ATHENS — Perhaps the Fords should have gone ahead and hired Tom Mars last December like the Fields family did.
That’d be the family of Luke Ford. He is, of course, the former Georgia tight end who transferred to the University of Illinois after last season. The intention and the expectation was that, released of his national letter-of-intent obligations by the Bulldogs, Ford would be granted immediately eligibility via his hardship waiver to be closer to home and his gravely-ill grandfather.
That’s not what happened.
As has been widely reported at this point, Ford’s waiver was recently declined by the NCAA. He’s currently ineligible to play for the Illini this fall.
“We filed what we thought was a sure winner,” Tim Ford, Luke’s father, said Wednesday morning. “Clearly we didn’t know the rules that were involved.”
But Mars, the preeminent legal expert on NCAA eligibility matters, is now on the case. The hope is that he’ll be able to reverse the NCAA’s decision in the coming days and weeks.
Mars was retained by the Fords last week and big moves already are being made. Illnois now has filed a “request for reconsideration” with the NCAA. Because it’s not officially an appeal, it means they’ll get three chances to have their case heard by the NCAA’s eligibility committee. If the request for reconsideration fails, then the Fords can file an official appeal, which takes longer.
With Mars now involved, the Fords are more confident this time around.
“Oh my gosh, yeah,” said Ford, who was driving to St. Louis Wednesday from their home in Carterville, Ill. “There’s no one better in the country. Nobody spends more time talking to people, networking with the NCAA, than he does. He was actually at the NCAA headquarters last week when he jumped in with us. So he knows the ins and outs of that organization.”
Mars himself is cautiously optimistic.
“It probably won’t be long now,” said Mars, who was still gathering materials Wednesday to submit to the NCAA. “I have a lot of faith in the people on the NCAA staff who make these decisions. These things are complicated and sometimes a little more documentation is required to get the right result. Based on my experience, I really believe the decision-makers are looking out for the best interests of the student-athletes. That’s why I’m so optimistic that this process will end well for Luke and Illinois.”
The crazy thing about it, the Fords could’ve had Mars on the case a long time ago. The fact is, they simply didn’t think they’d need his services.
In fact, Mars said he was first contacted by the Fords on Dec. 18 of last year. That was five days after Mars accepted his first call from Pablo Fields, the father of Justin Fields.
Mars was retained by the Fields at that time and Justin Fields had his immediate eligibility restored at Ohio State on Feb. 8, or about one month after enrolling as a transfer.
The Fords, thinking their situation was more cut and dry, passed on Mars last December. By the time they realized they could probably use his services, it was too late.
“That’s the exact gist of it,” Tim Ford said. “He actually wanted to help us (before) but was unable to. By the time we finally figured out what was happening, he was in the middle of a big Federal case that was taking up all his time. And if you know Tom, he’s 100 percent immersive once he gets on something. He’s fantastic.”
Fortunately for the Fords, they heard from Mars “as soon as the official word from the NCAA came back” last week.
“The morning after the explanation, the denial, he sent me a text saying he was sorry to see what happened to Luke and he wished there was something he could do,” Tim Ford said. “From that point on, he was back in. He jumped in with both feet.”
Ford’s hardship waiver was declined for the same reason that Brock Hoffman’s was declined at Virginia Tech. Based on the guidelines of the hardship rule, the campus of the University of Illinois was not within 100 miles of the Ford’s home in Carterville (191 miles).
Also, Ford’s 88-year-old maternal grandfather is not considered a direct family member under the NCAA’s guideline, even though the family does. To make matters worse, that grandfather was hospitalized again the day before the NCAA’s ruling. The Fords are keeping his name and medical issues private.
Interestingly, Tim Ford said Illinois had provided a lawfirm that was providing consultation on their eligibility request. How they could have overlooked the 100-mile and direct-family clauses is not clear.
“Yeah, we underestimated (the difficulty of the process),” Tim Ford said. “(Illinois coach) Lovie Smith said it was the biggest disappointment he’s had. Nobody from the AD on down actually thought we had anything but a solid case on multiple fronts. But what we didn’t understand was what Tom already knew, if we went that way, through the hardship waiver process, there’s very little leniency from the NCAA in its ability to help you.”
To be clear, the Fords now retained Mars’ services.
“Oh, no, we’re paying for Tom,” Tim Ford said with a chuckle. “Let me know if you want to contribute to that fund.”
The best thing about this entire process has been the outpouring of support Luke Ford has received from the Georgia community.
“Literally, that’s the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen,” Tim Ford said. “What’s funny is watching the Illinois fans comment about the Georgia fans. They’re like, ‘those are the classiest fans on Earth; we’re now Georgia fans.’ I have not seen one bad Georgia comment toward Luke.”
There remains the harsh reality, however, that as it stands now, Ford wouldn’t be able to play for the Illini this fall. He certainly would have at Georgia, where he would’ve been competing with Charlie Woerner for the starting job and, at the very least, sharing playing time at tight end every week.
At Illinois, Ford is one of the most heralded recruits it has landed in years. With some 5-star grades coming out of high school, Ford was ranked the No. 1 player in the state in 2018. His impact is expected to be immediate.
Now there is only angst and anger.
“We’re very disappointed at the apparent inconsistencies,” Tim Ford said. “The NCAA is run by a lot of good people doing good work trying to make a living, but their hands are tied by the rules that are written by the universities. So it’s not really fair to them in a lot of ways. But Luke’s pretty mad. He’s upset. But we understand the issue. I’ve been in the army. I’ve seen bureaucracies before.”
No worries. Here comes Tom Mars, galloping in on his white horse to save the day.
Though no official tally is kept — and technically schools apply for eligibility, not lawyers — a case has never been lost of which Ford has been a part.
Needless to say, confidence is running high.
“I got a text at 1:26 in the morning the other day from Tom,” Tim Ford said. “He was still working on this. He’s absolutely fantastic. … And we could’ve had him at the beginning.”
To find out more about Tom Mars, check back later to read DawgNation’s personality profile on this brilliant attorney with Atlanta ties who some are calling the father of free agency in college football.
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