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See you in court
Neuheisel and UW in 4-round bout
By Richard Linde, Updated 2 January 2005

With the hiring of Tyrone Willingham as Washington's head football coach, the program appears to be headed in the right direction. However, a  hair stylist needs to repair a split end left over from the Rick Neuheisel era (1999-2003) involving his lawsuit against Washington and the NCAA, which is scheduled to take place on January 24.

Less than one hairy month to go until the scalp is cleansed. Whose scalp? Rick Neuheisel's, the U-Dub's or the NCAA's?

No hair stylist available? Pass the curling iron and I'll burn off some split ends by answering a few questions.

Why was Rick Neuheisel fired at Washington?

According to the articles I read on the Internet, they say he was either fired for gambling in a high-stakes basketball pool or for lying, but not for both. For clarification, I read the termination letter that was written by former AD Barbara Hedges and sent to Neuheisel (see the appendix below and “The Neuheisel Chronicles”).

Ms. Hedges writes, “Accordingly, I have determined that your conduct, taken as a whole, constitutes ‘serious acts of misconduct’ under Section 8(c) of your contract and conduct ‘seriously and materially prejudicial’ to the best interests of the University and its athletic program under Section 8(e) of your contract.”

Neuheisel’s conduct, taken as a whole, is outlined in the preceding paragraph of the termination letter, which states:

“…Your admitted gambling shows poor judgment, particularly in the context of your history of violations of NCAA rules both at this institution and at the University of Colorado, which have led to the imposition of penalties on you and on both schools, and your demonstrated lack of remorse for such violations, which has led to your censure by the American Football Coaches Association.”

In the lawsuit against Washington, which takes place on 24 January in a King County courtroom, Neuheisel’s lawyers must address the issues of “poor judgment,” violations of NCAA rules at Washington and Colorado, and a “lack of remorse for such violations.”

Ms. Hedges continues in the same paragraph, “Your initial false denials of such participation likewise must be seen in the context of your untruthfulness earlier this year with regard to interviews with the San Francisco 49ers, at which time you were clearly told that further acts of dishonesty would not be tolerated.”

Also, then, issues of “initial false denials” to NCAA officials when they interviewed Neuheisel on June 4, 2003 must be addressed by his lawyers, along with his untruthfulness with regard to an interview with the San Francisco 49ers.

In summary, Neuheisel was fired for:

-- His poor judgment in entering the basketball pools, knowing, a priori, that any form of gambling is prohibited by the NCAA;

-- His recruiting violations at Washington and Colorado (note that Neuheisel’s violations at Colorado restricted him personally, as to his recruiting efforts at Washington, prohibiting him from making off-campus recruiting visits for a period that started in October 2002 and ran through May 31, 2003).

-- His lack of remorse for such violations;

-- And for lying. (Lying about the 49ers interview and lying to investigators).

As I read the termination letter, these are the issues for termination that Ms. Hedges is apparently referring to when she says, “your conduct taken as a whole.”

Didn’t the NCAA clear Neuheisel of all-wrong doing in its report?

Yes, it did. The NCAA report, in effect, clears Neuheisel of wrong doing with the governing body: (1) because of his reliance on the e-mails that former UW compliance director Dana Richardson wrote permitting participation in March Madness sports pools (done with certain limitations), and (2) because the NCAA has a general policy that it will not charge an individual with unethical conduct if he ultimately provides truthful information the same day he provides false information.

However, the NCAA report does not completely exculpate Neuheisel from any wrong doing as far as the UW is concerned when viewed under the microscope of the four reasons for termination listed above.

Why can’t Neuheisel find another job?

Except for an analyst's job that ends next week with College Sports Television, Neuheisel has been mostly unemployed since June 29, 2003. According to a recent AP article, “Almost two dozen college head-coaching jobs have come open since October and Rick Neuheisel hasn't even gotten an interview.”

Why?

