By Andrew Beaton 

In 2017, an attorney named Thomas Mars was driving around Mississippi listening to an audiobook called "The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football." He knew almost nothing about college football. He knew even less about how much the book's title would soon come to define him.

Three years later, Mars has become the unlikeliest rabble-rouser in the sport. One of the few guys in the South who never bothered to watch college football on weekends has developed a potent legal practice helping players and needling the sport's most powerful institutions.

Mars's work led to coach Hugh Freeze leaving Ole Miss amid an embarrassing scandal. His assistance to players has made him the only person beloved by fans at both Michigan and Ohio State. He's a private sounding board for many of college football's most powerful coaches and administrators -- the same people who one day could be on the other side of one of his legal attacks.

In recent weeks, his cause célèbre was the Big Ten's decision to postpone its football season because of the pandemic. Mars, 62 years old, represented the families of players who wanted to reverse course -- which the conference did last week when it said its season would begin in October. Mars exerted public pressure on the Big Ten, and every one of its schools, by battling with the universities' lawyers over records related to the decision while privately helping players and coaches amplify the message that they still wanted to play.

The oddest part is how Mars arrived at his role as college football's chief antagonist. He was a cop. He was a young lawyer at an Arkansas law firm working for a partner named Hillary Clinton. He was director of the Arkansas State Police and a member of Mike Huckabee's cabinet. He was Walmart Inc.'s general counsel and chief administrative officer in the U.S.

"Nobody could've planned any of this," Mars said. "You couldn't make this up or map it out."

Mars's mission to turn college football upside down began three years ago when his cell phone buzzed as he pulled into the driveway of his Arkansas home. It was his close friend and former pastor Rex Horne, who wanted to know if Mars could help Houston Nutt, a longtime coach at Arkansas and then at Mississippi. Nutt believed Ole Miss was falsely attempting to pin its NCAA enforcement problems on him. Nutt and Mars, it turned out, were once next-door neighbors -- but Mars was the only guy on the block who never bothered to introduce himself.

It wasn't the type of case Mars usually took on. He didn't know the difference between a touchback and a safety. "I knew the object was to get the football in the other guy's end zone," he says.

But he had already found that the best parts of his career came from these unexpected twists. He was a middling college student who became a police officer in Virginia before barely getting into Arkansas's law school in 1982 as part of a dream to become an FBI agent. He was ready to quit after a semester until the dean called to tell him how dumb that would be: Mars was at the top of his class.

That led to a clerkship in Utah on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1985, and just when he was about to finally get accepted as an FBI agent he got a phone call that set him on a completely different track. Hillary Clinton, a partner at the Rose Law Firm, wanted to hire him. He reported directly to Clinton and Vince Foster, with his tiny office serving as the unofficial waiting room when Bill Cinton popped over from the governor's mansion.

Mars later set out on his own, and in the early '90s his first major case was a successful class action in a natural gas deal against a business that was co-owned by Jerry Jones. The Dallas Cowboys owner was so impressed by the lawyer who whupped him in court that he invited Mars onto the field for a game.

"I didn't like any part of that case, Tom, but you did a hell of a job," he recalls Jones told him.

Mars's career took a new turn when he joined Wamart's legal team in 2002, rising to become the retail giant's general counsel and later its chief administrative officer in the U.S. But he left the company after a 2012 scandal in which it was accused of paying bribes around the world. Walmart paid $282 million in a settlement with the U.S. government in which the company agreed it had lax policies.

Mars felt the scandal was overblown and unfairly associated him publicly with any wrongdoing. "It tarnished my reputation in a way that I couldn't do anything about," he says. He adds he left Walmart with a handsome severance -- and empathy for someone else who was publicly accused of misdeeds he didn't have any part in.

"I know what it's like to be in Houston Nutt's shoes," he says.

Ole Miss' problems with Nutt could have disappeared with one word: sorry.

Mars concluded that Ole Miss had engaged in a clear effort to publicly blame its NCAA woes, which chiefly focused on impermissible benefits involving boosters and recruits, on Nutt, its former coach. Freeze, then the current coach, was a golden boy in Oxford, Miss. who was beloved for both his piety and success, including when he notably beat Alabama -- twice.

Mars asked for Ole Miss to privately apologize to Nutt, who was distraught that his elderly mother had seen news reports alleging he was behind the wrongdoing. The school refused. Mars went to work.

"When you have Tom Mars on the other sideline, you better buckle up," Nutt says.

As part of a defamation lawsuit against the school in July of 2017, Mars requested a trove of documents from Ole Miss under public records law. He was looking for evidence of a specific phone call Freeze made to a reporter, in which Freeze told the reporter Nutt was behind the wrongdoing. Mars waged war with the school's lawyers to obtain the records.

He got those records, and he found the smoking gun he needed: evidence of that phone call. But the call logs contained something even more troubling: Freeze had used his university phone to call an escort service. Freeze was out of a job less than two weeks after Nutt's lawsuit was filed. The Wall Street Journal later reported the school had discovered a pattern of similar misconduct when Freeze was traveling, using the school's plane, on recruiting trips.

Freeze, now the coach at Liberty University, could not be reached for comment on Mars through a school spokesman.

Mars was considered an enemy of state in Oxford, Miss. Nutt got his apology a few months later. But when Mars returned to his law practice, his life shifted unexpectedly again.

The parents of Ole Miss players, who weeks earlier loathed him for tearing down the program, sought to hire him. The families felt they had been falsely told when they were recruited that the program's NCAA problems occurred under Nutt, not Freeze. They wanted waivers from the NCAA to transfer and be immediately eligible to play. It was Mars vs. Ole Miss Part II.

Those players included Shea Patterson, a highly-regarded quarterback who left for Michigan and was granted immediate eligibility against Ole Miss' wishes. It was such a celebrated moment in Ann Arbor that Mars won't have to pay for his own beer at Rick's ever again.

Yet he's just as highly regarded by Ohio State fans. As word spread, dozens of athletes across the country started working with Mars. He was retained by the family of Justin Fields, who was seeking to transfer from Georgia. Fields is now the Buckeyes' star quarterback.

Mars charges the families a heavily-discounted rate because he can afford thanks to his severance package from Walmart, he says.

Which is also why, now, he's happy to be working -- and getting public notice -- for something he finds personal satisfaction in. His success representing transfers led parents to seek him out when the Big Ten season had been postponed. The parents and players wanted an explanation for why the conference pumped the brakes while others went forward. Mars became their public advocate, questioning the legality behind the decision making and requesting internal records over the decision.

"I only resort to being combative and increasingly combative if necessary," Mars says.

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 21, 2020 09:38 ET (13:38 GMT)

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