Many questions still remain about Curtis Blackwell.
What did the former Michigan State football program’s director of college advancement and performance say when he spoke with three players who were accused of sexual assault? When and how did the university find out about those conversations? And why did his relationship with coach Mark Dantonio and the rest of the Spartans’ program sour so quickly?
A 14-page report by law firm Jones Day determined Blackwell, 39, violated MSU’s policy for employees’ handling of relationship violence and sexual misconduct cases. His contract expired May 31 after a series of one-month contracts, and Dantonio said it was his decision before the release of that report Monday to let Blackwell go after nearly four years on his staff.
“It was basically a philosophical change,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “We evaluated everything. There was a change, we needed to be able to move forward and this decision was made.”
MSU confirmed Monday that Blackwell was the unnamed football staff member in the Jones Day report. He was suspended with pay on Feb. 9, the same day as football players Josh King, Donnie Corley and Demetric Vance for their roles in an alleged sexual assault that happened Jan. 16. Dantonio dismissed all three players Monday after they were each charged with criminal sexual misconduct by Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon.
Siemon, in announcing those charges, said Blackwell would not be charged criminally. She denied MSU Police’s request for a warrant for his arrest for obstructing an investigation.
A message to Blackwell’s attorney, Frank Reynolds, was not immediately returned. Blackwell has not returned multiple requests for comment since he was suspended. He changed his Twitter handle this week to remove a reference to MSU.
Blackwell declined to be interviewed by attorneys from Jones Day. Their investigation was unable to gauge the severity of any such violation by Blackwell.
The first alleged sexual assault, involving three players, occurred in the early morning of Jan. 16 at University Village apartments. The report says Blackwell also learned Jan. 16 about the incident after Dantonio had spoken with a player – identified later as Auston Robertson by Board of Trustees member – who reported the incident.
Blackwell reportedly then had contact with the three players who were involved in the alleged assault “to determine what had occurred, communicated with the parent of one of those players regarding the incident, and failed to report any information he learned to OIE or MSU.”
Dantonio said the rift between him and Blackwell began around that time. Blackwell had been instrumental in building the Spartans’ 2016 recruiting class, the highest-rated group in Dantonio’s 11 seasons at MSU. King, Corley, Vance and Robertson – who also is facing sexual assault charges from an April incident – were part of that recruiting class.
“It’s just that things changed this year,” Dantonio said. “Up to that point, I think we were going in the same direction, but in the last four or five months I believed the philosophy just changed.”
Blackwell was hired in August 2013 to help in coordinate the Spartans’ recruiting in a non-coaching position. According to his LinkedIn page, Blackwell’s roles included developing and implementing recruiting strategies, mentoring student-athletes, organizing official and unofficial visits for recruits, developing “recruiting mailings,” and promoting MSU football.
He last spoke publicly to the media during the Spartans’ signing day event for its 2017 recruiting class on Feb. 1 at Spartan Stadium.
A letter dated Feb. 9 from athletic director Mark Hollis in Blackwell’s personnel file that was obtained via the Freedom of Information Act said Blackwell was suspended for “several allegations regarding your conduct.” Hollis ordered Blackwell to not have any contact with MSU athletes or recruits on or off campus during his suspension and was not permitted to attend department events or functions.
Blackwell’s yearly contract was set to expire March 31, but he had been given two one-month extensions. MSU gave Blackwell a raise on March 1, 2016 “for both merit and retention” that bumped his annual salary to $129,000, according to his personnel file. The additional two months of extensions at his pay rate were for roughly $21,500.
“When you have an incident like this, everybody has to go through the process of looking at what’s been done and what can be done,” Hollis said Tuesday. “The important component now is what can be done to be better. Not only with our student-athletes, but with all of campus.”
Blackwell, a Detroit King High graduate, also was the creator of Sound Mind, Sound Body high school football camps, which are anchored in his hometown and have spread nationally in recent years. He received his undergraduate degree in sports management from Hampton (Va.) University and a master's in sports administration from Baylor.
Dantonio cited “philosophical differences” in not renewing Blackwell’s contract, despite the two contract extensions.
“We were in the process at that point in time of evaluating our entire staff, and responsibilities, and getting feedback from everybody,” Dantonio said. “So I can’t say whether it was before or after, but we had conversations. As I said, philosophical differences.”
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