From beneath the ripe intercollegiate athletics mess at the University of Washington, Rick Neuheisel has emerged less soiled than was first thought. Since his June 4 fumble during questioning by NCAA investigators, the former Husky football coach has regained momentum with inadvertent assists from the university and the Pac-10 Conference. At a hearing in San Francisco next Monday, Dec. 15, before the Pac-10 Compliance and Enforcement Committee, which is reviewing the investigation into the football team's NCAA rule violations, Neuheisel says he'll make a detailed argument that he was the victim of confusing and misinterpreted rules, inequitably applied, and that UW officials and coaches have conspired to cover up the truth. Without a job or much sympathy, Neuheisel's strategy is to win in the courts of law and public opinion, salvaging his career and the $3.5 million he lost when his contract was torn up.
Among Neuheisel's presentations to the Pac-10 will be what he considers new proof of the university's unequal treatment: letters of admonishment recently sent by Athletic Director Barbara Hedges to the new head football coach, Keith Gilbertson, his assistants, and athletic department staffers. The letters state that the coach and others who participated in $5 March Madness basketball pools in recent years are receiving only admonishments because they "were unaware" of the rule against such pools. It is the same rule that Neuheisel is accused of violating with his high-stakes bets. Neuheisel intends to ask why, of 150 or so people in the athletic department, only he should have known of the rule.
In San Francisco, Neuheisel is also expected to deny that he intentionally lied about the gambling that got him sacked. During the June 4 Q&A, he denied he had gambled or shared in any proceeds. But Neuheisel says he was blindsided by questions from investigators who violated policies of fair conduct, initially misled him, and, after springing the gambling issue, refused to show him evidence or name his accuser. Neuheisel repeatedly expressed reluctance to answer questions, but three investigators continued to grill him (he opted not to walk out). At another session a few hours later that day, Neuheisel cleared the air and said he had, in fact, participated in two annual March Madness "auctions" or pools outside the UW; altogether he risked $6,400 and won $12,100. He still maintained the pools did not constitute prohibited gambling, and according to a belatedly discovered UW rules memorandum, he was right.
THE MEMO, which Neuheisel released two days after his NCAA questioning, concluded (wrongly, the NCAA says) that pool bets by UW coaches and staff were permitted outside the athletic department. Neuheisel says he now can prove he read the ruling prior to the NCAA session and that he was relying on it when he invested in the pools; ergo, he wasn't lyingat least not when he said he didn't gamble illegally. Though he did not bring up the memo during the June 4 interview, he argues, it's reasonable to assume he momentarily had forgotten it. Sitting in at the same interrogation session was the UW official who had written the memo, and she did not mention it, either.
The UW has assessed itself a few minor penalties for its sins and Neuheisel's. Those penalties will be reviewed and either accepted or added to by the Pac-10 and the NCAA, who do separate investigations. Final decisions will be made next spring. The Pac-10 reported only three minor violations in its review, but the probe can be reopened. It depends, in part, on how convincingly the ex-coach makes his plea before the conference review board next week. From interviews, public records, and legal briefs, here's an outline of the important questions Neuheisel faces and the answers he's likely to give.
DID HE GAMBLE? Yes. But he might have had a reasonable belief it was allowed. The gambling violations in 2002 and 2003 involved Neuheisel and three partners bidding to obtain a set of teams among the 64 colleges involved in the NCAA basketball playoffs leading to the Final Four. Teams were auctioned off, with top contenders sometimes drawing bids of $5,000 to $10,000 from a well-bankrolled crowd. In 2003, for example, millionaire Neuheisel was part of a high-rolling 30 to 40 people at a downtown Seattle confab, and 10 grand wasn't a lot of money to this crowd, the ex-coach says. He personally won $4,799 on a $3,610 investment in 2002 and $7,324 by risking $2,790 this year.
Neuheisel figured he could legitimately be involved in such pools if they were held outside the university. His exhibit No. 1 is the infamous memo issued by the school's rules compliance office in 1999 and reissued to coaches and other athletic department staff last March 13. In part, it notes that NCAA Bylaw 10.3 "prohibits athletic department staff members from engaging in gambling activities as they relate to intercollegiate or professional sporting events." But the memo, written by Dana Richardson, a lawyer in the compliance office, added: "The bottom line of these rules is that if you have friends outside of ICA [the intercollegiate athletic department] that have pools on any of the basketball tournaments, you can participate. You cannot place bets with a bookie or organize your own pool inside or outside of ICA."
