Swarbrick addresses Te’o situation, but questions remain

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Or, rather, one very key question remains.

The sports news cycle exploded Wednesday evening with a Deadspin report alleging that the story surrounding the death of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o‘s girlfriend was in fact a lie allegedly perpetrated in part by the player.  Both the University and Te’o followed that up with separate statements that each came to the same conclusion — Te’o had been duped by and became the unwitting victim of an elaborate hoax.

At a hastily arranged press conference Wednesday, athletic director Jack Swarbrick continued that theme.  In opening remarks before taking questions from the assembled media, Swarbrick described Te’o as “the perfect mark,” saying that the Heisman finalist “was the victim of that hoax. … is the victim of that hoax, and he will carry that with him for a while.”

Based on information relayed to him by Te’o as part of the school’s own initial look into the situation, Swarbrick stated that Te’o received a call in early December from a number associated with Lennay Kekua — the girlfriend who Te’o had proclaimed to be the love of his life — and with a voice on the other end of the line that sounded like that of Kekua claiming she had not in fact died three months earlier.  Three weeks later, on Dec. 26, Te’o took that information to the Irish coaching staff before it ultimately landed in the hands of a private investigation firm.

A report from that investigative firm was delivered to the University Jan. 4 — three days before the Irish played Alabama for the BCS championship — and forwarded to Te’o and his family. “It… is my understanding that they were on a timetable to release the story themselves next week when today’s story broke,” Swarbrick stated.

The hoax perpetrated by multiple unidentified individuals was so elaborate, Swarbrick explained, that there was even “a place to send flowers” after Kekua’s supposed death.

“There are a remarkable number of characters involved,” the AD explained. “We don’t know how many people they represent. There are male and female characters, brothers, cousins, mother, and we don’t know if it’s two people playing multiple characters or multiple people. But, again, it goes to the sophistication of this, that there are all these sort of independent pieces that reinforce elements of the story all the way through.”

Swarbrick at one point was on the verge of tears, pausing for several seconds to compose himself as he described the “tragedy” of “the single most trusting human being I’ve ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in his life.”  That specific exchange was the overriding takeaway from Swarbrick’s surreal press conference, one that shows, right or wrong, the athletic director is standing firmly behind Te’o’s version of what transpired over the past three years.

Despite Swarbrick’s staunch and eloquent and oft-times emotional support of Te’o, there was one nagging question that the AD simply couldn’t or wouldn’t answer.  What was the nature of Te’o’s supposed relationship with Kekua?

“What I will tell you, this was exclusively an online relationship,” Swarbrick said when asked to explain how the Te’o-Kekua pairing came to be.

That, though, doesn’t jibe with an Oct. 12, 2012 article from the South Bend Tribune — an article, incidentally, that was taken offline in the wake of the Deadspin story — that contained these quotes from Te’o’s father.

“They started out as just friends,” Brian Te’o told the Tribune. “Every once in a while, she would travel to Hawaii, and that happened to be the time Manti was home, so he would meet with her there. But within the last year, they became a couple.”

A short time later, Swarbrick was asked about when the relationship began and how they met.

“I don’t remember the exact length of time,” Swarbrick said, “but it had it began with an online reaching-out to him that he responded to.”

Again, that falls short of the narrative spun in the Tribune story, which focuses on Te’o and Kekua meeting after the Notre Dame-Stanford game in 2009.

Their stares got pleasantly tangled, then Manti Te’o extended his hand to the stranger with a warm smile and soulful eyes.

Lennay Kekua was a Stanford student and Cardinal football fan when the two exchanged glances, handshakes and phone numbers that fateful weekend three seasons ago.

Near the end of the press conference, a reporter again pressed Swarbrick on how the relationship between Te’o and Kekua had been portrayed, intimating that it was the player himself who led many to believe that the two had met in 2009 at Stanford.  Essentially, the whole “hoax” claim was again being called into question, and Swarbrick again danced around any type of in-person meeting between the couple.

Q: …I know there have been reports that Manti said he had an initial face to face meeting with his girlfriend at Stanford at some point. What’s going on with that?

JACK SWARBRICK: Again, I’ll let Manti provide the details, but as I said earlier in this press conference, when Manti took me through the entire story from start to finish, when he first described the contact, he used the verb met. For him, the fact that they connected online, that they met online, was consistent with using that verb. Not one that I might have chosen, but it was for him.

How stares get pleasantly tangled or handshakes get exchanged in an initial online connection is, at the moment, the great unknown and will take an explanation from the player himself to unravel that technological mystery.

Speaking of which, Swarbrick suggested during his press conference that Te’o could meet with the media as early as Thursday.  Whether any additional light will be shed on the bizarre situation, or whether Te’o will further bury himself in the court of public opinion, when that inquisition takes place remains to be seen.

