Tuesday, July 25, 2017

With Bunn family ties to Paul Bryant Jr., and Bryant's role in boosting UA enrollment, the Megan Rondini story gets uncomfortably close to Crimson Tide

Paul Bryant Jr.
Reporting on the Megan Rondini story, so far, has largely steered clear of the vaunted University of Alabama football program. But our research indicates the connections between the alleged rape and eventual suicide of Rondini and the UA football team might be closer than many Crimson Tide fans would find comfortable.

For one, the family of alleged rapist T.J. "Sweet T" Bunn Jr. was among the earliest donors to a fund-raising effort that helped launch a 14-year era of dominance for the Crimson Tide, mostly under Coach Nick Saban. Second, UA football "godfather" Paul Bryant Jr. -- the son of the late Hall of Fame coach, Bear Bryant -- was out front in an effort that led to massive enrollment gains via heavy recruitment of non-resident students, such as Megan Rondini.

In fact, the ties between the Bunn family and Bryant appear close enough to raise this question: Did the Bunns seek Bryant's help -- he holds the state's most famous name, after all -- to help quash a possible criminal case against "Sweet T"?

How close are the Bunns and Bryant? When UA launched in March 2002 a $100-million fund-raising campaign for athletic-facility improvements, chairman of the Crimson Tradition Fund (CTF) was Paul Bryant Jr. Among the original 27 donors who formed the foundation of the CTF were Terry and Sonny Bunn -- the heads of ST Bunn Construction and the father and uncle, respectively, of "Sweet T" Bunn Jr. From a press release about the CTF's founding:

The Crimson Tradition Fund Committee, chaired by Paul Bryant, Jr., is comprised of the following University of Alabama supporters: Owen W. Arnonov, Montgomery, Ala.; Randy Billingsley, Mobile, Ala.; Paul W. Bryant, Jr., Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Sonny Bunn, Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Terry Bunn, Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Angus Cooper, II, Mobile, Ala.; Gary Neill Drummond, Birmingham, Ala.; Elise Durbin, Birmingham, Ala.; Melissa Durbin, Birmingham, Ala.; William E. Ezell, Fairhope, Ala.; Wayne H. Gillis, Birmingham, Ala.; Joe Kelley, Nashville, Tenn.; John J. McMahon, Jr.; Birmingham, Ala.; Robert W. (Bud) Moore, Catherine, Ala.; Ozzie Newsome, Baltimore, Md.; Thomas L. Patterson, Birmingham, Ala.; Johnny Plott, Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Farid Rafiee, Huntsville, Ala.; Ambassador Joseph M. Rodgers, Nashville, Tenn.; Richard Scrushy, Birmingham, Ala.; Britt Sexton, Decatur, Ala.; Bart Starr, Birmingham, Ala.; Ted Taylor, Prattville, Ala.; Michael D. Thompson, Birmingham, Ala.; Stanley Verciglio, Birmingham, Ala.; Duncan Williams, Memphis, Tenn., and James W. Wilson, III, Montgomery, Ala.

One year after forming the Crimson Tradition Fund, UA hired Robert Witt as president. Bryant was on the Board of Trustees then, and chaired the committee to hire a new leader for the Tuscaloosa campus. From a 2013 article at bamainsider.com:

Before the football resurgence, the University of Alabama also began a growth period that started with the hiring of Robert Witt as president in 2003. Bryant, in his role on the board of trustees, was part of the process in luring Witt from the University of Texas at Arlington.

Megan Rondini
"The trip that I was involved in was when they took our plane and hired Dr. Witt," Bryant said. "I was president of the committee, went to Fort Worth to meet Dr. Witt and it just happened that his then-wife (Anne C. Witt) had graduated from high school with me, her parents were here in town and had both been on the faculty, and her mother was and still is a good friend of mine.

"That was a good coincidence. I don't think it had anything to do with our ability to get him."

