It was a teeth-extracting exercise tracking down expense reports for the 70 teams competing in bowl games last season.
Tennessee was just another bump in the road.
"Dear Mr. Christensen:
"The Tennessee Public Records Act does require that the requesting party is a citizen of Tennessee."
OK, I live in Los Angeles, so could probably run down to Alvarado and 8th and get a fake Tennessee driver's license. About anything is available on the streets in that neighborhood, and I was ready for a fight — but a fair and legal one.
This battle involved filing Freedom of Information requests with 70 universities. With the exception of 11 private schools, the remaining 59 had an obligation to comply with the law.
Tennessee's stonewalling gave me an indication that not all schools would oblige.
A call was made to a buddy in the Volunteer state.
"Can you do me a favor?" I asked.
Within a few hours, another email was headed to Tennessee's inbox, this one from a legal resident of the state.
Twenty-eight days and a couple of hitches later, Tennessee delivered the goods.
This part of the project took five weeks. I got 56 reports. As mentioned, 11 of the schools are private, meaning there was no shot of getting the reports. Navy, Pittsburgh and Penn State cited statutes that put the requested information off limits. As a former college friend who is an attorney says, "Pick the battles you can win."
Thus, 56 became the top-end number. That’s a not-to-shabby success rate of 80 percent.
Granted, some universities sent the public information without argument.
But after describing some of the more ridiculous hoops I was asked to jump through to friends, they suggested I document how universities try to hinder FOI requests.
Getting documents and having questions answered wasn't limited to universities. After three days of badgering the NCAA, a representative finally called me back — at the obscene hour of 4:54 a.m. More on that call later.
The most satisfaction came from obtaining Central Florida's report. My first attempt met with this written response from a UCF official:
"The UCF Athletics Association, Inc. (UCFAA), a not-for-profit corporation, operates as a Direct Support Organization (DSO) of the University of Central Florida. As a DSO, the UCF Athletics Association, Inc., is primarily exempt from the State of Florida open records law (F.S. 119) as provided for in F.S. 1004.28(5).
"As a matter of policy, the UCFAA will respond to records request that pertain to Coaches' Employment Contracts, as well as to provide information involving legal matters as directed and approved by its General Counsel."
Seriously? What a bunch of legal bullese. Central Florida athletics doesn't accept a dime of taxpayer money and claims to be a private, not-for-profit corporation? What is UCF trying to hide?
My determination grew.
The UCF official who sent the email didn’t return my call placed within minutes of receiving the email, so I turned to the Orlando Sentinel.
"Dude, you have no idea how frustrating this has been," my editor friend told me. The Sentinel wasn't alone. The editor added, "USA Today and ESPN have been going round and round with these guys."
I secured the report last week through a third party. After examination, I see why Central Florida didn't want it in the public domain. The Conference USA school spent nearly $1.7 million sending its football team, band, cheerleaders, faculty and athletic department officials to Memphis for five days.
That's more than three times the C-USA allowance of $539,000. Beale Street never had it so good.
Troy has yet to fully comply with my request, instead inexplicably sending an expense report from 2003. Again, I secured the document through a third party.
Texas El Paso took 15 days to answer the request, and when it did, officials sent a truncated version of expenses, not the NCAA report I was looking for. After two more days of phone calls and emails, UTEP came through.
Iowa sent me the NCAA report, but said it was not final. Four weeks later, it released the final report, which was a whitewashed version of the original. Iowa somehow cleared $382,500 on its trip to the Insight Bowl, which made it the most profitable team of the postseason.
What Iowa didn’t include was $361,171 in tickets that were absorbed by the Big Ten. Instead, the school pocketed that money on the final report. No other Big Ten school made such an outrageous claim.
It wasn't only Iowa. Accounting practices were deceptive across the board. Perhaps the most unreliable figure involved the allowance each school said they received from the conference.
Utah filed its report with a blank bowl allowance from the Mountain West. Was this a penalty for the Utes leaving the Mountain West for the Pacific 10 in 2011?
A Mountain West official told me no, that Utah simply didn't fill in the number and I would have to contact the university to get the figure.
It took another two weeks of emails and phone calls before I got a "ballpark figure" of $486,000 from a Utah official.
Alabama, which had an off-the-chart expense of $2,911,332 for a trip to the Capital One Bowl, reported an expense allowance of only $113,600 from the SEC. Alabama later said the $113,600 should be $1.2 million.
Mississippi State had an allowance of $111,000, which was amended to $1,236 million. Georgia's $90,400 became $925,000. It all took phone calls, emails and more phone calls.
While many of requests were playing out, there remained Tennessee. After my buddy filed the request, he got a letter back saying the university could take up to 14 days to respond.
Tennessee nearly ran out the clock. On day 14 and minutes before its 5 p.m. deadline, the response arrived — a truncated version of the expense report along with a note that the school now considered the matter closed.
As Lee Corso says, "Not so fast, my friend!"
A response was crafted and sent two hours later. "Unfortunately, the document you sent on April 28 did not fill the public records request … this matter cannot be considered closed until the proper documentation has been received."
Tennessee was given a deadline of two business days. On the second day with the clock ticking, the Volunteers delivered with their backs against the wall.
With nearly all of the information in hand, it was time to call the NCAA. Calls were placed on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to Keith Martin, the NCAA’s interim vice president of administration. Martin is the person handling all of the bowl expense reports.
On Thursday at 4:54 a.m., the phone rang. It was Martin's assistant. Granted, it was 7:54 a.m. in Indianapolis, but that’s still out of bounds for even an East Coaster.
Put it this way: a call at that hour is a not-so-courteous way of saying, "Bug off."
Mysteriously, the person left only their first name and a brief message.
"I'm going to need more information before I give this call to Keith. He likes more detail in the messages," the person said.
I wiped the sleep from my eyes and called them back.
The conversation with this person lasted 30 minutes and I still had unanswered questions. Martin, I was told, would call later that afternoon.
Six days later, he did. As luck would have it, I was away from the phone. He left a message and I've called him back several times since.
I'm still waiting to hear back from him.