The memo also did not place financial limitations on off-campus pools. Richardson thinks she reviewed the NCAA Web sitewhich contained some outdated informationbefore drawing up her ruling. Two other compliance officers, it turns out, thought her interpretation was incorrect, but according to a legal brief by Neuheisel, they did not speak up due to "serious communications problems" within the compliance office. One of the dissenters, Jennifer Henderson, told NCAA investigators, according to the brief, "you don't have a free flow of dialogue" in the office. In her own NCAA interview, Richardson said she didn't clear the opinion with the Pac-10 because Hedges told her "you don't have to run everything past" league officials.
UW law professor Robert Aronson, who calls the UW compliance office, "if not the best, one of the best" in the country, apparently supported Richardson's interpretation. He told NCAA investigators, according to Neuheisel's brief: "You know, I could make a pretty good argument, in fact I think Dana's made a pretty good argument for why there is something in here [NCAA gambling rules] that is allowed. . . . " He and others said the NCAA's language seemed equivocal.
Richardson, who recently received a letter of reprimand for her memo, made "an honest mistake," the Pac-10 said in its findings. That bugs Neuheisel, who paid the ultimate penalty, he believes, because of that honest mistake. He also says he can now prove he read the memo in March, after it was given to him by his aide, Liz Zelinski. The coach, who has no computer skillsno computer, evenrelied on Zelinski to print out all e-mail for him to read. She says she printed out the memo when it arrived, gave Neuheisel a copy, and was seated at a table going through e-mails and other business when he read it.
Disputed interpretations aside, Neuheisel says his actions demonstrate that he believed he was acting appropriately. He says he participated openly in the auction with dozens of fellow bidderspossibly including alumni of rival Washington State University and the University of Oregonand couldn't rationally expect it to be kept secret. Jerry Nevin, UW director of football operations, says Neuheisel in March "mentioned to everyone" during a plane ride with prominent Seattle business leaders and UW boosters "that he was involved in a March Madness auction and was doing well."
DID HE LIE? Yes, again. He can also say he told the truth from day one. At a morning Q&A session with the NCAA, he denied betting or sharing in any winnings. At an afternoon session, after conferring with others, Neuheisel reversed that. He still maintained the pool was not an illegal NCAA bet in the way he understood the definition. "I never bet anything. I just participated in this auction," he said. "There were not bookies or organized gambling agencies involved."
NEUHEISEL TODAY makes no small issue of the fact that Pac-10 officials, in their recent findings, did not charge the UW or Neuheisel with lying about his gambling, nor did they penalize the UW for the amount of money Neuheisel risked or won in the high-stakes pools. Conversely, he believes he can demonstrate that other athletic department members, including coaches, participated in annual March Madness pools with comparatively little consequence. Erin Chiarelli, Gilbertson's aide, says she won $60 in the department's 2002 pool, according to Neuheisel's brief. Neuheisel's aide, Zelinski, says she won $50 in a 2001 pool. Chiarelli also claims she attended a post-June 4 meeting with the other coaches and their attorney where they agreed that they hadn't taken part in the pools. "I knew there was a pool in 2002 because I won it," Chiarelli says, "and nobody would say that there was oneat least [not] in that meeting." Chiarelli's claims are buttressed by a former UW graduate assistant coach, Ikaika Malloe, who initially denied to investigators that the pools existed, then recanted and told investigators he in fact organized the 2001 and 2002 pools. Among the participants, he said, were Gilbertson and four assistant coaches. The UW and Pac-10 opted to believe there were pools but that coaches were not involved.
Robert M. Sulkin, Neuheisel's attorney, says he plans to further challenge that and other conclusions Monday. He contends evidence now establishes that Neuheisel relied on the memo and believed the auction was permissible. If the university's rules interpretation was a mistake, honest or otherwise, Neuheisel can't be blamed for following it. Next week, he'll try to sell that to a so-far-reluctant jury.