A long, strange trip

In what started out as an innocent Calcutta amongst friends has cost Washington football coach Rick Neuheisel his job Wednesday night and may cost him a sizeable portion of his financial future. Washington Athletic Director Barbara Hedges and Athletic Department Faculty representative Robert Aronson were at the Don James Center Thursday morning to state the University's position on the matter.

"It's extremely painful for me to have to make decisions like this about people you truly admire," Hedges explained. I had to do that with Bob Bender and now with Rick Neuheisel. It couldn't be more difficult."

But is this just the beginning of the end for Hedges as well? "It's a fair question," she said. When I hired Rick I didn't think I was putting my career on the line. It was the right thing to do at the time and he's done some great things for the school and some great things for the community. But unfortunately it's my job to make determinations about the employees in my program if they aren't acting in a manner in which they should be."

Another employee of Hedges, Assistant Athletic Director for Compliance Dana Richardson, has come under withering fire for an inter-office email that Neuheisel is using as his main piece of evidence exonerating him from any wrongdoing. Hedges is steadfastly standing by Richardson, as is Aronson.

"The main tool we use for compliance is to tell every player, coach and everyone in the department to ask questions," said Aronson, also a Professor at the University's Law School.. "That way they can get a personal interpretation. And I believe we have one of the best, if not the best, compliance departments in the country, and I work very closely with the Pac-10 and NCAA.

"One thing that gets lost in all this is that this was but one interpretation. We get dozens of requests a week asking for interpretations, and most of them are related to gambling. The focus is on this one, but there are tons more where accurate and important information is delivered."

"We have a very outstanding compliance program at the University of Washington," Hedges added. "Part of the job of the compliance department is to make interpretations."

But how did things unravel so quickly and with such force? It all stems back to the betting pool, one in which Neuheisel made wagers in during both the 2002 and 2003 NCAA basketball tournament. Neuheisel admitted to NCAA officials last week that he was part of a four-man team that wagered five-thousand dollars in the pool that was eventually won by Maryland.

The NCAA, acting on a tip from an anonymous source, found out about Neuheisel's wager. Hedges, Dana Richardson, Ron Barker, who is the Pac-10's assistant commissioner in charge of compliance, Neuheisel and two investigators from the NCAA met on Wednesday, June 4th.

"The NCAA had called three weeks before, asking to speak with me," Hedges said. "Since the NCAA compliance seminar was going to be held in Seattle, we decided to meet at that point. They told me they wanted to discuss recruiting."

What the contingent from Washington didn't know was that the investigators were about to throw a grenade in their lap, in the form of gambling allegations.

"We were both very surprised and not prepared for their questions," Hedges said. "In Neuheisel's words, he was 'blindsided'. "He was definitely confused," she added.

The NCAA also showed a picture to those in the meeting, which Hedges characterized as a 'very vague picture of a person'. Who that person was is unknown.

Aronson said that it's not uncommon for the NCAA to 'hold things back' to see what a person's first reaction might be. And in this case, his reaction was not satisfactory.

Neuheisel left the initial meeting, then came back later for a second meeting, where he fully disclosed his involvement in the pool. "He was not prepared to answer the questions and didn't fully disclose during the first meeting," Hedges said. "His answers weren't straightforward. He was asked specific questions, like the type of bet, which was a Calcutta. It was clear he wasn't willing to answer the questions in a yes or no manner."

Between the 4th and the 6th of June, Hedges and Neuheisel met numerous times, but it wasn't until the Friday after the meetings that Hedges confronted the Husky head coach about the possibility for termination.

She is adamant that at no time did the NCAA dictate terms to her about Neuheisel's possible dismissal. "All we wanted to know from them was what the perameters were," she said. "We've never been involved in something like this, with respect to gambling."

But there's no question in her mind that Neuheisel's history of poor judgement regarding his handling of NCAA rules didn't help his cause at all. "Whether or not the participation in the pools is ultimately determined by the NCAA to be a violation of the letter of its rules, Rick's admitted gambling on college athletics shows poor judgement, particularly in the context of his history of violations of NCAA rules both at this institution and at the University of Colorado, which had led to the imposition of penalties on him and on both institutions," she said in her opening statement Thursday to the press.

That, coupled with his dishonesty about the 49'ers job and lack of full disclosure during their first meeting with the NCAA in regards to his gambling, sealed Neuheisel's fate. As the week went on, the act of dishonesty on Neuheisel's behalf during the incident in San Francisco began to take on more and more importance, and really acted as a 'last chance' for the head coach to stay in Seattle.

