At 5:30 sharp on a Monday afternoon in August 2011, a University of Miami athletic staffer rode an elevator to the top floor of a midrise building on South Dixie Highway directly across from the campus in Coral Gables. Tall, with a gawky smile and wide ears, he was ushered into a conference room in the school's general counsel's office. He was on edge.
The man waiting inside immediately put the staffer at ease. Rich Johanningmeier was in his 60s, still a fine-tuned athlete despite his age, with a large patrician nose and a balding head. The two batted around small talk across the oval conference table laid out with chocolate-chip cookies and soda cans. The older man asked the staffer where he was from and then reminisced about his own days as a college football coach. Eventually, he clicked on a small handheld recorder, and the questions began.
The avuncular vibe was quickly ditched. Johanningmeier relentlessly dive-bombed his subject, demanding answers about when the staffer had been with certain players and boosters. At what clubs? When? It went on for three hours.
UM's NCAA Probe
"He was brutal," recalls the former UM staffer, who declined to be named for this article. "He was presenting things as facts, whether they were true or not. I remember situations where I was telling the truth, and he just wouldn't accept it, and there was nothing I could do to prove it to him."
Until his May 2012 retirement, Johanningmeier was one of the NCAA's top cops. His role in the UM case adds further evidence to suspicions that regulators didn't play fair. The revelation that a man with a controversial past played such a large role supports university President Donna Shalala's allegation that UM was "wronged." Throughout his career, Johanningmeier has been accused in court filings and testimony of unethical behavior, including:
• Railroading two University of Alabama football coaches based on shoddy information from secret witnesses.
• Manipulating witness testimony to concoct an allegation against former Mississippi head football coach Jackie Sherrill.
• Playing more of a leading role in the scandal over the NCAA's unethical use of an outside attorney at UM than was originally known.
The NCAA declined to comment on the claims. New Times could not reach Johanningmeier by presstime.
A St. Louis native, Johanningmeier was an all-conference lineman for Southwest Missouri State from 1960 to 1963. He logged time as an assistant at small programs at American International, Vermont, and Connecticut before returning to his alma mater as a head coach in 1976. After a decade, Johanningmeier answered an ad in the NCAA News for an enforcement job.
"The reaction [to my switch from coach to watchdog] surprises me some," Johanningmeier told the Associated Press in 1986. "A lot of the guys have been really sincere about it and said, 'We're glad there's a coach in there. Maybe you'll understand more.'"
But the coaches who've crossed the investigator's path since then don't fondly recall the experience.
Take when he was tapped in 2000 to probe the University of Alabama's recruitment of a Memphis player named Albert Means. A Crimson Tide booster paid $150,000 to the defensive tackle's high school coaches to seal Means' commitment to Alabama. The NCAA dispatched Johanningmeier to find out if the coaching staff was aware of the arrangement.
"He'd come in with that buddy-buddy deal," recalls Ivy Williams, then an Alabama assistant coach. "But if you don't tell him what he wants to hear, the script is gonna get flipped and you're going to be the center of attention."
Williams says when he declined to finger other members of the Alabama staff, he and another Alabama assistant coach, Ronnie Cottrell, were targeted. What followed was jurisprudence straight out of Kafka; the NCAA's ammo all came from secret witnesses the accused were never allowed to confront.
"They tell you all this stuff about what somebody has said about you and what you supposedly did, but they never tell you who that person is," Williams says with frustration. "And they tell you what you can't talk about and what you shouldn't say, and the next day, it's leaked out."
The NCAA threatened to cancel the Alabama program. Williams was accused of three major violations: knowing about the Means pay-for-play setup and staying quiet; lying to Johanningmeier about Means' recruitment; and exceeding the number of permitted high school visits in Memphis.
But before the coach could officially mount a defense, the NCAA yanked the first two — more serious — charges. Despite the witch-trial atmosphere surrounding the case, neither coach nor assistant coach was found guilty of infractions.
