Santino Marchiol had no difficulty deciding in June that he needed to leave Texas A&M. The hard choice was how to get his football career moving as quickly as possible at the highest level possible.
A four-star linebacker who enrolled at College Station in January 2017, he was hopeful even after his redshirt season ended with Kevin Sumlin's firing and Jimbo Fisher's arrival. Backed by a 10-year, $75 million contract, Fisher had vowed to make a culture change that would lift the Aggies into college football's elite.
Over the next several months, however, Marchiol said he witnessed behavior that made him uncomfortable, including, he asserts, an assistant coach giving him cash to host top recruits on "unofficial" visits. Marchiol also said he and other players were evaluated in June practice sessions that were allegedly voluntary but were operated and observed outside the NCAA rule book.
The new coaching staff arrived with a mind-set that the team was soft, Marchiol said, and demeaning and vulgar language directed at players became common. Then the training staff at Texas A&M, he claims, mishandled an ankle injury that doctors had said would require caution because of a surgery Marchiol had that sidelined him in his freshman year.
"I'm not a complainer," he said. "I like to adapt to any environment I'm in. I was excited to take on a new challenge with Jimbo Fisher. I was nervous, but I like new things. I told my dad, 'I'm going to be his favorite player here.'"
It didn't work out that way. Convinced that he needed a fresh start, Marchiol faced a choice if he was going to play at another top-level school: He could transfer quietly and per NCAA rules sit out a year before returning to the field, but that would mean a lost year of college eligibility because he already had redshirted a season. Or he could seek a waiver from the NCAA, which this year approved a policy change that allows transfers to play immediately if there were "documented mitigating circumstances that are outside student-athlete's control and directly impact the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete."
The change to the transfer policy was implemented in May to address the eligibility of six former Mississippi players, who said they were misled during their recruitment about the seriousness of the NCAA case against then-coach Hugh Freeze's staff. The case resulted in penalties against the program, including a one-year bowl ban on top of the one-year ban the school self-imposed.
In the Ole Miss case, the players were granted waivers long after the school had been sanctioned. Marchiol's case presents a new possibility — that athletes could, in applying for a waiver, include allegations of improprieties within their former athletic program.
It's quite possible Marchiol's account might otherwise not have come to light. He didn't contact the NCAA. He included the allegations as part of a statement sent to the compliance office at Arizona, where Sumlin is the coach and he is enrolled and practicing with the football team, in his request for an NCAA waiver that would allow him to play instead of sitting out the upcoming season.
Marchiol's attorney, Thomas Mars of the Arkansas-based law firm Friday, Eldredge & Clark, allowed USA TODAY to view a copy of that statement before its submission to Arizona. Mars declined to further comment and referenced a section of NCAA bylaws that deals with infractions and investigations, suggesting the information has drawn the interest of NCAA investigators.
"At this time, commenting beyond what I've already said about the waiver process would appear to violate Article 19 of the NCAA bylaws," Mars said. "Therefore, I won't be able to answer any questions about the specific grounds for the waiver."
NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said the association does not comment on current, pending or potential cases.
Texas A&M provided a statement that read: "Texas A&M Athletics takes these allegations seriously, and we are reviewing the situation with the NCAA and the SEC Office."
That a request for a transfer waiver, of all things, could spark an investigation into one of college football's most prominent programs might seem like an unexpected outcome. But Marchiol's willingness to speak out shows how the new process could bring impromptu scrutiny to any number of schools whose departing players allege rules violations as they seek waivers.
"Transfer restrictions have been lessened, but I don't think it's gone far enough" said B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sport management at Ohio University and frequent NCAA critic. "If it's true what he's saying, I think it's great. Players are getting smarter, much more savvy. They realize even more than you and I that people are making billions here and we're not getting a whole heck of a lot and now they're telling me I can't even transfer and be immediately eligible? I'd be singing like a bird."
Love for A&M soured
The NCAA being alerted to potential wrongdoing at Texas A&M comes at a tumultuous time for college football, which has already endured a scandal-filled month with allegations of a toxic culture at Maryland that has put DJ Durkin's future in limbo and Urban Meyer being placed on administrative leave at Ohio State while he was investigated for whether he properly handled domestic abuse complaints against one of his then-assistant coaches.
The allegations against Texas A&M follow the arc of a more traditional NCAA controversy but are underscored by Chancellor John Sharp famously giving Fisher a national championship plaque with the date left open along with his $75 million contract. After firing Sumlin, who had a 51-26 record, the message for what Texas A&M expected was clear: No more messing around in the middle of the SEC pack.
Fisher, who led Florida State to the 2013 national title, has embraced those expectations and rallied the Aggies fan base behind a renewed momentum in recruiting. (Texas A&M's 2019 class is ranked No. 3 nationally by 247 Sports.)
