Alcohol, cash used in UGA football recruiting, court filing alleges

Attorneys for former UGA recruiting analyst Tory Bowles allege football staff regularly drove recruits and families after drinking.
A memorial honoring the site of the car crash that ended the lives of Georgia offensive lineman, Devin Willock, 20, and UGA recruiting analyst, Chandler LeCroy, 24, sits at the intersection of Barnett Shoals and Stroud roads, east of downtown Athens, Georgia, on Thursday, March 2, 2023. (Olivia Bowdoin / AJC).

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

Credit: Olivia Bowdoin

A memorial honoring the site of the car crash that ended the lives of Georgia offensive lineman, Devin Willock, 20, and UGA recruiting analyst, Chandler LeCroy, 24, sits at the intersection of Barnett Shoals and Stroud roads, east of downtown Athens, Georgia, on Thursday, March 2, 2023. (Olivia Bowdoin / AJC).

Attorneys representing a former University of Georgia football recruiting analyst injured in a crash involving alcohol that killed two members of the program say coaches and staffers regularly drove UGA athletic association rental vehicles after drinking.

The attorneys also allege that UGA’s coaches spent cash during unofficial recruiting visits. Such spending by coaches may have violated NCAA rules, according to court papers filed on Thursday.

The allegations are part of an amended complaint in a lawsuit filed against the athletic association and others by former Georgia recruiting staffer Victoria “Tory” Bowles. Her attorneys allege alcohol and coaches’ cash helped lubricate Georgia’s powerhouse recruiting machine.

“My client’s iPhone survived the crash fully intact and contains thousands of pages of recruiting texts describing the inner workings of UGA’s recruiting activities,” Bowles’ attorney Rob Buck said in a statement. “The new texts included in the Amended Complaint establish that the Association was fully aware recruiting staffers were regularly allowed to drive recruits and their families around Athens after drinking alcohol at Association sponsored events.”

The new allegations represent another salvo in the bitter lawsuit between Bowles and her former employer, the UGA athletic association, and come days before the one year anniversary of the Jan. 15 crash that killed Georgia recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy, who was driving, and offensive lineman Devin Willock, a passenger. Bowles, a passenger in the vehicle, was severely injured. The UGA athletic association on Thursday pushed back about the new assertions by Bowles’ legal team.

UGA offensive linemen Devon Willock, from left, UGA recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy, recruiting staffmember Tory Bowles and offensive linemen Warren McClendon were involved in an accident Jan. 15, 2023. Willock and LeCroy were killed. Bowles suffered serious injuries and McClendon had minor injuries.

Credit: Compilation

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Credit: Compilation

“We are reviewing the amended complaint, but we dispute its claims and will vigorously defend the Athletic Association’s interests in court,” said Steven Drummond, an executive associate athletic director with the UGA athletic association.

Other staffers mentioned by name in the lawsuit could not immediately be reached for comment.

The information included in the updated filing sheds additional light on other aspects of UGA’s football operations, such as the role of UGA athletic association staffer Bryant Gantt, who reported directly to Head Coach Kirby Smart on the program’s org chart and was widely known for having influence with law enforcement.

The filing includes 11 text messages to bolster the various claims. In one such exchange in June 2021, former UGA football staffer Matt Godwin told other staff he was directed by “Cochran,” presumably Georgia special teams coordinator Scott Cochran, to entertain an offensive lineman from another school.

“Cochran told me I gotta get Mitch Zoloty f*****d up tonight so gonna head downtown for a celebratory beer if anyone would like to join,” according to the text quoted in the complaint.

Georgia football-2022 recruiting class-grades

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Bowles’ attorneys add she is unaware of any enforced prohibition on driving athletic association rental vehicles after drinking alcohol. The filing does not provide any evidence that coaches and staffers were intoxicated when they drove recruits and their families.

The allegations address the heart of Bowles’ lawsuit, filed in Gwinnett County state court, which hinges in large part on the university’s policies governing the use of the luxury SUVs rented by the athletic association and driven by football recruiting staff during recruiting visits. The football program regularly rented a fleet of the luxury vehicles to shuttle recruits and their families around Athens during recruiting weekends.

