Robert Cunningham Jr. says he looks forward to arguing appeal of sanctions against Crimson Tide football program
By JOHN CAMERON
Assistant Managing Editor Sports
Prominent Mobile lawyer Robert Cunningham Jr. has joined the University of Alabama legal team that will appeal the National Collegiate Athletic Association's tough sanctions against the football program.
Cunningham and his firm -- Cunningham, Bounds, Yance, Crowder and Brown of Mobile -- gained wide attention in December, 2000 by winning a $3.5 billion damage award for the state of Alabama against Exxon Mobil. The case, which is on appeal, concerned state charges that the company had underpaid on royalties from offshore gas leases.
Cunningham said late Monday that he has a lot to learn about the Alabama football case but looks forward to it.
University President Andrew Sorensen announced Monday in Tuscaloosa that Cunningham had been retained. He pointed out that Cunningham brings vast experience as an effective litigator.
Cunningham said he and his firm would insist on representing Alabama without compensation, which is known as pro bono.
On Feb. 1, after Alabama had self-imposed a penalty including the loss of 15 scholarships over a three-year period for alleged recruiting violations, the NCAA Committee on Infractions further hammered the Crimson Tide. The panel mandated a loss of five more scholarships, a two-year ban on bowls and an overall scholarship reduction to 80 (down from 85) for the next three years.
On Feb. 15, the school filed notice with the NCAA that it was appealing. The appeal goes to the Committee on Infractions, the same panel that originally decided what the penalty would be.
"The university has admitted mistakes and has accepted the proposition that some reasonable punishment is in order but instead of reasonable punishment, the NCAA has dropped the guillotine around our neck and wants us to thank them for not imposing the death penalty," Cunningham said.
Cunningham said he sat across the table from Sorensen on Saturday and the president looked him in the eye and said he wanted no expenses spared in the appeal. Sorensen, in previous statements, has called the punishment "inappropriate" because of the close cooperation the university gave the NCAA in its investigation. The NCAA has acknowledged that cooperation.
Cunningham also met with university attorneys Glenn Powell and Stan Murphy on Saturday as well as with Mal Moore, athletics director.
"It has been our intention from the beginning to vigorously appeal this ruling and Robert Cunningham came to the forefront," Moore said. "His addition to our current team will certainly enhance our ability in this case. Make no mistake about it, we all recognize the significance of this appeal to our program, our fans and the people of Alabama."
Cunningham, who went to Marion Military Institute before joining the Marine Corps in 1965, was wounded while flying combat missions in Vietnam.
Following Marine Corps duty, he received his undergraduate degree from the University of South Alabama and finished law school at the University of Florida.
As for representing the university, Cunningham said he considers it a privilege and an honor. "My son graduated from Alabama and my firm has a strong personal commitment to this institution."
He said he was astounded that the NCAA is putting so much emphasis on a 1999 basketball case which was self-reported to the NCAA by the university and resolved quickly with close cooperation between the school and the agency and resulted in the firing of an assistant coach.
"Our firm intends to aggressively advocate the university's very sound arguments supporting, at a minimum, a reduction in the sanctions and penalties," he said. "We will devote all of the talent at our disposal as we work with the university to achieve a just outcome."
Cunningham said it would be a mistake for Alabama fans and others interested in this case not to realize that the school faces a difficult uphill battle.
"Nevertheless, this great university has never backed away from adversity and neither has our law firm," he said. "We relish this challenge."
After notifying the NCAA of its plans to appeal the penalties last Friday, the school is awaiting transcripts of a November hearing on the charges. After receiving the transcripts, the school has 30 days to file an appeal.
In addition to Powell and Murphy, the university's legal team also includes Rich Hilliard, a former employee of the NCAA.