When Witt arrived in Tuscaloosa, one of his primary objectives was clear:

Witt began an aggressive growth campaign, building new student housing and increasing enrollment. In the 10 years since Witt, who became chancellor of the UA system last March, became president, Alabama has increased enrollment from 19,600 to 34,800, added more than 300 new faculty (a 22 percent increase) and added more than 600 new staff employees (a 17 percent increase), all while seeing state funding decrease $58 million in the last five years. In the last 10 years, UA has added 5,000 new beds in on-campus housing with the construction of new dormitories funded by bond issues.

According to documents obtained from open-record requests, UA's revenues have grown from almost $600 million in 2007 to more than $782 million in 2012.

The idea of greatly enhancing enrollment, which eventually focused heavily on out-of-state students, did not originate with Witt. It came from Bryant. As the bamainsider.com article put it, "Witt's vision fit Bryant's mission":

"We had a period of time before Dr. Witt where we were losing students to other schools, to Auburn in particular," Bryant said. "I'm not talking athletics, I'm just talking about students.

"A lot of my friends' children weren't coming to Alabama, (friends) that had been to Alabama. And the one, I won't call it a charge, but the one suggestion I had for Dr. Witt that I wanted to see, when he was hired, was that my friends would send their children to Alabama, and that the leaders in the state would come from the University of Alabama.

"That's what he set out to do with recruiting, first off particularly recruiting in-state -- you have to do that first -- and then he broadened it."

That effort to "broaden" student recruitment eventually reached Austin, Texas, where it attracted a promising young student named Megan Rondini. Megan's experience at UA appears to have been mostly positive until she encountered T.J. Bunn Jr. one evening at Innisfree Irish Pub. That led to a sexual encounter that Megan insisted was not consensual, and when she sought justice, her efforts were met mostly with a stonewall from university officials and local law enforcement.

Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide
In frustration and despair, she returned to her home state and eventually took her own life. UA will go into the 2017 football season as the most powerful program in the country. But some of its most influential boosters have ties to the tragic story of Megan Rondini. Her parents have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit that likely will be pending for all of the 2017 season and beyond. That might create a shadow that could hang over Crimson Tide football for quite a while.

Could the lawsuit help uncover uncomfortable truths, much like the Jerry Sandusky scandal did at Penn State? It certainly might. The Rondini story already is closer to UA football than many fans might want to think.


Anonymous said...

The Bunns were among the original 27 donors to Crimson Tide Foundation? Hmmm . . .

Anonymous said...

Maybe no one has taken a stand on Megan's case -- at UA or in Tuscaloosa, in general -- because PBJ wants it that way, for benefit of the Bunn family.

Anonymous said...

You've got students turning down places like Columbia, Michigan, Virginia, and Cal to come to the sewage dump in Tuscaloosa. It's sad, and it took Megan Rondini's tragic death to shine a light on just how much ugliness lurks beneath the surface in T-town.

Tommy Clayton said...

Everything that happens or is allowed to down, in Tuscaloosa, is tied to UA. This has been proven time & time again.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's far-fetched at all to think Bryant Jr. is involved in a cover up here.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that Bryant was the one behind the idea of massive enrollment growth, whether the university and the community could handle it or not. That figures.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't Bryant involved in covering up insurance fraud?

legalschnauzer said...

@10:05 --

Yes, his company was involved in insurance fraud, and that's a matter of public record.

Anonymous said...

Well, we know Drummond Co. has been involved in paying bribes to cover up Birmingham SuperFund scandal. Bryant, the Bunns, and Richard Scrushy have been involved in bribery, cover ups, or both. That's quite a list of trustworthy individuals that helped start the Crimson Foundation.

legalschnauzer said...

@10:38 --

You make an interesting point. For the record, I should point out that Richard Scrushy was wrongfully convicted in the Siegelman case. There was no bribery, under the law, in that matter, and no evidence to support a bribery conviction.