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Kickoff, At Last

Logan Young goes on trial, charged with bribing former Trezevant coach Lynn Lang to send Albert Means to Alabama.

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After more than four years of Internet trash talk, speculation, sensationalism, and delays, it's kickoff time in the Logan Young trial.

The case of the United States of America v. Logan Young Jr. is scheduled to begin Monday, January 24th, in U.S. District Court in Memphis, with U.S. District Judge Daniel Breen presiding.

Forget all the juicy gossip about the NCAA's motives, "slave trading," bag men, snitches, and bad blood between the universities of Alabama and Tennessee. We'll have real answers soon enough. Forget too whether federal prosecutors should ever have gotten involved in a football recruiting case and spent an untold amount of money pursuing an already banished booster.

The issue is moot. The game is on.

The government says Young, a wealthy Memphis businessman and fanatical University of Alabama football fan, paid former Trezevant High School football coach Lynn Lang $150,000 to ensure that Lang's star player, lineman Albert Means, would enroll at Alabama.

The case is so old that Means, who transferred to the University of Memphis after one year, has completed his college eligibility and will likely be trying out for some professional team this summer.

The saga of Means, Lang, and Young has prompted more than 200 stories in The Commercial Appeal alone and hundreds more regional and national stories. ESPN will take note of the upcoming trial.

A packed house is expected in the courtroom, at least on days when Lang testifies. Young doesn't have to testify and probably won't, according to legal experts. Other witnesses could include NCAA investigators, University of Tennessee head football coach Phillip Fulmer, and possibly other head coaches and assistants.

Since he reportedly didn't get any of the alleged $150,000 bribe himself, Means might not be called as a witness either, although as someone said about the famous 1950s congressional hearings on the quiz show scandals and cheater Charles Van Doren, that would be like putting on a production of Hamlet without Hamlet.

The trial already has story lines worthy of a championship football game.

Prosecutor Fred Godwin is an ex-cop with 20 years experience with the Justice Department, including a well-publicized case involving sports betting in Memphis in the 1980s in which he won a key conviction. Lead defense attorney Jim Neal of Nashville is an ex-federal prosecutor in the twilight of an illustrious career that has included representing Memphians William B. Tanner, Dr. George Nichopoulos (better known as "Dr. Nick," Elvis Presley's doctor), and former state senator Ed Gillock.

Former U.S. attorney for West Tennessee Hickman Ewing Jr., who tried the bookmaking cases with Godwin and prosecuted Gillock, calls Godwin "a pretty hard-nosed guy" and Neal "probably the best criminal defense lawyer in the country when I was a prosecutor."

Lynn Lang was a defensive lineman at Alcorn State University who became a swaggering and successful high school football coach in Memphis. While coaching at Trezevant High School, his standard of living mysteriously rose in apparent disproportion to his modest pay as a teacher. When the Albert Means story broke in 2000, Lang insisted it was a lie. He pleaded not guilty when he was indicted in 2001 but later changed his plea and began cooperating with the government. He has been in virtual hiding in Michigan for two years while free on bond.

When he enters the witness box as the government's star witness, Lang may feel like he's back in the trenches at Alcorn State, with every play coming right at him. He is the only person to directly connect Young to a bribe.

Logan Young comes from a far different world than Lang or Means. He was the privileged child of a wealthy Osceola, Arkansas, businessman, a graduate of private schools, and a country-clubber. He was a friend and devoted admirer of legendary Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and was the original owner of the old Memphis Showboats pro football team. He had a box at 'Bama's football stadium until the NCAA and the university came down on him for recruiting violations. He has money to burn, though, and has spent quite a lot of it lately on lawyers.

He'll need them. Team USA has invested four years, a tidy sum of money, and its prestige and credibility on a case that, whatever its outcome, is unlikely to put an end to what one government press release called "the sale of high school athletes for personal gain" in Memphis, much less across the country. Highly recruited athletes like Means who play four years of college football or basketball are actually less common today than they were six years ago when Means was in high school. An increasing number now play only one or two years in college or go straight to the pros.

