CHAMPAIGN – Illinois was surprised to learn it was charged with a major violation by the NCAA. So was the school booster the NCAA accused of helping former Illini tailback Marcus Mason.
The NCAA announced its findings Thursday, handing the school a year of probation with no sanctions. The probation does not affect other Illinois sports or cost the football team scholarships or bowl eligibility.
The NCAA case said a booster gave a student-athlete free lodging, paid him for work that was not performed and allowed him unauthorized use of a vehicle. The NCAA valued the extra benefits at $2,348 during a nine-month period.
Champaign businessman Brian Griffin, the accused booster, told The News-Gazette he didn't think his involvement with Mason constituted a major violation.
"Everything that happened was totally inadvertent," Griffin said. "The University of Illinois had nothing to do with any of this.
"I think this has been totally mishandled by the NCAA. I thought it was totally well handled by Ron Guenther."
What does Griffin think about the probation handed to Illinois?
"I apologize to the university," Griffin said. "I feel sorry for them. I don't think it's right.
"Whenever a university is penalized for something that I don't think they deserved, I absolutely feel horrible."
Griffin is an alumnus of Georgetown (Md.) Prep, the same high school Mason attended. Griffin did not attend Illinois but was a major contributor to the Illinois athletic department. He was a member of the school's Loyalty Circle, which means at least a $10,000 donation annually.
"I was very excited about a kid from my high school coming to the University of Illinois," Griffin said. "I know many people at Georgetown Prep, and I thought the University of Illinois would be a great place for Marcus.
"If I was not a booster, and the NCAA told me this, there would have never been an issue."
Mason visited Illinois for the spring game in 2003, after he signed but before he started school. Griffin said Mason stayed at his house during the two-night visit.
"There was nothing there, from the University of Illinois' perspective, that told him to stay at my house or that I thought I was wrong in doing that," Griffin said.
Mason went to work for Griffin's former company, Mahomet-based Roberson Transportation, on July 14, 2003. Mason was paid $15 an hour to research sales opportunities on the Internet. According to NCAA documents, Mason stopped working for Griffin on Aug. 1 but was paid for working through Aug. 8. That meant an extra $600 for Mason.
"I don't know the details of that," Griffin said. "He absolutely worked for us. He was doing marketing research on a daily basis. I did not supervise him, but he absolutely did work."
Mason was given the use of a 1996 Chevrolet Blazer to drive from Champaign to his job in Mahomet. The Blazer was owned by the company. The school valued the extra benefit at $179.26.
After leaving the company to start football practice on Aug. 1, Mason continued to use the Blazer until Jan. 19, 2004. The school valued the extra benefit at $1,402.92.
"We provided him with a vehicle to use to and from work because he didn't have one," Griffin said. "He was going to buy the vehicle. At that point, that's where everything goes haywire. He did not buy the vehicle.
"The university found out about it. I think they found out from Marcus that he had been using the car. They came to me. I told them I didn't know he was using the vehicle, which I did not."
Griffin first was questioned by the NCAA in early September 2004. He was interviewed again in February.
"I think this ruling is unfair on two levels," Griffin said. "One, I had a pre-existing relationship with Marcus through my high school, which should have neutralized this whole thing. No. 2, the University of Illinois took a real hard position with me. They were very aggressive. I didn't like it at the time, but I respect it."
Part of the penalties announced Thursday include the school disassociating itself from Griffin for three years – until June 2007.
"I had a good relationship with the school because I had such respect for Ron Guenther and Ron Turner and everything that was going on here," Griffin said. "Beyond that, I was a nobody."
University officials were not available for comment Thursday. But in released statements, both Guenther and Chancellor Richard Herman expressed disappointment in the NCAA's ruling. An appeal is possible.
Though the probation carried no sanctions, Illinois now goes on a five-year clock that could cause the suspension of a program if another major violation is uncovered.
"That's all done on a case by case," said Gene Marsh, chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions. "We've had violations within a five-year window but because of their unique or narrow nature didn't play out for any significant additional penalties."
The NCAA's finding didn't hold current or former Illinois personnel responsible.
Turner released a statement through the Chicago Bears, his employer, saying, "The integrity of our football program was always a priority during my tenure at Illinois. We spent a great deal of time educating people both inside and outside the university on NCAA rules. When we discovered that an outside individual violated these rules with one of our athletes, we immediately began an internal investigation with the athletic department and the university compliance department."
Mason, who left Illinois for Youngstown State before the season, was unavailable for comment. Calls to his family's Maryland home went unanswered.
Marsh praised Illinois for its compliance efforts.
"In any case involving a major violation, there is a presumptive penalty of two years probation," Marsh said. "However. the committee believed that this is a fairly rare case where the factual circumstances override the presumptive penalty.
"The athletic director is obviously dedicated to following the rules and was described by the commissioner of the Big Ten (Jim Delany) as being a true leader in NCAA rules compliance."
The NCAA findings said Griffin should have known about the rules because of his status as a former college football player.
"I'm a good guy who cares about Marcus," Griffin said. "I still have a relationship with Marcus. I've tried to help him after his troubles (Mason was arrested during the summer on theft charges). I care about the kid.
"His mistakes, he's dealing with them. He's on his way to making everything right in his life."
When his penalty ends, Griffin said he would like to again become an Illinois contributor.
"That would be up to the university," Griffin said. "I'm not saying that will. From where I sit, I think it's a first-class university and institution that has done nothing but the right things in this situation."
April 15, 2004 – Illinois self-reports secondary violations of NCAA rules to the organization.
Aug. 26, 2004 – On-campus interviews are conducted with then-Illinois head coach Ron Turner, two assistant coaches, the compliance coordinator and tailback Marcus Mason.
Sept. 4, 2004 – Illinois suspends Mason for the first three games of the season.
Nov. 18, 2004 – Memoranda from the school and enforcement staff are forwarded to a member of the Committee on Infractions to determine if the case should be viewed clearly as secondary.
Dec. 8-16 – The director of secondary violations receives the committee member's e-mail indicating the violations under review should be processed as a potential major violation.
Oct. 27, 2005 – NCAA announces infractions report, with the school receiving a one-year probation with no major sanctions.