In 2017, an attorney named Thomas Mars was driving around Mississippi listening to an audiobook called “The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football.” He knew almost nothing about college football. He knew even less about how much the book’s title would soon come to define him.
Three years later, Mars has become the unlikeliest rabble-rouser in the sport. One of the few guys in the South who never bothered to watch college football on weekends has developed a potent legal practice helping players and needling…
The season begins in earnest this weekend, but most of the big players won’t be wearing helmets or shoulder pads. They are the coaches on the sideline, the commissioners and executives in their private luxury boxes.
College football is run by the men who control the money and make the most of it. Here are The Post’s 20 most influential people in the sport:
1. Greg Sankey
The SEC commissioner and chairman of the NCAA infractions committee has been in charge of college football’s most powerful conference for the past five years. He began building a massive network of relationships upon joining the league in 2002 and is one of the sport’s most well-liked and respected officials. The SEC is still king in college football, and Sankey is its most important voice.
2. Jimmy Pitaro
Becoming ESPN’s president in March 2018 — following John Skipper’s resignation — Pitaro holds the sport’s most important games in his hands. With seven years remaining on the $7.2 billion deal the network signed for the rights to the first 12 years of the College Football Playoff, the four-team field won’t be altered before 2026, unless ESPN benefits.
3. Nick Saban
The architect of the greatest dynasty in college football history — an unprecedented five national championships in a nine-year span at Alabama — Saban is tied with Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most national championships all time (six). He creates a staggering number of headlines with his thoughts on the state and future of the game, and is considered by many to already be the greatest coach of all time.
4. Mark Emmert
The NCAA president since 2010, Emmert has withstood several scandals — from the Penn State and Baylor sexual assault cases to FBI investigation into college basketball — and held off the push so far to financially compensate student-athletes. The move to a playoff doesn’t happen without his blessing, and expanding it won’t, either.
5. Bill Hancock
The former head of the BCS remains the only executive director the College Football Playoff has had since being introduced five years ago. Though Hancock largely takes his cues from conference commissioners and school presidents, he successfully oversaw the transition and implementation of the long-awaited playoff and has already been part of discussions for potential expansion.
6. Bob Bowlsby
Entering his seventh year as Big 12 commissioner, Bowlsby created a conference championship last year to help the league earn greater playoff consideration. Like many higher-ups in the sport, Bowlsby isn’t fond of all the player movement, believing all transfers should have to sit out a year.
7. John Swofford
The ACC’s longest-tenured commissioner, Swofford formed the mega-conference through realignment, adding the likes of Syracuse, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech, as well as Notre Dame in basketball. He launched the ACC Network this year and was integral in the creation of the playoff, saying that expanding the playoff to eight teams would be “ideal.”
8. Larry Scott
Scott has been feeling heat, as the Pac-12 Network struggles and the beaten-down conference hasn’t sent a team into the playoff three of the past four years.
9. Mark Parker
Nike remains the behemoth in college football among apparel companies, outfitting virtually all the powers, from Alabama and Clemson to Georgia and Oklahoma. Parker — Phil Knight’s replacement — is the head of Nike, giving him ample clout.
10. Kevin Plank
Nike still sets the pace, but Plank — the founder of Under Armour — has the once-unchallenged king of athletic apparel constantly looking over its shoulder. A former Maryland football player now worth more than $2 billion, Plank has built one of the most popular brands among college-age athletes, and it is worn by dozens of schools, including Notre Dame.
11. Jimmy Sexton
The most powerful agent in college football represents head coaches such as Saban, Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher, Gus Malzahn, Dan Mullen, Willie Taggart and Lane Kiffin. Sexton also has numerous NFL clients and relationships and has the ability to shake up the college and professional game every offseason.
12. Dabo Swinney
The loose, aw-shucks native Alabamian has changed everything about Clemson, turning a program known for collapsing — or “Clemsoning” — into a national power on equal footing with Alabama, claiming two national titles in the past three years.
13. Tom Mars
The lawyer who represented Justin Fields in his successful waiver case now has a new calling. He’s now part of the NCAA’s newly formed Complex Case Unit, a group of outside investigators teaming with NCAA enforcement staff to look into potential violations.