Team Logan will spare no money to put up a first-class defense. Young faces five years and a $250,000 fine if convicted, and friends say he would not be able to stand it in jail.

His legal team, which includes former Shelby County district attorney John Pierotti and Memphis assistant city attorney Allan Wade, has already been conducting mock trials. Former defendants in federal criminal trials say Young's defense team is also likely to use professional jury consultants and so-called shadow juries during the trial to take soundings on how certain lines of questioning or witnesses might be received by the real deal.

As in any high-profile federal trial, most of the first few days will be taken up with jury selection. The 11th-hour filings in the case involved the specifics of the jury questionnaires. The jury pool will be pared to 26 potential jurors, then each side can challenge or strike additional candidates it doesn't like until the final jury and alternates remain.

Because Young is white and Lang and Means are black, there has been water-cooler speculation about whether a predominantly black or white jury would help one side or the other. One theory is that Young's lawyers will want a black jury because of Young's friendship with former congressman Harold Ford Sr., who could possibly be called to testify as a character witness. But Ford himself was tried twice by the federal government and wound up being acquitted by a mostly-white jury chosen from the Jackson, Tennessee area.

One category of jurors most likely to be dismissed: anyone with University of Alabama connections. Although there are Crimson Tide fans glad to be rid of Young, others believe he and their once-mighty football program were persecuted by the NCAA at the prompting of Fulmer and others. Foremost among them is Montgomery, Alabama, attorney Tommy Gallion, who has filed a civil lawsuit against NCAA investigators. Gallion's lawsuit has fed the flames and uncovered a few things that are embarrassing, if not fatal, to Fulmer, Tennessee, and the NCAA. That suit is set for trial in June in Alabama.

Once the jury in Memphis is chosen, Lang will take center stage.

"It is likely that the case will be decided based on the jury's determination of the credibility of Mr. Lang" and supporting witnesses, Neal wrote in a court brief last year. The brief said it is of "paramount importance" to the defense to discredit Lang and Tom Culpepper, a self-styled football recruiting analyst, Fulmer confidant, and another likely anti-Young witness.

The government says Young paid Lang by making a series of withdrawals from his bank account, each for less than $10,000 to avoid IRS reporting requirements. Culpepper has told investigators that he heard Young boasting about recruiting Means years ago when he and Young were on a trip together.

The government says Young made 61 cash withdrawals for a total of $291,000 during the period named in the indictment, of which $150,000 found its way to Lang between September 1999 and October 2000. Young's attorneys will try to show that he made the bank withdrawals for another purpose. As in every criminal case, the defense must only show that there is "reasonable doubt" about the government's claim.

Young might or might not testify. He has a reputation for being loud and boisterous when he's been drinking at favorite hangouts such as Folk's Folly, the Grove Grill, or Ronnie Grisanti's, but stone sober is a different story. He has consistently maintained his innocence for four years and has been reasonably accessible to the media during that time. If the defense decides to let Young testify, the government will be able to cross-examine him.

"Once you put the defendant on the stand, you kind of lose control of the case," said Ewing. "They'll want to see how well Lang holds up first."

The legal sparring continued right up through the middle of this month. On January 11th, a notice of more sealed documents was placed in the fat case file. The defense wanted "any witness statements, grand-jury testimony, or other information in the government's possession that is inconsistent in any detail with respect to any government witness's past statements or anticipated testimony."

That would certainly cover Lang, who was first represented by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, then in private practice, and Lang's sidekick and former assistant coach, Milton Kirk. It was Kirk who, as the newspaper never fails to remind its readers, told his story to The Commercial Appeal, claiming that Lang promised him a share of the bribe but never made good. Kirk was indicted along with Lang but pleaded guilty before Lang did.

The government responded that it doesn't have to produce such material if it is not going to call the person as a witness.

