Ringers – Darlene and Javon's father, Bishop Eugene Ringer – got serious about picking an agent in the summer of 2008, before Javon's senior season at MSU. Darlene handled it and started by poring over dozens of mailed info packets in her Dayton, Ohio home and choosing a top 25.

She called them all, and the first 15 to respond made the next cut. It got to 10, then seven, then three, based on many factors.

Are they Christian? Do they seem like smooth talkers? Are you speaking with the agent or an assistant?

Some seemed to have a problem dealing with a woman rather than a man. Gone. Some disparaged the way MSU's coaches utilized Ringer on the field. Gone.

Rep 1 Sports of Irvine, Calif., got involved when marketing director Chase Callahan and his son attended the final game of Javon's junior season, a home win over Penn State. Founder and lead agent Bruce Tollner – son of longtime college and NFL coach Ted Tollner – made a positive impression with a pressure-free approach.

Rosenhaus, who previously signed MSU's Drew Stanton and Devin Thomas, made a late push. He and Martoe arranged a late-season 2008 meeting with Darlene at the Kellogg Center.

Ultimately, she liked Tollner better and told him to come to the Capital One Bowl. That "would be the final test," she said, and he was there. Javon met him, signed with him and it has been a happy union – after a stressful journey.

Javon is now entering his third season with the Tennessee Titans and is finishing up his sociology degree at MSU.

Darlene said she would like to see MSU be more involved in helping parents navigate the agent-choosing process. MSU athletic director Mark Hollis said that level of involvement varies from coach to coach, but it's obviously easier for a basketball coach because he has far fewer players.

"Tom takes it to the point of contacting NBA general managers and coaches to get a sense (about an agent)," Hollis said. "So Tom almost plays that intermediary role."

Sixth of seven stories

EAST LANSING — Jennifer Smith has staked out a hotel. Driven alone in neighborhoods that made her fear for her safety. Slipped into parking lots to check out the vehicles Michigan State athletes were driving.

And traded text messages during a wedding ceremony with a co-worker over a pressing eligibility issue involving an MSU athlete – while standing as a bridesmaid.

Serving as MSU's associate athletic director for compliance involves a lot more than submitting paperwork and educating coaches on the ever-changing NCAA rules. It involves a lot more pressure than some may realize, too.

"Jen has carte blanche," MSU athletic director Mark Hollis said of Smith, "and she's here to protect the integrity of our program."

Told of that comment, Smith chuckled and said: "Scary."

Which also describes the daunting, daily task of keeping MSU out of NCAA trouble. Smith's department of three full-time employees, two clerical positions, an intern and an annual budget of about $440,000 does it by educating, reminding, policing and, at times, investigating.

When trouble at Ohio State University hit the news in December, Smith fired off an email to MSU's athletes, reminding them it's against NCAA rules to profit from their memorabilia.

She has monthly rules meetings with MSU coaches and even runs a little tournament called "Compliance Madness" (devised by compliance coordinator Holly Baumgartner), pitting coaches against each other to see who can get the best score on the annually required NCAA rules test (baseball coach Jake Boss is the defending champ).

And yes, Smith is all over the cars. All athletes must register their vehicles with Smith's office, providing registration, insurance, dealer information and proof of purchase.

Beyond that, she and her staff do some spying.

"I can't give away my secrets, because then they'll change parking lots," said Smith, whose staff is about the same size as everyone in the Big Ten except for Ohio State, which has six full-time compliance agents. "But we might go to (apartment complex) Spartan Village, we might go during (football) two-a-days. The good thing about the athletes is, they don't like to walk anywhere, so it's pretty easy to find their cars."

MSU has not been hit with major NCAA infractions since 1999 and has been free of probation since 2001. But there have been worrisome situations.

"We've had some allegations against some tutors, that they may have been doing course work for students, and they all came out fine," Smith said. "I'd say those would be our closest calls. It's been probably five or six years."

Smith, a Wisconsin graduate, has been at MSU since 1997. She came from Louisville, where her job in the middle of an NCAA investigation of Denny Crum's basketball program included staking out a hotel to check on allegations that some athletes and their parents were living there for free.

