Cottrell-Williams Trial Begins

It's hard not to feel bad for Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams. The former University of Alabama football assistants' careers are in shambles.

Once nearing the peak of their profession, both have been reduced to menial coaching positions – Cottrell as a high school head coach, Williams as an assistant at a small black college – as their trial against the NCAA officially begins today.

Their attorneys argued recently that both lost as much as $1 million in compensation because of their involvement with the NCAA's recent investigation into Alabama's football program, a figure that sounds fairly accurate.

Who knows how much more they might lose, thanks to a few tactical errors by those same lawyers.

Thanks to impressive legal work and sleuthing by Tommy Gallion and his team of lawyers, Cottrell and Williams have a compelling case that a conspiracy was enacted to destroy the Alabama football program – and, in the process, ruin their careers.

Trouble was, they didn't sue enough of the conspirants. Cottrell (and, eventually, Williams) sued the NCAA, former NCAA Committee of Infractions chairman Thomas Yeager, NCAA investigator Richard Johanningmeier and freelance recruiting analyst Tom Culpepper, among others.

But they didn't include two of the case's most important figures – former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer and University of Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer.

Gallion told anyone who would listen over the past two years about the alleged conspiracy: Fulmer hated the Alabama football program, and wanted it demolished. That begat his conversations with Culpepper, which, in turn, brought the NCAA, the SEC and Kramer into the mix.

(Why a conference commissioner would want to destroy one of his league's most powerful programs is questionable, but that's another topic for another day).

Together, Gallion alleges, they helped bring on a damaging probation – five years, 21 stripped scholarships over three seasons and a two year bowl ban. Gallion estimates it cost UA $20 million in lost ticket sales, postseason revenue and enrollment.

Dig into the mountain of files recently released in the case, and it's easy to connect the conspiracy's dots. If memos are to be believed, the SEC knew Albert Means' recruitment was dirty from the get-go, but failed to tell Alabama coaches recruiting him or their bosses.

Had Alabama known, it could have pulled out of the Means auction before serious damage was done.

That wasn't the school's only major violation, but if it was avoided, the penalties handed down three years ago almost certainly would have been smaller.

Fulmer clearly gained from Alabama's involvement in the Means fiasco, and as a confidential witness in the NCAA investigation, he had direct involvement in the ultimate outcome. So it just doesn't make sense that neither he nor Kramer is directly involved in the lawsuit.

If they are co-conspirators, as Gallion and his team alleges, then shouldn't they be facing the same charges as Culpepper, the NCAA and its employees?

Gallion clearly isn't afraid of Fulmer; his threats of a subpoena kept the rotund UT coach away from 2004's SEC Media Days (Fulmer incurred a $10,000 fine for his absence), and he has sued Fulmer in a related suit involving former UA recruit and UT player Kenny Smith in Knox County, Tenn.

And Kramer is a natural addition, especially considering some of the memos the two passed back and forth regarding Means' recruitment.

Without them, the idea of a conspiracy loses its luster. Gallion's team has fascinating evidence against the NCAA – especially the alleged accidental posting about a show-cause order against Cottrell on its Web site – but much of its evidence focuses on the blood-lust rivalry between Alabama and Tennessee, with Fulmer and Kramer's involvement in the case a crucial center point.

Minus Fulmer and Kramer as defendants, the case looks incomplete, an assessment Tuscaloosa County Circuit Court Judge Steven Wilson agreed with.

Last week, Wilson threw out much of the case, including the conspiracy claims. The NCAA and its employees were dismissed as a defendant in all of Cottrell's claims, but the NCAA remains a defendant in Williams' claims of invasion of privacy, negligence and wantonness.

Cottrell and Williams still have a claim against Culpepper for libel and slander.

There's still a good chance they can win judgments against the NCAA or Culpepper, especially considering the literal home-court advantage Cottrell and Williams will have inside the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse.

And Gallion has vowed to appeal the thrown-out parts of the case as far as he can, meaning this soap opera might not be over when verdicts in this trial come in.

But had he added an extra defendant or two, the appeals might be coming from an office building in downtown Indianapolis.

Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herad. He writes a weekly column for

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