Interested observers of the trial will include scores of big-time football coaches, especially in the Southeastern Conference and Conference USA, which recruit heavily in Memphis or play against Alabama or Tennessee. Lang told prosecutors that he shopped Means to at least seven schools, bragging that the bidding reached $200,000 and, by various accounts, included cash, cars, and houses.

In a way, Memphis will also be on trial. The city's reputation for sleazy coaches and shady recruiting was the focus of a chapter in Newsweek journalist Richard Ernsberger's book Bragging Rights published in 2000. Kirk went one better, calling the recruiting of Means "slave trading."

The NCAA, represented by Memphis attorney Kemper Durand in the case filed by Gallion, will also be watching closely, and some of its investigators are likely to be called as witnesses. Young's problems began with an NCAA investigation of suspicious recruiting in Memphis.

"Collegiate athletics today maintain a reputation for policing its own ranks unequaled in any similar field," Durand said in a brief in the Young case. "The continued spontaneity and access to informed sources depends entirely on the maintenance of confidentiality of communication between the coaches, student-athletes, employees of member institutions or other informants and the NCAA. Without this credible promise of secrecy, informed sources will refuse to come forward and college athletics will suffer."

Starting January 24th, the pious Boy Scout rhetoric, confidentiality, and promises of secrecy are over. The informed sources, players, and coaches will take the field for some full-contact action. Reputations are at stake. And someone's going to suffer. n

Cover Story by John Branston

SCORECARD

When Team USA has the ball.

Lynn Lang right, Lynn Lang left, Lynn Lang and a cloud of dust up the middle. Government's only long-ball threat, barring a surprise substitution. Must trample Logan Young. Will have to play both offense and defense.

Milton Kirk. Whiny fireplug who complained that Lang was getting all the carries, then spilled the play book to the media. Now must block for Lang.

Fred Godwin. Quarterback and signal caller. Been calling plays for feds since 1984. Ex-cop. Ex-army. Ex-instructor of criminal justice. Can run the option, go deep, grind it out. Must win by a shutout.

Phillip Fulmer. Veteran lineman could make cameo appearance. Sure to draw a crowd, but could be involved in misdirection plays as decoy. Hates penalties. Thinks other team cheats if they're in Crimson. Would rather be in Knoxville.

NCAA investigators. Team USA all the way! Will line up alongside Fulmer. Penalties-R-Us. Has already thrown Logan Young for a big loss. Is Godwin using their play book?

Tom Culpepper. Self-styled recruiting analyst, good at stealing other team's plays, but won't carry the ball himself. Used in short-yardage situations.

Roy Adams, aka "Tennstud." Fulmer cheerleader and anti-Young trash-talker. Would love to play but won't. Will provide commentary and postgame analysis on Internet.

Bottom line: The $150,000 handoff to Lang. Godwin must convince crowd that Lang's financial fortunes didn't rise from his success on the football field and that Young is the real source.

When Team Logan has the ball.

Logan Young. Might or might not take the field. Tendency to fumble could be disastrous in close game. Stats and salary are gaudy but could be deceptive. Would rather be in Tuscaloosa.

Jim Neal. Jut-jawed captain of the defense. A mean glare that works. Had wins over Hoffa and Nixon while playing on Team USA early in career. Knows Memphis, likes to call time-outs, badger refs, and work the crowd. Must take out Lynn Lang. 'Bama fans will declare a state holiday and name buildings after him if he does.

Bear Bryant. Ghostly presence. Could be summoned as crowd motivator if Lang stands up to pounding and Young takes the field.

John Pierotti. Former captain of Team USA Shelby County franchise. Knows the Team USA play book inside out.

Allan Wade. Hard hitter who has played in some big games for Team Memphis and could be local crowd-pleaser. Will give Neal breathers.

Tommy Gallion. Young cheerleader and anti-NCAA trash-talker. Would love to play but won't. Will provide commentary and postgame analysis in Alabama media.

Bottom line: Turnovers and takeaways. Neal must force Lang to fumble and create crowd confusion. If the fix doesn't fit, the jury must acquit.

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