She was an original member of an MSU compliance department formed in the wake of football probation – yet it was "like heaven," she said after what she encountered at Louisville. The coaches there "knew what they were doing was wrong," she said.

One thing is clear about the people in MSU's athletic department: They lean heavily on Smith to keep them compliant in jobs that demand aggression.

"I think if we're paying good money to these compliance directors, they should have more respect. And ours is really good," MSU men's basketball coach Tom Izzo said. "She lets you take it to the farthest you can take it, but doesn't let you go over. And that's what you've got to do. There's some waters you've got to be in. The NCAA puts you in waters everywhere, believe it or not. The AAU (basketball) waters. You've got to push the envelope to the nth degree, but you can't go over."

Last of seven stories

EAST LANSING — The folks at NCAA headquarters say they're getting tougher on rule breakers. That's probably a good idea.

"Put it this way on college sports. The men's basketball champion (Connecticut) won six weeks after they got hit by eight major infractions, right?" said Dan Wetzel, columnist for Yahoo Sports. "The BCS championship game featured two teams (Auburn and Oregon) currently under investigation, in a bowl game run by a guy (Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker) who's under investigation."

Wetzel wrote in September of 2008 that college sports was in its "golden age of cheating," with, at the time, no major basketball violations in two years and no major football violations in 15 months.

Things have changed since then, with significant NCAA sanctions against Connecticut basketball and Southern Cal football, and ongoing investigations of Ohio State, North Caroline, Auburn and Oregon football.

NCAA President Mark Emmert, who got the job in April 2010, said in May his organization needs to make sure "the cost of violating rules costs more than not violating them."

Emmert also said he is giving more resources to the enforcement staff, headed by vice president Julie Roe Lach. She got the job in November and immediately traveled to several schools, meeting with more than 100 officials including some from MSU to get a candid sense of what needs to change.

She heard a lot of things like this from Illinois men's basketball coach Bruce Weber: "Are you going after someone going 68 mph in a 65, or are you going after somebody that's going 100?"

In other words, are you going after people making too many phone calls or people delivering large sums of money for players?

People want big cheaters caught and hit with penalties stiff enough to deter bad behavior.

And although evidence points to more activity from the enforcement staff, national media openly wondered how Ohio State players were eligible for the Sugar Bowl despite committing NCAA violations, or how Auburn star Cam Newton was eligible for the national championship game even though the NCAA said his father broke rules by shopping his services.

MSU associate athletic director for compliance Jennifer Smith said she was stunned by the Newton ruling.

"There isn't a compliance person in the country who didn't treat parents and kids as the same person," Smith said. "I mean, when that came out, everybody was like, 'What do you mean there's not a rule that prohibits this? This is what we've been going on since we started.'"

The thing is, Roe Lach's enforcement staff may have been just as stunned. What should be made clear is that the 10-member Committee on Infractions is a separate entity that decides penalties – and may not always see things the same way as the investigators.

The Committee on Infractions is made up in part of officials from member schools, some of whom may have relationships with the people under investigation.

"Is there a rift? No, there's not a rift," Roe Lach said. "Is there tension between the enforcement staff and the Committee on Infractions? I think yes at times, just as there's tension between a school and the enforcement staff or a school and the Committee on Infractions, or the coach and the enforcement staff or the coach and the Committee on Infractions. Because that's just to me a natural byproduct of doing the work that we do."

One thing does make Roe Lach tense: The well-worn suggestion that the NCAA protects its high-profile athletic programs.

"I can tell you, there are no sacred cows and there are no witch hunts," she said. "We don't have a secret list here that we keep in a drawer and we make sure we don't investigate those people. And we also don't have a list of people that we're trying to find something on. That would just completely abandon any notion of integrity."


Comment by the judge, Gene Duffey: Unique and excellent look at how colleges try to keep their athletes away from agents. Good quotes from agent, coaches, former players and Michigan State officials. The Javon Ringer story is a perfect example.

• Second Place: Pete Thamel, The New York Times
• Third Place: Michael Rothstein, Wolverine Nation
• Honorable Mention: Ryan McGee,; Kelly Whiteside, USA TODAY; Don Kausler Jr., The Birmingham News