Three talented players with promising NFL futures saw their college football careers end Monday as the NCAA investigation of the University of North Carolina's program took another serious turn.
Defensive tackle Marvin Austin, wide receiver Greg Little and defensive end Robert Quinn were ruled in violation of NCAA agent benefits, preferential treatment and ethical conduct rules, and won't play college football again.
The university found that Little and Quinn were not truthful during three separate interviews with UNC and NCAA enforcement staff members, according to an NCAA news release.
UNC athletic director Dick Baddour said there's some uncertainty on the amount of benefits Austin received, but said it is in the $10,000 to $13,000 range. Baddour did not elaborate on the nature of the benefits. Austin's lawyer, Christopher G. Lyons of Miami, has said the NCAA questioned trips to California, Miami and Washington, D.C., made by Austin.
In a news release, the NCAA stated that UNC informed the NCAA that the total value of benefits received was $4,952 for Little and $5,642 for Quinn.
Little was found to have accepted diamond earrings and travel accommodations to the Bahamas, Washington, D.C., and on two trips to Miami, among other benefits. Quinn's benefits were found to include two black diamond watches, a pair of matching earrings and travel to Miami.
Monday's actions were the latest twist in a joint NCAA and university investigation into improprieties involving sports agents. The probe began in July and expanded to involve possible academic misconduct related to an undergraduate tutor. The school is investigating whether the tutor provided improper help on students' papers for class.
Baddour said the athletes involved in Monday's announcement were not connected to the academic probe. All three players will keep their scholarships during this school year, and coach Butch Davis said he urged them to continue working toward their degrees.
Austin was dismissed by UNC, which concluded his conduct was so questionable that there was no sense in appealing to the NCAA to reinstate him for part of the season.
UNC chancellor Holden Thorp said the school had applied to the NCAA to reinstate Little and Quinn, but the NCAA declared them permanently ineligible. Thorp said the two players received a harsh statement from the NCAA and UNC about their failure to provide accurate information until they were confronted with evidence contrary to their initial statements, according to UNC officials.
"I think we're realizing that maybe we shouldn't have turned them in for reinstatement," Thorp said, "but I think we were trying to make sure we were treating them as fairly as possible."
The three players had been withheld from the first five games of the season as part of the NCAA's investigation into impermissible benefits provided by sports agents to UNC players.
During a news conference called to explain the players' departures, Baddour acknowledged that the NCAA could cite the university for "lack of institutional control" penalties that could result in the NCAA's most serious penalties for the school.
Although Baddour said there is a lot for the NCAA to investigate at UNC, he said he is going to "fight the institutional control issues" because the school had systems in place to prevent violations.
Davis said those systems are being strengthened as a result of the current investigation. Davis said he and his team also will work to restore confidence in the program.
He said he was "very sad" and "very disappointed" at the choices made by Austin, Little and Quinn.
"Not only did they jeopardize themselves and their lives," Davis said, "they certainly have jeopardized their team and this university. ... I know they're very remorseful about that, but it doesn't diminish the fact that these actions were poor choices in these kids' lives."
Austin apologized Monday for his conduct in a statement issued by his lawyer, Lyons. Austin apologized to the NCAA, his teammates, coaches, students and fans of UNC.
"I deeply regret my actions and the embarrassment I brought to the university and to the football program," Austin said in the statement. "I will pay a severe price for my poor decisions by not being able to play my entire senior season."
Little's lawyer, James "Butch" Williams of Durham, said he is reviewing the information that went into the decision by the school and the NCAA to determine whether Little will appeal the ruling.
UNC is not appealing, though, and will not allow Little, Austin or Quinn to practice.
Baddour said Little's violations occurred after his stint as a walk-on for North Carolina's basketball team during the 2007-08 Final Four season, so they shouldn't affect the basketball team.
Some extra benefits that led to Monday's announcement took place in 2009, and Baddour acknowledged that those could affect the 2009 season. Austin, Little and Quinn all played significant roles on the 2009 team.
If the NCAA rules that they played while ineligible, UNC could be forced to expunge games from 2009 from its record.
Baddour said UNC is getting closer to having the agent side of the investigation complete, although it's not over, yet.
Baddour said he has no evidence to support that former UNC associate head coach John Blake was involved in any of the extra benefits. Blake resigned Sept. 5 after his connections to sports agent Gary Wichard became a focus of the investigation.
The school has finished reviewing the football players' records for academic improprieties, Baddour said. Fullback Devon Ramsay - who was withheld from Saturday's game after playing in the first four - should be the last one who has to go through an individual academic investigation.
Austin, Little and Quinn are among 14 Tar Heels players who have missed games as a result of the NCAA's probe.
Before the season opener against LSU, 13 players were withheld in connection with the investigation. Tailback Shaun Draughn returned after missing one game. Safety Da'Norris Searcy returned after being held out for three games.
Cornerback Kendric Burney and safety Deunta Williams received NCAA suspensions for receiving extra benefits. Williams returned Saturday against Clemson after a four-game suspension; Burney is set to play Oct. 23 at Miami following a six-game suspension.
The school announced Saturday that safety Jonathan Smith is out for the rest of the season. Also Saturday, the school announced that Ramsay is being withheld in connection with the probe.
Others who have yet to play this season whose status remains unclear are cornerback Charles Brown, defensive lineman Michael McAdoo, defensive back Brian Gupton, defensive end Linwan Euwell and tailback Ryan Houston.
Staff writers J. Andrew Curliss, J.P. Giglio and Robbi Pickeral contribute to this report..
ktysiac@charlotteobserver or 919-829-8942