14. Trevor Lawrence
Currently, student-athletes have little to no power. But Lawrence is already the biggest name in the sport and the biggest prospect in years, winning the national championship as a true freshman quarterback. Lawrence likely will be the focus of the nation for the next two years, with the power to voice student-athlete and amateurism issues louder than anyone.
15. Jim Delany
Once the most influential in the sport, Delany’s reign as Big Ten commissioner comes to an end after this year, following three decades. Don’t think he won’t be heard from as he walks out the door, especially if his conference is left out of the playoff for the third straight season.
16. Paul Finebaum
The authority on the sport’s most important region — the Southeast — has become one of ESPN’s most recognizable faces. The former sports reporter and columnist built his following by syndicating The Paul Finebaum Radio Network across the region, and is now acknowledged as one of the most popular and respected voices in the game.
17. Kirk Herbstreit
The former Ohio State quarterback’s greatest contribution to college football came long after he took off his pads. Herbstreit, 50, spends Saturday mornings as a staple on the most popular college football pregame show in the nation — ESPN’s “College GameDay,” alongside Lee Corso, Rece Davis and Desmond Howard — and spends Saturday nights working as an analyst for the week’s biggest game, alongside Chris Fowler, with whom Herbstreit also calls the national championship game.
18. Jeffrey Kessler
The famed sports labor attorney is taking on the NCAA in an ongoing class-action antitrust case on behalf of college football — and basketball — players seeking to eliminate restrictions on compensating college athletes.
19. Jack Swarbrick
The longtime lawyer who serves as director of athletics at Notre Dame nearly became NCAA president in 2002 after playing a major role in the organization relocating to Indianapolis. Now, working at his alma mater since 2008, Swarbrick, 65, leads one of the most valuable brands in college football.
20. Gavin Newsom
The governor of California could soon play a huge role in allowing student-athletes to make money without losing their eligibility. In May, the California State Senate approved a bill known as “The Fair Pay to Play Act,” which would allow college players attending California schools to profit from the use of their name and likeness, without losing their scholarships, while also allowing the athletes to hire an agent or attorney in business dealings. If the bill passes the California legislature, Newsom will simply need to sign it into law, putting it into effect beginning Jan. 1, 2023.
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In a way, it all started when Rex Horne baptized Thomas “Tom” Mars in 2001.
Mars and Horne became close friends, and 16 years later Horne asked Mars if he would help out another former Immanuel Baptist member, Houston Nutt.
Fast forward to this month, and Mars is being named to the NCAA’s Complex Case Unit.
That new arm of the NCAA was part of the recommended changes by the Commission on College Basketball led by Condoleezza Rice.
How does a man who once sued Walmart and won, who was head of the Arkansas State Police, who was working at the Friday Firm when Horne asked him to help Nutt, end up with what will be one of the most powerful positions in college athletics governing body?
To say the least, it has been a bullet train for Mars.
It started with certain Ole Miss officials claiming much of their problems with the NCAA were on Nutt’s watch.
Mars politely asked them to cease and desist, then started doing what all good attorneys do — research.
When the dust settled on Oxford, Ole Miss issued an apology to Nutt as then-coach Hugh Freeze was fired amid a sex scandal, ironically discovered on phone records. When Nutt was at the University of Arkansas, his own phone records were heavily scrutinized.
Anyway, the Nutt case led to Mars representing Shea Patterson, a quarterback for Ole Miss who not only wanted to transfer to Michigan but also declared for immediately eligible rather than sit out the customary one year.
When Mars got Patterson declared eligible, the world of perspiring arts noticed in a big way. Five more Ole Miss athletes hired him.
Mars is a Michigan graduate and got his law degree from the UA.
Mars left the Friday Firm and set up shop in Atlanta while maintaining an office in Northwest Arkansas.
His phone started to light up and stayed lit up.
One call was from an ex-cop — Mars admits he has a soft spot for the police — who was the father of Georgia’s Justin Fields, a five-star recruit who wanted to transfer to Ohio State and play immediately.