Having once gambled on an NCAA sport is a clinging monkey to get off one’s back. Also, his NCAA violations are a sticky wicket -- as haunting as the whips and scorns of time wear thin. Should he obtain employment in either college or professional football, suspicion will dog Neuheisel early on, which, in effect, places him in a de facto probationary period. Hard to coach with someone watching over your shoulder.

According to the AP article, Neuheisel says, "An athletic director or a president or chancellor at a university has to be willing to sit down and talk to me and find out what took place. If that doesn't happen, I'll have to go through the legal process and get the story out there on the table."

Will Neuheisel win his lawsuit against Washington?

Let’s examine the reasons for his termination at Washington before answering the question.

 (1)   Poor judgment in entering the basketball pools (strictly speaking, both of them were auctions).

In my mind, there is no question Neuheisel was guilty of poor judgment when he entered the two basketball pools, one in 2002 and the other in 2003, that poor judgment being “seriously and materially prejudicial” to the university's best interests. Presumably, he initially lied to investigators because he knew any form of gambling was prohibited. Entering the pools trumps all exculpatory evidence: the NCAA findings, the vagueness of bylaw 10.3 (the gambling bylaw) and the infamous memo.

Incidentally, the gambling handbook, distributed by the NCAA to student athletes, makes it quite clear that sports pool participation is not allowed.

Ironically, if Neuheisel had just bet a buck or two or had lost money in the auctions, he would still be coaching at Washington. As for monies wagered, no one has ever defined how much is too much. Put in perspective, our society was much more tolerant of human frailty in days of yore -- and much more fair.

Round one goes to Washington because of Neuheisel's initial lie, which says he knew in his heart that his participation in the auctions might reflect poorly on Washington and himself. Hence, he exercised poor judgment, which is the issue here, not lying. The stigma of gambling is buttressed implicitly by Neuheisel's standing -- his being a pariah -- in the available coaches' pool, which apparently, in the main, is why he can't get another job. (Other character issues cited in the termination letter -- hardly a good character reference -- weigh in his disfavor).

(2)   Recruiting violations at Washington and Colorado. This also relates to poor judgment.

These violations are all too well-documented. Round two to Washington.

(3) Lack of remorse. Poor judgment again.

Most of the recruiting violations were secondary in nature, in which Neuheisel violated the spirit of the Bylaw rather than its legalese. According to recruits, bumping violations happen all the time, and it almost appears that Neuheisel has been singled out. This is a subjective call. Round three to Neuheisel.

(4) Lying to NCAA officials and to his superiors at Washington.

Although Neuheisel arguably was setup by the media, there is no question that he lied about his interview with the 49ers.

Based on his tape-recorded interview with NCAA officials on June 4, 2003, made available by the media, he lied about his participation in the pools, saying he was just an observer. However, he told the truth in the afternoon of the same day. In her termination letter to Neuheisel, Hedges writes, “Your initial false and misleading answers to the NCAA investigator violated Article 10.1(d) of the NCAA bylaws, and are grounds for termination under section 8(d) of your contract.” According to the NCAA findings, Neuheisel’s answers did not violate Article 10.1 of the NCAA bylaws. Also, the NCAA apparently blindsided Neuheisel in violation of two of its own bylaws.

That leaves the interview with the 49ers as a remaining issue, the lie to investigators now dusted under the rug in Neuheisel's favor.

Neuheisel was not required by contract to inform his superiors of interviews with professional teams and, initially, he was allowed to keep his job.

Note that both Neuheisel's initial lie to NCAA investigators and his exercising of poor judgment in entering the pools apparently led to his dismissal because all the other acts of misconduct, including the 49ers interview, that preceded those incidents had not led to his prior termination. Since the the NCAA says his lying was not a problem, Neuheisel wins round four -- although his lack of good judgment in round one is a severe body blow. (Note that Washington has made the NCAA an implicit witness in the lawsuit because it referred to the violation of Article 10.1 (lying to investigators) as a reason for termination. Was that a mistake?).

