The Saban revelations are part of an investigative series about NCAA President Mark Emmert. Before assuming his current position, Emmert served as chancellor at the University of Connecticut and LSU. USA Today reports that Emmert played a prominent role in limiting damage from an academic scandal that happened on Saban's watch at LSU.
Saban's connections to scandal should not come as a surprise, given that he was brought to Alabama by a man with documented ties to massive insurance fraud. Saban was head coach at LSU from 1999 to 2004 and won one national championship before leaving to spend two seasons as head coach of the Miami Dolphins in the National Football League. He became Alabama's coach in November 2006 and has led the Crimson Tide to national titles in 2009, 2011, and 2012.
Paul Bryant Jr., the current president of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, played a major role in luring Saban to Tuscaloosa. Bryant, the son of late Hall of Fame Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, long has been considered one of the most powerful boosters in college athletics. Despite his role as head of UA's governing body and kingmaker in the athletics program, Bryant Jr. keeps a low profile, rarely granting interviews.
That might be because of ugliness in his past as CEO of Greene Group Inc., an umbrella firm for Bryant's business interests in casino management, dog tracks, catfish farming, ready-mix concrete, and insurance.
Alabama Reassurance, one of Bryant's companies under Greene Group, was implicated in a $15-million insurance-fraud scheme that drew a 15-year federal prison for a Philadelphia-based lawyer/entrepreneur named Allen W. Stewart. The case was tried in 1997, with Stewart found guilty on all counts, and he only recently was released from prison. Bryant, meanwhile, managed to escape scrutiny, even though an Alabama-based probe was planned if the Pennsylvania case resulted in convictions. (A court document from the Allen W. Stewart case can be viewed at the end of this post; a footnote on page 11 outlines Alabama Re's connections to the case.)
G. Douglas Jones, a UA graduate who has done legal work for Bryant, had been named U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama by the time the Stewart case drew to a close. Once Jones took office, the planned Alabama Re investigation mysteriously was canceled. We have asked Jones multiple times about his apparent role in protecting Paul Bryant Jr. from a federal investigation, and Jones has refused to answer our questions.
The bottom line? Public documents show that scandal lurks in the background of Alabama's lead trustee and No. 1 football booster. Thanks to USA Today, we now know that scandal also has touched Nick Saban, the coach Paul Bryant Jr. helped bring to UA. Here is how reporter Brent Schrotenboer describes Mark Emmert's role in covering up the academic scandal at LSU:
At LSU, an academic fraud scandal emerged in the football program under then-coach Nick Saban in 2001-02. Emmert oversaw an investigation into the allegations made by a university instructor that eventually acknowledged five minor and isolated violations and declared most of the claims "unfounded."
Emmert even met on LSU's behalf with the NCAA, which accepted LSU's findings. But after Emmert decided to leave LSU in 2004, a witness testified in a deposition that the instructor was telling the truth and that the problems were far more systemic than the school admitted, even extending to grades being changed for football players, according to court records.
Court records show that grades were changed for football players while Nick Saban was head coach at LSU? Amazingly, the Alabama mainstream press, so far, has not picked up on this story.
How bad was LSU's academic environment while Saban was football coach? From USA Today:
The culture was "appalling" and "like Romper Room," the employee said in 2004 testimony.
At LSU, Emmert made changes to help turn around the football program, saying "success in LSU football is essential for the success of Louisiana State University."
He hired Saban as coach in 1999 and helped make him the nation's highest paid coach ($2.3 million) after the Tigers won the BCS championship in January 2004. Two years earlier, Emmert himself had become the nation's highest-paid head of a public campus when his compensation was increased to about $500,000, a portion of which was paid by the Tiger Athletic Foundation.
Supporters justified his salary in part because he oversaw a fundraising drive that was on its way to bringing in $255 million.
Public records, however, show that football success came at the expense of academic integrity:
Scandal broke in 2001-02. A university instructor accused the school of having systemic academic fraud in its football program, including plagiarized papers on bobsledding players were turning in and un-enrolled students showing up to take notes for football players, who often slept through class. A graduate assistant also spoke out about the plagiarism problem.
At the time, LSU already was on NCAA probation for a recruiting scandal in men's basketball that happened prior to Emmert's arrival. Findings of more major violations typically would trigger harsh penalties.
Led by Emmert, LSU investigated the fraud allegations and said they found only five minor isolated problems, resulting in a self-imposed penalty of two lost scholarships in football. "Despite isolated incidents, the allegations were largely unfounded," says LSU's 82-page report on the allegations.
Court documents eventually would show that the incidents were not "isolated," and the allegations were not "largely unfounded":
The NCAA accepted LSU's findings in May 2004 and declined to put the school on probation. But the two female accusers had sued LSU, claiming they were forced from their jobs at the university in retaliation for blowing the whistle on the powerful football program.
Shortly after the NCAA case was settled and Emmert announced he was leaving for Washington, another LSU academic counseling employee backed up the women's claims under oath, saying there were numerous examples of favoritism for football players in academics, including changed grades and having papers typed for them, according to court documents obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
LSU later paid the two women more than $110,000 each to settle their lawsuits.
Did Mark Emmert conduct a serious investigation of Nick Saban's football program? It doesn't look like. From USA Today:
A person who worked for LSU as an academic counselor in athletics at the time told USA TODAY Sports the investigation was a whitewash designed to minimize damage. The person asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
"They'd interviewed the people they wanted to," the person said. "It was typical, let's get together and do damage control and construct a narrative that will allow us to say, 'OK, we've done something wrong here, but it ain't that bad.'"
The attorney for the accusers, Jill Craft, told USA TODAY Sports, that "LSU's self-report was way downplayed to what they were originally told and what my clients reported. In fact, the evidence that shook out over time revealed that the academic issues, especially in football, were systemic."
What could this mean for Saban and Alabama? John Pennington, of the Web site Mr. SEC, touched on that question in a post titled "USA Today Digs Into Emmert, Digs Up Issues For LSU, Saban." From Pennington:
Whether Emmert was guilty of a cover-up or not, LSU is back in the news today. So is Nick Saban, who will have to answers about this situation and how it might pertain to his current program at Alabama.