With the North Carolina football program being investigated by the NCAA and fighting to salvage its season, coach Butch Davis said Monday he is "sorry" he trusted former assistant coach John Blake.
An NCAA probe of improper benefits and possible academic misconduct has jeopardized several players' college careers and damaged the university's reputation.
Davis had finally heard enough about Blake on Monday. He publicly criticized his former associate head coach and recruiting coordinator's "inappropriate" relationship with California-based agent Gary Wichard.
"I am very sorry that all of this stuff has tainted the football program and, as the head football coach, I take a tremendous amount of responsibility for all the football-related issues," Davis said. "I'm the head guy, OK? I'm sorry it has affected the football program. But I'm going to tell you what I'm more sorry about: I'm sorry that I trusted John Blake."
And though Blake resigned Sept. 5 after his longtime friendship with Wichard came into question amid the NCAA probe, the questions continued Monday. Davis' comments came after ESPN and Yahoo! Sports, citing unnamed sources, reported that Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus told NCAA investigators that Blake had recommended Wichard in a phone conversation.
William H. Beaver II, one of Blake's attorneys, acknowledged that Blake had had discussions with Dareus, but said that the Crimson Tide standout called Blake to talk about a family illness and to say that agents had approached him. Beaver said that Blake had maintained a relationship with Dareus, but Beaver did not say how many times the two spoke or exactly what was said.
"John has testified that he has not functioned in a manner to funnel, push, direct any athlete toward Gary Wichard," Beaver said. "He has testified to that and provided statements to the NCAA in that manner, in those words.
"Whatever Mr. Dareus took from their conversation, I don't know that anyone can disabuse him of that notion, but that doesn't make him right."
Last week, Blake's attorneys confirmed that their client had received several loans from Wichard that they described as one friend helping another through financial trouble. But after saying that the last of the transcations came about three years ago, the attorneys reversed themselves Monday, saying Wichard had loaned money to Blake once in 2008 and twice more in 2009.
They said the money was to pay for the private school tuition for Blake's teenage son, who is Wichard's godson.
Wichard is scheduled to meet this week with the North Carolina Secretary of State's office as it continues a separate investigation into whether the state's sports agent laws have been broken. That office has already interviewed Blake, Tar Heels defensive tackle Marvin Austin — who was at the center of the NCAA's initial agents focus — and former UNC player Kentwan Balmer, a Wichard client.
Howard Silber, Wichard's attorney, said his client will provide "all financial records between himself and John Blake" when he is interviewed, but he wouldn't comment further.
Davis has denied knowing the extent of the Blake-Wichard relationship, saying last week there was "no cause for concern" when he hired Blake shortly after taking over in Chapel Hill in late 2006. But the school said it learned of the financial transactions when Blake met with NCAA investigators on Aug. 31, leading to Blake's resignation less than a week later.
"There's a lot of things that are alleged, that are out there, that I can't begin to tell you whether they are true or not true," Davis said. "What I can tell you is I have told our coaching staff repeatedly over the last three seasons: Do not get involved with coaches to players to agents. Do not recommend anybody to anyone.
"I can promise you and tell you that if we would've ever known that any of these allegations were absolutely true, coach Blake would've been dismissed. I would've fired him."
Davis coached Blake in high school, and the two men worked together with the NFL's Dallas Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson. Blake was fired after three seasons as head coach at Oklahoma in 1998, when his attorneys said was when his financial troubles escalated.
North Carolina (2-2) started the year ranked among the Top 25 with hopes of contending for the Atlantic Coast Conference title, but its roster is seemingly in flux every week.
Starting safety Da'Norris Searcy was cleared to return last week after missing the first three games, returning an interception for a touchdown in the win against East Carolina. Fellow safety Deunta Williams returns this week against Clemson after serving a four-game suspension for improper benefits connected to trips, while cornerback Kendric Burney is serving a six-game suspension.
The status of Austin and eight other players still being held out remains in question.
"It's been going on for so long, I think everybody's kind of used to it," quarterback T.J. Yates said. "We can kind of block it out now because nobody pays attention to all the speculation."