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Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson frowns upon Group of Five playoff idea

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The chances a team from the Group of Five ever gets selected to play in the College Football Playoff range from slim to none. As such, talk from within the Group of Five has kicked up from time to time, especially over the last year, about a possible Group of Five-only version of the College Football Playoff. The reactions to that idea has been mixed, but add Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson to the group of people who thinks that idea should be tossed aside.

While attending meetings for the College Football Playoff, Benson told reporters he would prefer to see conference champions from the Group of Five (American, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt) receive better bowl bids instead of playing in a minor version of the College Football Playoff.

It’s time to have a realistic conversation about creating a playoff for the Group of 5,” NIU athletic director Sean Frazier told Brett McMurphy, then of ESPN.com, back in December. “Why not?”

Well, there are a number of reasons. First, not everybody seems to be on board with playing the college football version equivalent of the NIT. Sure, it would be on TV and would get ratings, but the reward at the end of the JV playoff would mean little. Nobody would consider it a national championship. That’s what the FCS is for.

Benson is not alone in his anti-Group of Five playoff stance. MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher also has been on record saying he is not interested in such a plan, and he oversaw a member from his conference go undefeated last season and play in the Cotton Bowl (Western Michigan).

My initial reaction is that’s not something I’m interested in,” Steinbrecher said, according to MLive.com in December. “We’re part of the (College Football Playoff) system, and it’s done a lot of very good things for the Mid-American Conference.”

Without the support from two of the Group of Five commissioners (and you can almost be guaranteed you can add Mike Aresco of the American Athletic Conference to the list given the conference’s push to be considered a power conference), this idea is pretty much dead on arrival.

LSU’s Arden Key: I am not sitting out my junior year

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After taking a little time off from the LSU football program this spring, Arden Key calmed the nerves of Tigers fans on Wednesday with a simple message on his Twitter account.

Key announced to his Twitter followers he will be on the field for the Tigers this fall. Back in February, LSU released a statement saying Key would be stepping away from the program “for personal reasons.” What those personal reasons were is unknown, but he did so with the support of head coach Ed Orgeron and the entire football program at the time.

Key earned second-team All-SEC honors last season after leading LSU with 14.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks, a school record. With news, he would be stepping away from the program and the age of top NFL Draft prospects opting out of bowl games, the mere thought that Key might become the first potential NFL Draft pick the following season sitting out the entire football season was difficult to completely ignore. Fortunately, especially for LSU and not so much for LSU’s opponents, Key is choosing not to break that barrier at this time.

Texas A&M removes WR Kirk Merritt from roster

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After being charged for allegedly exposing himself to tutors at Texas A&M, wide receiver Kirk Merritt is no longer an Aggie. Merritt has been removed from the Texas A&M football program, according to a report from The Eagle. Though there has been no official statement confirming such news, Merritt’s name has been wiped off the team’s online roster.

Merritt pleaded not guilty to a pair of indecent exposure charges against him stemming from an incident last October. Merritt allegedly exposed himself to female academic tutors. Merritt was suspended by Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin a few days after the alleged incidents. The suspension was expanded to indefinite status following Merritt’s arrest on November 8. The suspension has since been lifted after the university’s conduct process wrapped up in January.

It has been a bit of a bumpy year for Merritt. Merritt left Oregon for Texas A&M last summer due to family reasons. He participated in Texas A&M’s spring practices but did not play in the spring game.

Big 12 revenue eclipses $300 million mark

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When it comes to revenues, the SEC and Big Ten continue to set the pace and leave the rest of the competition in the dust. That said, the Big 12 saw a second straight sizable revenue bump, according to recent tax returns.

As reported by USA Today, the Big 12 recorded a revenue of $313 million for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016 on its tax return. The figure is up roughly $40 million from last year’s revenue, and the conference has now doubled its revenue since the 2012 fiscal year amid conference realignment changes. As for the revenue shares for each Big 12 program, the numbers ranged from $28 million to West Virginia to $28.9 million for Oklahoma. This marked the first time West Virginia and TCU were eligible to receive their full conference revenue shares as Big 12 members.

The biggest reason for the big jump in revenue came from increased bowl revenue. The Big 12 pulled in $114.5 million in bowl revenue in 2016, which was just $74.5 million in 2015. The 2015 season, which was included in the fiscal year outlined by this tax return, saw Oklahoma advance to the College Football Playoff and Oklahoma State be selected to play in a New Years Six bowl game (Sugar Bowl), which led to a larger bowl game distribution for the Big 12. The previous year saw no Big 12 team in the College Football Playoff (TCU, Baylor).

The Big 12 still lags well behind the SEC. Most will, of course. The SEC announced a revenue of $584.2 million for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, with each SEC member receiving a revenue share of $40.4 million. The SEC and Big 12 are the only conference revenue numbers currently on record for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, but expect the Big Ten to be a solid second in the pecking order, with the ACC likely to come in front of the Big 12 and the Pac-12 to be toward the bottom of the pack.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby had a pay increase as well. Bowlsby reportedly earned a little more than $2.6 million in 2015, earning more than $70,000 than the previous year.