A former member of the University of Southern California football coaching staff alleged in a lawsuit that undergraduate students were paid to pose as graduate assistants from the team to take online classes on their behalf and fulfill their degree requirements, and that reporting these and other potential NCAA violations led to his departure from USC.
In his lawsuit filed Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Rick Courtright, USC’s defensive quality control assistant from 2016 to 2018, says he overheard graduate assistants Brett Arce and Austin Clark discuss working with defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to pay two students with low-level positions in the program to take online classes for the graduate assistants. Courtright says he later witnessed Pendergast, who is named as a defendant in the complaint along with the school, hand an unspecified amount of cash to Clark. The graduate assistant then gave it to one of the students.
“Upon witnessing these events, Courtright believed that the actions of Pendergast and the Graduate Assistants violated state and federal laws and regulations including academic fraud and fraud with the NCAA,” the complaint said, as reported by the Los Angeles Times.
Courtright reported the allegations to USC’s athletic department compliance office in June 2017, the lawsuit said, and also filed an anonymous complaint with the school.
According to the Times, the lawsuit said Courtright subsequently reported concerns that the graduate assistants might have violated NCAA rules by driving full-time assistant coaches while they recruited, and used a school courtesy car for personal reasons. That came after USC athletic director Lynn Swann sent a memo to athletic department employees in October 2017 asking them to report illegal or questionable activity in the aftermath of the FBI’s arrest of men’s basketball assistant coach Tony Bland in the college basketball corruption investigation.
The lawsuit said Courtright also reported that players warmed up before games without protective equipment or full-time coaches present to supervise them. That included an incident where two players collided and experienced concussions, according to the lawsuit, during warmups before USC’s game against Washington State in September 2017.
The complaints triggered retaliation against Courtright in the form of his computer and personal property being moved or stolen and obscene sticky notes being placed around his desk, according to the lawsuit, which states he was suddenly ostracized by other staffers. Coach Clay Helton told Courtright that Pendegast didn't want to retain him because "things weren't working out," and banned Courtright from campus and the football offices.
“Courtright is informed and believes that USC banned him from the football department so that he would no longer be privy to multiple illegal activities in the department and therefore would not be able to report these activities,” the lawsuit said.
According to the lawsuit, Helton gave Courtright a choice in April 2018 of resigning or being fired. Courtright resigned in May 2018.
Courtright, who has been a coach, scout or consultant for various NFL and college teams for 33 years, is seeking at least $2 million in damages. The seven counts in the lawsuit include violating state whistleblower protections, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit credits Courtright with implementing a “pressure package” defense to help USC win 10 games, including the Rose Bowl, during the 2016 season and said Swann called him a “steal” because the school “was getting so much expertise and value for so little salary.”
After leaving USC, the lawsuit said, Courtright took a job as defensive coordintor for Mayville State, an NAIA school in North Dakota, then departed for a position as a consultant with the U.S. Army, according to the Times.
Pendergast remains USC’s defensive coordinator.
“USC is investigating the allegations in the lawsuit,” a USC spokesman said in a statement. “The university strives to ensure compliance with NCAA rules.”