That four rounder ends, with two rounds apiece. It’s a close call, which could go either way, but, in my opinion, I think the final decision ultimately goes to Neuheisel because of the negative statements made by NCAA officials just days after his gambling activities were exposed. Call them a tie breaker. Because of them, an argument can be made for Neuheisel's premature termination, an act that took place before all the facts had been weighed by Washington. For example, the issue of lying to investigators could be sticky for the UW. Including 10.1 in the termination letter says that either Washington officials should have waited to fire Neuheisel until the NCAA had weighed in on the matter or should have left it out of the termination letter, the latter weakening their case.

Those statements made by NCAA officials will all be examined in the same courtroom; Neuheisel is suing the NCAA along with Washington.  

Caveat: the details of Neuheisel's contract with Washington need to be examined, and that specific examination is missing from this jurist's analysis, which, of course, is just one fan's opinion.

Appendix: Letter of Termination (as published by the Seattle Times; any errors are my own, it being typed from an Adobe transcript)

UW letter head

June 11, 2003

Mr. Richard G. Neuhiesel, Jr.
(Two lines of text blacked out)

Dear Rick,

The purpose of this letter is to notify you that I have made an initial determination that just cause exists to terminate your employment contract. Accordingly, effectively immediately I am placing you on paid suspension from your duties.

As provided by Section 8 of your contract, you may respond in writing or in person. Such response must be provided to my office by June 26, 2003. I will consider any response that you may make and will issue my final decision. As provided in your contract, you will have a right to appeal my decision to the Special Assistant to the President.

The basis for my initial determination is that you have admitted participation in high-stakes betting pools on the NCAA basketball tournament, and that you initially denied such participation except as an “observer.” You recanted only after the NCAA investigator told you that the NCAA had witnesses who had identified you as a participant in the pools. I have also learned that you have in the past participated in a small Final Four pool in the football office.

I am aware that you have contended publicly that your participation in the pools was not a violation of NCAA rules, or at least that you did not believe it to be such a violation, and that you believe that your position is supported by an internal summary of those rules that was issued by the ICA assistant athletic director for compliance around the time of this year’s tournament. I am also aware that the NCAA has taken the position that such gambling is categorically prohibited by its rules, and that you as a coach are responsible for knowing and abiding by these rules, regardless of advice that you may received from others.

Whether or not the participation in the pools is ultimately determined by the NCAA to be a violation of the letter of its rules, your admitted gambling shows poor judgment, particularly in the context of your history of violations of NCAA rules both at this institution and at the University of Colorado, which have led to the imposition of penalties on you and on both schools, and your demonstrated lack of remorse for such violations, which has led to your censure by the American Football Coaches Association. Your initial false denials of such participation likewise must be seen in the context of your untruthfulness earlier this year with regard to interviews with the San Francisco 49ers, at which time you were clearly told that further acts of dishonesty would not be tolerated.

Accordingly, I have determined that your conduct, taken as a whole, constitutes “serious acts of misconduct” under Section 8(c) of your contract and conduct “seriously and materially prejudicial” to the best interests of the University and its athletic program under Section 8(e) of your contract. Your initial false and misleading answers to the NCAA investigator violated Article 10.1(d) of the NCAA bylaws, and are grounds for termination under section 8(d) of your contract. If it is determined that your gambling violated NCAA rules, I would regard that as further grounds for termination under Section 8(d). However, I have determined that just cause exists for your termination regardless of the ultimate determination of that issue.

As noted, if you wish to respond to this notice, your response must be received by June 26, 2003.

Sincerely,

Signed Barbara A. Hedges

Barbara A. Hedges
Director, Intercollegiate Athletics

BAH/lzm

Cc: Lee Huntsman
Norm Arkans

-------------

Richard Linde (a.k.a., Malamute) can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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