Neuheisel was playing 'dodgeball' with NCAA
KENT, Wash. -- Rick Neuheisel became defensive and was "playing dodgeball" when initially questioned by NCAA investigators about gambling on college basketball games, his lawyer told jurors Monday as testimony began in the former Washington football coach's lawsuit.
In opening statements, Neuheisel lawyer Bob Sulkin said his client was set up by NCAA officials seeking to make an example of him. Neuheisel is suing the NCAA and the university, alleging he was wrongly fired.
Sulkin said Neuheisel was cautious with NCAA investigators during the June 4, 2003, interview. He was summoned to discuss recruiting violations but soon was asked about gambling on NCAA basketball games.
Neuheisel became defensive, and his answers reflected his unease.
"Rick was cagey, playing dodgeball," Sulkin said.
Sulkin told the King County Superior Court jury that Neuheisel later told the truth to the NCAA after consulting with a lawyer during a break in the interview.
University lawyer Lou Peterson painted a much different scenario, saying Neuheisel has himself to blame after being caught in a series of lies. He told jurors the coach signed a contract that allowed him to be fired for acts of dishonesty.
Neuheisel misled his boss, former UW athletic director Barbara Hedges, about his candidacy for the San Francisco 49ers' coaching job in February 2003. He also lied to the news media, claiming he wasn't a candidate.
Neuheisel even issued a news release through Washington's sports information office, denying any connection or interest in the 49ers' job. He later acknowledged he lied, saying he had interviewed but had promised to honor a confidentiality agreement.
"A confidentiality agreement is not a license to lie," Peterson said.
That would have been grounds to fire Neuheisel, Peterson said, but Hedges gave him another chance. Former university president Lee Huntsman privately told Neuheisel that additional lies wouldn't be tolerated.
"This is a simple, simple case," Peterson said. "He lied once and was told he couldn't do it again. He lied again and was terminated."
NCAA attorney John Aslin also presented his opening remarks, disputing Sulkin's suggestion that the NCAA wanted to get Neuheisel. Aslin said NCAA rules require "full and complete disclosure" by anyone interviewed by NCAA enforcement staff.
"I don't care if you call it dodgeball or a full and complete lie," Aslin told jurors. "After hearing the evidence, you will be absolutely certain he did not give full and complete disclosure."
NCAA investigators turned the focus to gambling by asking if Neuheisel knew Al Hodge, who ran the auction-style pools where the coach won $18,523 betting on the 2002 and 2003 NCAA basketball tournaments.
Sulkin said Neuheisel immediately grew suspicious of the questioning. Fearful of implicating himself, he resorted to "dodgeball," Sulkin said.
Sulkin said university administrators rushed to fire Neuheisel despite evidence that a former Washington compliance director's mistaken memo had authorized gambling in NCAA pools.
"It turned out the memo was wrong," Sulkin said. "Rather than stand by him and say, 'Sorry, our mistake,' they blamed Rick Neuheisel."
Sulkin noted Neuheisel wasn't charged with violating the NCAA's ethical conduct rule. The NCAA infractions committee found he broke rules against gambling but declined to sanction him because of the erroneous memo.
Sulkin called Hedges as the trial's first witness. He asked if she had been surprised by the gambling questions, since NCAA investigators had said they wanted to discuss recruiting issues.
"Rick Neuheisel and I were unprepared for questions on gambling," Hedges said. "I was completely shocked."
In his opening statement, Aslin said NCAA investigators routinely withhold the full nature of their questions when scheduling interviews. He said NCAA members approved such actions to ensure "a level playing field" in college sports.
Neuheisel was recently hired by the NFL's Baltimore Ravens as quarterbacks coach.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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