John Blake stepped down from his post as North Carolina's associate head coach and recruiting coordinator on Sunday night, saying in a statement that it was in the best interests of his family, the school and the football program.
With North Carolina under an NCAA investigation that partly deals with possible improprieties involving players and sports agents, Blake's previous ties to agent Gary Wichard had been scrutinized by the media and fans.
Last month, Wichard declined to talk to The News & Observer about Blake, saying the coach was involved in the NCAA investigation.
Blake played at Sand Springs High School in Oklahoma when UNC head coach Butch Davis was a coach there in the late 1970s. Blake has an employment agreement with the university that provides him with an annual base salary of $240,000 and would have expired June 30, 2011.
He will be paid $74,500, which approximates the salary he would have received if he had completed the football season. The buyout will be paid with football revenues, the school announced.
A former head coach at Oklahoma, Blake was recognized as one of the top recruiting coordinators in the nation.
Efforts to reach Blake and Wichard for comment Sunday evening were unsuccessful. Wade Smith, a prominent Raleigh lawyer and former North Carolina football standout from 1956 to 1960, has been working with Blake.
Asked directly if Blake had received money from agents while he was coaching, Smith responded: "That's a complicated question. I should not deal with that, with answering that, while the investigations are ongoing."
Smith said Blake felt that his presence on the team had become a distraction, and he has decided it would be better to make this decision now and move on.
"I'm sorry he's had to do it," Smith said. "He's a terrific coach, and he has a future in coaching."
William Beaver, an Orlando, Fla., lawyer representing Blake, said there is no pipeline from Blake to Wichard. He said Blake sent roughly 85 players to the NFL, and no more than 10 players signed with Wichard.
"That doesn't compute," Beaver said.
Beaver also disputed that Wichard and Blake ever had a business relationship.
Blake released a statement through the school.
"While I have enjoyed my tenure at the University of North Carolina, it has become apparent to me over the course of the past few weeks that my presence has become a distraction to my family and to this great university, too," Blake said.
Archived web pages of Pro Tect Management, Wichard's California-based sports agency, lists Blake as vice president of football operations for the company during at least some of the time between his firing as Oklahoma's head coach in 1998 and his hiring as a Mississippi State assistant in 2003.
The site debuted on March 2, 2001, and explains that Blake and Wichard had been friends at the time for nearly 20 years. It said he made the move into athletic representation because he felt he could have a greater, ongoing positive impact on athletes' careers than he could by coaching them for just four years.
"Together with Gary, I can utilize what I've learned and be there for our clients to help lead them down the road to NFL prominence," Blake said in his biography on the website.
At least 12 players on Wichard's current and former client list played at colleges where Blake was coaching. The players include two of Wichard's first high-profile clients, Brian Bosworth and Keith Jackson, and seven who played at Oklahoma while Blake was on the staff there.
Nebraska running back Brandon Jackson, Mississippi State defensive lineman Tommy Kelly and North Carolina defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer also signed with Wichard after playing at a school where Blake was on the staff.
While that could be construed as a large number of players, Wichard's total list of current and former NFL clients numbers more than 60. In a Yahoo Sports report last month, Wichard denied that Blake had worked for him even though Yahoo had a copy of a brochure listing Blake as its vice president.
Antwoine Sanders, a former NFL player from Fayetteville who was drafted in 2003, said Blake was an employee of the company and helped train players in preparation for the NFL draft and its combine.
Sanders now has his own company and trains athletes, and said he adopted a lot of Blake's principles and methods. He said that when Wichard recruited him, he identified Blake as a Pro Tect employee and explained how Blake's training would help him prepare for the pros.
"That was pretty unique, and the people he placed me around and the things I went through, the whole process with Wichard and him having someone that was dedicated to train and work with his athletes, that was a pretty unique thing," Sanders said.
North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour wouldn't say whether he knew about Blake's ties to Wichard when Blake was hired. Baddour has said Davis instructed his assistant coaches from the start that they were not to recommend agents to players.
"I think it's important that we accept the resignation that we have from John, and we have a limited amount that I can discuss publicly," Baddour said.
Baddour said Blake first brought up the idea of resigning late last week, and the conversations concluded late Sunday. Blake had the opportunity to meet with the team, and the resignation is effective immediately.
Asked if Davis would replace Blake on his staff this season, Baddour said Davis "is going through a number of scenarios."
Since Blake is being paid for the rest of the season, Baddour was asked whether the department has the ability to hire a new assistant coach this season
"We will certainly give Coach Davis the ability to fulfill what option he thinks is best for the football program," Baddour said.
In a statement, Davis said that as he has known Blake for years, he knew this was a difficult decision for him.
Staff writers J.P. Giglio, J. Andrew Curliss and Robbi Pickeral also contributed.
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