"On that Thursday he left for Sun Valley and at the time there was a lot of speculation surrounding the 49'ers job so I asked him point-blank, 'Are you interested?'," Hedges recalled. "He said he had been approached by a third party. I told him to take the weekend to sort it out and then tell me on Monday where he was at.

"There's no question he was untruthful to me. He said he was in San Francisco, but just to play golf."

But there was still that memo. Hedges and Aronson admit to not looking at it when it was first sent. "As with most inter-office emails, as you know, you see the title, think 'OK, that's good, they are sending out another reminder on gambling', and move on to what you were doing," Hedges said.

Richardson's inter-office missive certainly could be construed as allowing Neuheisel leeway to bet in the NCAA pool. But now it's been revealed that pieces of pertinent information were unintentionally left out of the memo. "It was her (Richardson's) belief that small wagers done outside the ICA were permissible," Aronson said. "The NCAA's position is that is that no bets of any kind on college athletics are permissible.

"It's probably a good lesson to us that something that critical needs to go out as a regular memo with highlites. In hindsight it was a mistake not calling back that memo." At this time, no one else in the department has reported using Richardson's interpretation of the memo to place wagers.

"My assistant (Liz McFarland), when she received the memo, asked a question about it and got an answer," Hedges said. "She was told that a small amount was OK, but was warned against doing it all the same."

What did McFarland do? She decided not to bet.

And Hedges? Has she ever wagered on an NCAA pool? "Oh, I probably participated in a dollar pool back before they changed the rules in 1997, but since then? No," she said.

There was no similar memo sent out in 2002. The last time was in 1999, but wasn't nearly as broad in scope or content as the 2003 version.

When Hedges was finally alerted to the issues raised in the memo, she knew that the NCAA's interpretation would win out.

As it stands, Richardson's interpretation also appears to be based on the NCAA's online manual. But the online manual is missing the key provision in rule 10.3 that would have clarified any ambiguities. "In hindsight, it would have been easiest just to say 'Don't bet at all'," Aronson said. "But there are misinterpretations of the rules all the time, even by the Pac-10 and the NCAA. There's no violation for a misinterpretation."

But Aronson went on to say that if a violation occurs as a direct result of that misinterpretation, there could definitely be consequences. "It could go from a letter of caution, to something more serious," he added.

So what happens now? "This case is a bit unusual, because the NCAA was the first to know about this information," Aronson said. "Usually we conduct our own, private, investigation. Then we release our findings and and self-report it to the Pac-10 and NCAA. Assuming they are also investigating with us at the time, there will be a hearing and then they will come down with their own ruling."

The timeline for the ruling will depend on what's involved. "We need to get all the facts first before we would know that," he added.

In almost every gambling case up to this point, the institution has not been penalized. "It's really been about the individual acting on his own," Hedges said. She wouldn't speculate if the gambling charge would have been enough to get him fired alone.

It wasn't Hedges' intentions to fire Neuheisel for cause. "We tried to reach an agreement with Rick but were unable to do so, so that's why we terminated him for cause," she said. Neuheisel has not given any word about a possible appeal and hasn't spoken to Hedges since Wednesday night.

At stake is over $2 million in a structured buyout, plus the possible forgiveness of a loan to the University in the range of $1.5 million. Since the University has fired Neuheisel with cause, they are not legally bound to buy out the remaining 6 years of his contract and he is legally bound to pay back the loan. He has 14 days to notify Hedges in writing, or in person, his intentions.

Neuheisel is currently suspended with pay, meaning he could meet with players and coaches, but can't perform the normal functions of a head coach. Most of the football players are off campus right now, with most of them expected back before the beginning of the next quarter, which starts June 23rd.

Washington's high school football camp, scheduled to start on the 21st, will go on as scheduled.

"For the assistant coaches, it's still business as usual," Hedges said. "They are still doing what needs to be done for the football program."

All of their contracts, including the most likely successor to Neuheisel, Offensive Coordinator Keith Gilbertson, end on June 30th. The Athletic Department has asked all of the assistant coaches to stay on, and right now it appears as if that will happen.

But a new head coach is not in place yet. "A quick decision needs to be made," Hedges said. She has not contacted anyone about the job opening as of Thursday morning. Expect a new head coach to be announced before the end of the weekend.

"It's been a difficult period because this was regarding a highly visible employee that we care about," Hedges said. "It was important we were careful about this and didn't rush into anything.

"The thing is, we have a very outstanding athletic program, with terrific student-athletes and coaches that are the best in the country. What we have to do is just work harder to repair the damage that has been done. We are always examining what we're doing in the hopes that we can do it better."

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