Fields is a dual-threat quarterback who had offers from every major football program in the country.
Once again, Mars went to work. He used a well-publicized incident in which a Georgia baseball player hurled racially derogatory comments toward Fields to help Fields get declared eligible immediately at Michigan.
Mars name blew up nationwide.
Calls came from everywhere seeking his help, and no one was blinking an eye at his $400-an-hour rate because they wanted him so much.
In a May interview with Chip Towers for DawgNation.com, Mars estimated he had taken on more than 50 athletes as clients.
He also said something very wise that did not go unnoticed by the NCAA. He pointed out that he does not go “against the NCAA,” but uses its rules and facts to present his cases.
Most likely, the Complex Case Unit will study the new transfer portal and all that has transpired with it, which has made a huge change in college athletics.
Transfer rules will be examined and most likely changed, maybe drastically.
Who knows those rules better than Mars? No one.
Everywhere Mars has gone, he has been successful. Now he takes on a challenge in a world he knew very little about two years ago.
He told Towers he was not a huge college football fan when he took on Nutt’s case, but he has learned a lot in a hurry.
Thinking fast and acting almost as quickly is apparently second nature for Mars. His next step, in time, very well could be president of the NCAA.
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The NCAA introduced Thursday a new arm of rules enforcement made up of independent investigators, advocates and decision-makers to handle complex cases involving serious infractions.
Creating a new process for dealing with some high-profile infractions cases was one of several recommendations made last year by the Rice Commission on college basketball. The commission, created in response to an FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting, concluded the NCAA’s existing investigation and enforcement structure was rife with potential and perceived conflicts of interest.
The current investigative process relies on schools self-reporting and self-investigating. The committee on infractions, which determines whether schools should be penalized and how, is made up of high-ranking administrators from NCAA member schools and conferences.
The Independent Accountability Resolution Process will be comprised of four groups, including the Complex Case Unit, which will conduct investigations and provide representation for schools and individuals accused of violations. Among those chosen for the CCU were former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who investigated the role of Penn State officials in the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal, and attorney Tom Mars, who has recently helped several high-profile football players gain immediate eligibility from the NCAA after transferring.
The Independent Resolution Panel will conduct hearings, decide whether violations occurred and hand down penalties. The panel has 15 members that will work in groups of five on cases referred to the Independent Accountability Resolution Process.
“The folks that were identified that will serve in these different capacities … will all be individuals who have no direct affiliation with any NCAA member schools,” Naima Stevenson Starks, the NCAA’s vice president of hearing operations, told the AP.
“Although this is not a legal process, we do have individuals that have legal backgrounds. Arbitrators, particularly for those individuals that will be the adjudicators in this process,” she said. “We’ve got a few folks that are former student-athletes so they will have some perspective on athletics and that experience at a college campus, but no one who was closely linked in time with a direct affiliation with college athletics.
“We do have a few individuals who may have had some direct involvement either at the national office or in the membership, but it would have been a good amount of time since that experience was relevant.”
Members of the Resolution Panel will serve yet to be determined terms, likely ranging from 2-4 years. Stevenson Starks said the goal is to have some experienced members on the panel to complement new members.
Stevenson Starks said a request for proposal was used to solicit firms and investigative entities that had an interest in joining the Complex Case Unit. A search firm was used to identify candidates to serve on the Resolution Panel.
“There will be orientation to appropriately position all the various folks that will be involved with the Independent Accountability Resolution Process to try to get them up to speed,” Stevenson Starks said. “On the one hand the independence was of the utmost importance, but it also leads into the need for some additional ramp up since these folks will have not been familiar with the operation of college athletics and the rules adopted by the membership.”
All potential infractions cases still will be initiated by schools or NCAA enforcement. There are three ways to request a case be moved to IARP.
“A school that is involved in an in infractions matter in the existing structure could request to have their case removed to the independent structure. The vice president of enforcement can make that request as well. And the last entity that can refer a case is the (Division I) committee on infractions,” Stevenson Starks said.
A five-member Infractions Referral Committee will determine whether cases will be moved out of the traditional enforcement process.
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