Ex-USC football assistant alleges he was forced out after reporting possible NCAA violations

Rick Courtright while working as an assistant coach with the Arizona Cardinals in 2010.
(Associated Press)

A former member of the USC football coaching staff alleged in a lawsuit Monday that undergraduate students were paid to pose as graduate assistants from the team to take online classes on their behalf and fulfill their degree requirements.

Rick Courtright, USC’s defensive quality control assistant from 2016 to 2018, said in the lawsuit he overheard graduate assistants Brett Arce and Austin Clark discuss working with defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to pay two students with low-level positions in the program to take online classes for the graduate assistants.

The lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court said Courtright later witnessed Pendergast, who is named as a defendant in the complaint along with the school, hand an unspecified amount of cash to Clark. The graduate assistant then gave it to one of the students.


“Upon witnessing these events, Courtright believed that the actions of Pendergast and the Graduate Assistants violated state and federal laws and regulations including academic fraud and fraud with the NCAA,” the complaint said.

Courtright reported the allegations to USC’s athletic department compliance office in June 2017, the lawsuit said, and also filed an anonymous complaint with the school.

“USC is investigating the allegations in the lawsuit,” a USC spokesman said in a statement. “The university strives to ensure compliance with NCAA rules.”

The lawsuit said Courtright subsequently reported concerns that the graduate assistants might have violated NCAA rules by driving full-time assistant coaches while they recruited, and used a school courtesy car for personal reasons. That came after USC athletic director Lynn Swann sent a memo to athletic department employees in October 2017 asking them to report illegal or questionable activity in the aftermath of the FBI’s arrest of men’s basketball assistant coach Tony Bland in the college basketball corruption probe.

The lawsuit said Courtright also reported that players warmed up before games without protective equipment or full-time coaches present to supervise them. That included an incident where two players collided and received concussions, according to the lawsuit, during warmups before USC’s game against Washington State in September 2017.

The complaints triggered retaliation against Courtright, according to the lawsuit, and led to his ouster from USC.

“At the same time, Courtright also became subject to several harassment incidents in the office including but not limited to someone gluing his mouse to the table, someone logging into his computer and moving it to a different location in the department, someone stealing Courtright’s ski cap and jacket from his locker, and someone leaving sticky notes around his desk with snide remarks on them …” the lawsuit said.

The remarks included obscenities, according to the complaint. It also alleged that football staffers “suddenly ostracized” Courtright, “refused to interact” with him and would “abruptly end or cut off conversations” when he appeared.

The lawsuit said USC coach Clay Helton told Courtright in January 2018 that Pendergast didn’t want to retain him because “things weren’t working out,” and barred Courtright from campus and the football offices.

“Courtright is informed and believes that USC banned him from the football department so that he would no longer be privy to multiple illegal activities in the department and therefore would not be able to report these activities,” the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit, Helton gave Courtright a choice in April 2018 of resigning or being fired. Courtright resigned in May 2018.

“USC’s athletics department has had a troubling history of legal, regulatory and ethics violations in recent years, which appears to be an ongoing culture there based on how our client ... was treated when he did his duty by identifying serious safety and rules violations so that they could be remedied,” said Courtright’s attorney, Harmeet Dhillon of the San Francisco-based Dhillon Law Group. “We were forced to seek relief in litigation because USC does not appear to take this matter seriously.”

Courtright, who has been a coach, scout or consultant for various NFL and college teams for 33 years, is seeking at least $2 million in damages. The seven counts in the lawsuit include violating state whistleblower protections, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Sign up for our daily sports newsletter »

“As a result of his forced resignation, Courtright has suffered physical and mental harm,” the lawsuit said. “He has also suffered economic harm and he believes he is unlikely to be hired as a football coach by another college or university.”

The lawsuit credits Courtright with implementing a “pressure package” defense to help USC win 10 games, including the Rose Bowl, during the 2016 season and said Swann called him a “steal” because the school “was getting so much expertise and value for so little salary.”

“Pendergast also repeatedly thanked Courtright for allowing him to claim many of Courtright’s great ideas as his own ...” the complaint said.

After leaving USC, the lawsuit said, Courtright took a job as defensive coordintor for Mayville State, an NAIA school in North Dakota, then departed for a position as a consultant with the U.S. Army.

Pendergast remains USC’s defensive coordinator, while Arce is now the team’s defensive quality control analyst.

Clark coaches the defensive line at Illinois. His school biography says he received a master’s degree in communication management from USC.

Pendergast and Arce didn’t return requests for comment; neither did a spokesman for Illinois.

Twitter: @nathanfenno