Marchiol, a top recruit himself from the Denver area, could end up being a speed bump in that process, which isn't at all how he envisioned his career after choosing the Aggies from among more than two dozen Power Five scholarship offers. It was the unique atmosphere at Texas A&M, he said, and a lifelong fascination with the SEC that drew him to be an Aggie.
"I loved everything A&M stood for, the religious part, the kids, everybody there," said Marchiol, who spent his senior season at the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. "Football in Texas is like its own cult. It was everything I always dreamed of."
Ultimately, though, Sumlin didn't win enough, which meant Marchiol would go from choosing his coach to having one chosen for him.
While Texas A&M fans have celebrated the so-called culture change that comes with paying millions for someone of Fisher's pedigree to come in, the reality can be punishing for leftover players who might not mesh well with the new regime for myriad reasons.
For those players, NCAA rules offer little remedy besides a transfer.
Due to the urgency of getting a waiver so that he doesn't lose a year of eligibility, Marchiol was willing to give a lengthy interview to USA TODAY about what he experienced after Fisher was hired. While Marchiol's intention was not to ensnare Texas A&M in an investigation, he was determined to give a full account in order to give him the best chance at playing right away.
"Santino doesn't want to go through this process, and he doesn't like it one bit," Mars said. "He just wants to play football."
Cash for recruits' entertainment
Marchiol detailed to USA TODAY the allegations that formed the basis of what he submitted to Arizona's compliance office. Marchiol acknowledged in the statement that NCAA bylaws required him to be honest and forthcoming and that a failure to do so could result in the loss of his own eligibility.
On two separate weekends this spring, Marchiol told USA TODAY, he was given hundreds of dollars in cash by linebackers coach Bradley Dale Peveto to entertain prospects on unofficial visits. Those recruiting visits occurred, he said, following the April 14 spring game with Zach Edwards, a three-star linebacker from Starkville, Mississippi, and the second weekend in June with four-star linebacker Christian Harris (now a Texas A&M verbal commitment) and Nakobe Dean from Horn Lake, Mississippi, ranked as the No. 1 inside linebacker in the country by Rivals.com.
While NCAA rules at the time allowed schools to give a student host $40 a day to entertain recruits during official visits, prospects must pay their own expenses for unofficial visits, meaning any money provided by coaches would be a rules violation. Recruits are allowed to take up to five all-expenses-paid official visits each, but many also add unofficial visits to see other schools or make additional visits to a favorite school. News accounts of visits that Marchiol discussed indicate all were unofficial.
Marchiol describes being taken aback after the spring game when Peveto pulled him into a bathroom near the coaches' offices and handed him $300.
"There were coaches having meetings in the other office, and he said, here, come in the bathroom real quick because he'd just asked me to host the recruit," Marchiol said. "So I went in the bathroom and it was just me and him in there, and he's like, 'Take this, if you need any more just text me and make sure they have a good time.'"
On the second occasion, Marchiol said, the money exchange took place in the bathroom at Razzoo's Cajun Cafe in College Station, a restaurant where the team frequently takes recruits to eat. Marchiol said he received $400 from Peveto and a teammate Marchiol identified in his waiver request was handed another $300 during the exchange.
Marchiol said the money went toward drinks and snacks, but he had no record of the cash or purchases made and kept whatever wasn't spent. He said he didn't give any of it to the recruits.
When Texas A&M's players returned after Memorial Day weekend, defensive coordinator Mike Elko brought his players into a meeting and made clear what he expected of them: "He said, 'We're going to have a lot of meetings and practices that aren't technically required, but you guys have to be here because you're way behind. We need to win,'" Marchiol said.
NCAA rules changed in 2014, allowing football programs to schedule up to eight hours of mandatory work a week in the summer months, with up to two of those hours available for film review. Anything beyond that is supposed to be student-led and organized, without coaches viewing or participating.
What Marchiol described, however, was more akin to a full-time job: Four days a week he would be at the football facility at 9 a.m. for study hall and online classwork, not leaving until well after 6:30 p.m. In between, he described linebacker meetings to review film and discuss schemes that lasted between one and two hours and required conditioning sessions that lasted up to three hours (a schedule he provided showed his group had workouts scheduled from 1 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, but he said they frequently lasted longer).
Later in the afternoon, he said, he was expected to participate in "voluntary" 7-on-7 sessions where some coaches watched, called out plays and evaluated performance.
NCAA staff interpretations of Bylaw 17 states members of the on-field coaching staff are allowed to be present during the eight hours of required summer conditioning drills and that those drills, according to the bylaw, "(which) may simulate game activities are permissible, provided no offensive or defensive alignments are set up and no equipment related to the sport is used."
While the bylaws are vague enough to allow for wide latitude — in other words, 7-on-7 isn't a real offensive or defensive alignment — Marchiol described sessions that mirrored a standard football practice.