Together, they filed a defamation lawsuit against the NCAA, Johanningmeier, and others involved. During pretrial hearings, their lawyers discovered the secret source for the bulk of the accusations: a recruiting scout who had no evidence. Johanningmeier had originally contacted the source on a tip from the head coach at Alabama rival the University of Tennessee. The Bama coaches had essentially been railroaded based on the questionable testimony of a single unsubstantiated source with a conflict of interest.
In 2005, a jury handed Cottrell, the other assistant coach, a $30 million judgment, which was later thrown out by a judge on technical grounds. Williams didn't win anything. Although their names were cleared, the stain of the investigation has scared away most Division I programs.
"It is the most blatantly un-American thing ever," says Thomas Gallion, a lawyer who represented both Bama coaches. "The NCAA, they were one of the more corrupt, blatantly — for lack of a better word — Hitleristic organizations I've ever seen."
Johanningmeier is also currently the target in another lawsuit stemming from an investigation in 2003 into then-Mississippi State University Coach Jackie Sherrill. "Johanningmeier did a lot of things in our investigation which were not right," says the now-retired coach's attorney, Wayne Ferrell. "The information from the University of Miami is very interesting. It's the exact same thing that he did in this investigation and in the Alabama investigation."
In 2002, the NCAA began probing MSU's program over alleged recruiting violations. Again, Johanningmeier and other NCAA investigators pulled information from a source with a clear bias. This time, the secret witness was a University of Mississippi booster named Julie Gilbert, according to the lawsuit.
In December 2003, MSU and Sherrill were handed notices of allegations. Among accusations of impermissible contact and illegal expenses for recruits, the most damning claim alleged that coach Sherrill promised a high schooler a car if he attended the school. As evidence, the report referenced a conversation between the coach and the student's grandfather.
But the family countered the claim, adding that the NCAA investigator knew it was false before making an official charge. According to affidavits included in a defamation lawsuit Sherrill filed in 2004 against the NCAA and Johanningmeier, three of the student's family members said their testimony was misused.
"This allegation is false, and I have told the NCAA investigator, Richard A. Johanningmeier, that it was false," the grandfather wrote in his statement. "I would also like to point out in my opinion that my family and I were deliberately deceived by Richard Johanningmeier into believing that any statements to him regarding our involvement in the interview process and/or investigation of Mississippi State University would not be disclosed, at any time... My family's statements have been twisted and untruthfully stated."
The case has yet to go to trial.
This was the ethical baggage Johanningmeier brought to the Miami investigation. The NCAA began looking into UM after convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro claimed he'd lavished money and gifts on UM players and recruits for more than a decade.
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According to the NCAA's report on the investigation, Johanningmeier quarterbacked much of the important early action. Shapiro's first contact with the NCAA came in the form of a jailhouse letter addressed to Johanningmeier in February 2011. He and fellow investigator Ameen Najjar visited the con artist in jail throughout spring 2011. At one point, Johanningmeier purchased a disposable cell phone to communicate with Shapiro and also put more than $4,500 into his prison commissary account.
The investigator was also in contact with Maria Elena Perez, Shapiro's attorney. When Perez offered to use Shapiro's bankruptcy hearings to help the NCAA's case, she emailed her offer to Johanningmeier. NCAA records indicate the investigator formed the questions Perez would ask in those depositions.
Johanningmeier worked the investigation until retiring in May 2012. Najjar was fired around the same time. That December, news leaked out that NCAA investigators had gone to unethical lengths to gather information in the case by using Perez. The NCAA commissioned a report on the flawed probe in late 2012. But in the concluding report, Johanningmeier skirted most blame. Najjar was fingered as responsible, and the organization's vice president of enforcement, Julie Roe Lach, lost her job.
"Mr. Johanningmeier retired in May 2012 without any inkling that Ms. Perez's proposal could cause a problem for the NCAA," the report says. "He still maintains that there has been an overreaction to the issue."