John Blake was in frequent communication with sports agent Gary Wichard while Blake was the University of North Carolina's associate head football coach, calling into further question their relationship as the NCAA continues its investigation of the football program.
During the 61 days leading up to the Jan. 4 announcement that six juniors on UNC's football team would stay in school rather than enter the NFL draft, university phone records show that Blake and Wichard never went more than four days without communicating. The records also show 152 communications (phone calls or texts) during a 235-day period between Blake's university-paid number and Wichard's phone.
Asked if it is ever acceptable to have that level of communication between a coach and an agent, UNC chancellor Holden Thorp said in an e-mail: "Whether the level of contact is acceptable or unacceptable depends on what they talked about, and I have no idea what they were discussing. Clearly, Mr. Wichard and Coach Blake have a very close relationship. All things being equal, it's probably better not to have a close personal relationship with a sports agent if you're an NCAA coach."
Blake's connections with Wichard have drawn scrutiny since July, when North Carolina acknowledged that it was under investigation by the NCAA. One prong of the probe has focused on possible impermissible benefits provided to players by sports agents.
Last month, Wichard declined to talk about Blake, saying Blake was involved in the NCAA investigation.
The university announced Sunday that Blake was resigning immediately from his $240,000-a-year job and will be paid a $74,500 severance.
Efforts to reach Blake and Wichard on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Though there are no NCAA rules prohibiting contact between a coach and a sports agent, UNC athletic director Dick Baddour recently said head coach Butch Davis has made it clear to his assistants since the beginning of his tenure that they are not to make recommendations to players about which agents they should choose. That policy actually is stronger than the NCAA's mandates, which prevent coaches from accepting payment from agents.
North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour said he learned of the phone calls last week.
"I did talk with coach Blake about them," Baddour said. "I cannot discuss the content of my discussion with him, but I can say that he offered explanations for them." Baddour declined to elaborate, saying his discussions with staff members are private.
Blake's lawyer, William Beaver of Orlando, Fla., said he was not aware of the contents of the phone calls. But he said that there is a wider context for the volume. "They have been close, personal friends for 27 years," he said. "It's not surprising they speak on the phone with some frequency."
Asked about the phone calls Tuesday, Davis said, "I didn't have any idea that they were making that amount of calls. I had no idea. We don't monitor people's phone records. I don't ask guys who they talk to on a day-to-day basis. I'd like to know how come, but I think that's a more appropriate question to ask John. I didn't know that he was talking to him that frequently. I didn't know if he was talking to him once a year, twice a month. I had no idea."
The phone records show extensive communication between Blake and Wichard, who is based in California.
In a partial response to a public records request by The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, UNC released Blake's cell phone communications with Wichard's cell phone number from Oct. 31, 2009 through June 22, 2010.
Michael L. Buckner, a Florida lawyer whose specialty is advising universities on NCAA probes and audits, said the extent of the phone calls appears to show more than a casual relationship between the two. Investigators, he said, would be trying to fully understand those communications. UNC's head coach and athletics administrators should have been closely monitoring that relationship, Buckner said, given Blake's possible past ties to the agent.
"You need to be more proactive in making sure that there's not anything illicit going on," Buckner said.
The records do not distinguish between phone calls and text messages, but they show that Blake and Wichard communicated 61 times in the 61 days leading up to UNC's Jan. 4 announcement that six Tar Heels players - Marvin Austin, Kendric Burney, Greg Little, Deunta Williams, Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter - decided to return for their senior seasons in 2010 rather than leave for the NFL draft.
Over the other 174 days, the communications were about half as frequent, with 92 total calls or texts. Blake and Wichard also communicated six times on April 24, the final day of the NFL draft, for a total of 63 minutes. Four calls on April 24 lasted at least 10 minutes.
The frequency of their communication could lead to questions about whether Blake or UNC knew about a potentially improper trip Tar Heels defensive tackles Marvin Austin and Cam Thomas took to California in the summer of 2009.
In August, Thomas told The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer that former teammate Kentwan Balmer, a first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2008, paid for the trip, a potential NCAA violation.
Wichard told Yahoo Sports that he saw Balmer with two Tar Heels teammates (Austin and Thomas) at Proactive Sports Performance that summer. Proactive is where many of Wichard's clients train to prepare for the draft.
It is unclear whether Blake was aware that the players were in California. Had Blake or anyone else at UNC learned the players were with Balmer in California, it would have been necessary to have North Carolina's compliance office investigate whether the trip was permissible before the 2009 season.
Austin and Thomas played the 2009 season. Balmer also played on the defensive line for Blake and is a Wichard client. If the NCAA rules the trip an impermissible benefit, North Carolina might have to vacate the 2009 season from its records.
Baddour said that in general, having worked for an agent in the past wouldn't - and shouldn't - exclude someone from joining the UNC staff.
Blake's lawyers have declined to say whether Blake accepted money from an agent while he was coaching. If he has accepted money, he could be prosecuted as an unregistered "runner" for an agent in North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall's investigation of possible violations of the state's Uniform Athlete Agent Act.
Baddour said Davis feels strongly that players should choose their agents on their own, in part because if the player-agent relationship turns sour, the coach won't want to be held responsible for making the recommendation.
"That's a philosophy of his," Baddour said. "So that is not a single-time [reminder], that is an ongoing philosophical, strongly-based opinion of his that - if you were to go to one of the coaches and ask that question, 'coach, what should we do?' they would know, because he has expressed it so strongly."
At least 13 players who played at schools where Blake was on the staff have signed with Wichard. They include Balmer (Wichard's only client from UNC), Mississippi State defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, Nebraska running back Brandon Jackson and 10 Oklahoma players.
Universities closely guard contacts with agents, even setting up a formal "agent day," where agents can present their backgrounds to potential clients - and the players can interview the agents. The effort is aimed at trying to limit other contacts and ensure an arms-length relationship between players and agents. Buckner said "messy situations" erupt when agents and active collegiate players mingle; typically, universities are on guard to prevent it.
He said that, if Blake had a past close tie to a particular agent, the university should have taken steps to ensure that any financial ties and professional connections to the agency were severed, and that the coach not be involved if the agency tried to sign a player.
Staff writers J. Andrew Curliss and J.P. Giglio contributed to this report.
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