"We'd be in our defense running our plays and if the offense caught a ball you'd see Elko go running over and go, 'What the f---? You're supposed to (cover) here over the top,'" Marchiol said, describing a voluntary workout.
On Wednesdays, Marchiol said, players were required to arrive at 5:15 a.m. for conditioning drills with coaches that began at 5:30 a.m. If players showed up even a minute past 5:15 a.m., he said, the gates were closed and they were banished to the Stairmaster for 45 minutes.
According to an NCAA bylaw that became effective in August 2017 as part of a legislation package to address time demands for athletes, "required athletically related activities other than competition" are, with few exceptions, prohibited between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Marchiol showed USA TODAY a text message from Peveto dated March 4 at 8:21 p.m. to linebackers informing them of a "Academic meeting at 5 am Monday morning! See u'ya there ! Thanks"
Marchiol said the "academic" meeting was not for schoolwork but rather a film session.
Marchiol said players frequently questioned the workouts when talking privately with each other but didn't bring their concerns to compliance officials. "Everybody was scared," he said.
Injury treatment the final straw
The third set of allegations Marchiol submitted to Arizona involves the handling of an ankle injury in June, which he said was the last straw that convinced him to transfer. On June 11, Marchiol said, he was warming up for a conditioning workout when he heard a "pop" while landing on his right foot.
Unable to put weight on it, Marchiol was immediately concerned because of the Lisfranc fracture he suffered in his other foot the previous spring. The Colorado doctor who surgically inserted three screws in his left foot had instructed him to be cautious with his feet, a warning the previous Texas A&M training staff under Sumlin took seriously, he said, by holding him out of practice last fall when he suffered an ankle sprain.
After Fisher got the job at Texas A&M, changes were made to the football program's training staff, which hired Dan Jacobi from Mississippi State as the director of athletic training. Marchiol said he was examined on June 11 by Jacobi and athletic trainer Dalis Boyette, who taped his ankle and rubbed Tiger Balm on it.
According to Marchiol, Jacobi told him to take four ibuprofens and advised him that he should continue with the practice and that X-rays would be taken afterward. Marchiol said he returned to practice and ran 24 100-yard sprints until he could not feel his ankle anymore.
"Dan said there was no fracture but that it was a Grade 2 (ankle sprain) and there was probably some ligament damage," Marchiol said. "I told him with the last staff I had this happen and I didn't feel like I could be my best at practice. It was hard to even walk on. He made me feel stupid because he'd say something to reassure me but I know my body. My whole foot swelled up."
He practiced the rest of the week and said his lower leg continued to swell and showed significant bruising.
Marchiol said he believes he was pushed to play through the injury because of a belief coaches frequently shared loudly with the players: The Aggies program had been like a country club under Sumlin. In fact, he said, everything in the message of Fisher and his assistants had been themed to demand more toughness, from the duration of workouts to the language coaches used on the field to players being told outright that highly rated recruits were coming to replace them.
"They called us soft all the time," Marchiol said. "They kept telling us, 'This is gonna get worse, you haven't seen shit.'"
Ken Marchiol, who played briefly in the NFL before moving into the financial services sector, said he also witnessed language that he felt crossed the line.
"He called them a bunch of p------, said they weren't worth a f---," Ken Marchiol said. "It wasn't teaching, just attacking."
After persevering through what he felt like was unfair treatment, Santino Marchiol had reached his limit. The week after he was forced to practice on an injured ankle, he packed up and moved out of College Station.
'What choice do you have?'
While the NCAA has seemingly been more lenient granting transfer waivers this summer — Demetris Robertson (California to Georgia) and Taysir Mack (Indiana to Pittsburgh) were recently ruled eligible despite no obvious basis for a waiver — it is still a process shrouded in the mystery of NCAA bureaucracy.
Some of the leniency appears to be connected to the NCAA's "mitigating circumstances" policy modification, which came together quickly as the Ole Miss issue simmered. While it allowed Shea Patterson, who was announced as Michigan's starting quarterback Monday, along with other transfers represented by Mars to be eligible right away, it also seems to have wider implications.
The Ole Miss situation was instructive for Mars, a former director of the Arkansas State Police who once worked as general counsel for Walmart Inc. Traditionally, as Mars discovered, the waiver process has been a collegial undertaking between the two schools, but not always to the athlete's benefit.
Though Marchiol said he understands that speaking out will make him a target for criticism from those who believe he simply couldn't cut it under Fisher, his attorney was adamant that laying all his cards on the table was the best path to overcoming the obstacles built into the system.
"When the stakes are this high, nobody should expect the student-athlete's advocate to be pulling punches," Mars said. "After all, what choice do you have when the transfer rules invite the disclosure of misconduct at the student-athlete's former school as grounds for a waiver?"
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