Bowles’ attorneys allege the program was negligent in allowing LeCroy to drive a rental vehicle. They are seeking nearly $200,000 to recoup Bowles’ medical bills and lost wages in addition to other unspecified damages.

LeCroy was driving a black Ford Expedition rented by the athletic association when she crashed on Barnett Shoals Road around 2:45 a.m. on Jan. 15, 2023. A police investigation determined she was driving at more than 100 mph as she raced former Georgia football star and current Philadelphia Eagle Jalen Carter. A toxicology report placed her blood alcohol at .197, more than twice the legal limit.

Carter, who is also a defendant in Bowles’ lawsuit, was charged by the Athens-Clarke County Police with racing and reckless driving in March. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to a year of probation as well as community service.

Since the crash, the athletic association has sought to distance itself from LeCroy, whose estate is also a defendant in the lawsuit. UGA football leadership said in the weeks following the accident she and Bowles had violated policy by not returning the rented SUV after their recruiting duties ended that day. After an initial investigation into the crash, the athletic association determined no policy changes were required.

“It should have been understood,” Smart said at a March press conference, “that you cannot take a vehicle when you’re not doing your duties, and they were not participating in their duties at that time.”

But texts published in Bowles’ original complaint, filed in July, cut into UGA’s narrative. Text conversations dated prior to the Jan. 15 crash show Bowles’ supervisors regularly told her and other recruiting analysts they could keep their rental vehicles overnight.

The athletic association appeared to later soften their earlier statements in a September court filing responding to Bowles’ allegations. In that filing, the athletic association said recruiting analysts were occasionally allowed to take rental vehicles home as a convenience. Still, the association’s attorney wrote, LeCroy was not permitted to drive the rental SUV out for “a night of drinking and partying.”

Now, Bowles’ attorneys say the athletic association allowed coaches and staff to drink and drive.

“Text messages show that on occasion supervisors and coaches, in effect, encouraged recruiting staff to drink alcohol with football prospects’ families-well aware that staffers would leave the events after consuming alcohol,” the complaint reads.

The texts suggest that recruiting staff drank at Smart’s home during recruiting events. In one text exchange from January 25, 2020, Godwin sent a picture of an empty Corona beer bottle to a football staff group chat that Bowles’ attorneys said was taken in the basement of Smart’s home.

“One down the hatch,” Godwin texted to a group of football program staffers.

“Godwin, the guy who says not ‘too have too good a time at Kirby’s House.’ slamming beers in the group thread. ‘Cruitin,” another staff member responded.

In another exchange on Dec. 14, 2019, the football program’s director of player personnel, Marshall Malchow, offered guidance to 13 football staffers on how to conduct themselves at an event at Smart’s house.

“Hey guys… if you are driving you can have fun at Coach Smarts but if you are driving a recruit make sure you don’t get drunk. It will be a bad look if we have people who are supposed to be driving recruits getting lit,” he wrote.

Cash and recruits

In August, UGA fired Bowles, who had been on leave since the crash, stating that she refused to comply in an investigation into a potential NCAA rules violation mentioned in her original complaint. Her attorneys say her firing was retribution for filing the suit.

While the athletic association has declined to specify what potential violation they’re referencing, Bowles’ lawsuit recounts a Jan. 14 unofficial recruiting dinner — just hours before the fatal crash — where UGA assistant coach Chidera Uzo-Diribe asked Bowles to use his ATM card to bring him $1,000 in cash before the dinner was over, the lawsuit said.

The complaint did not give a reason why the coach needed the money. Bowles’ attorneys argued the request was proof that personal use of rental vehicles was permitted and described the exchange as a personal favor to Uzo-Diribe.

And while the new court filing doesn’t reveal what the money was used for that night, Bowles attorneys now say she was aware of past instances when UGA coaches spent cash on unofficial recruits. Such spending would violate NCAA rules forbidding coaches and staff from paying for meals and lodging during unofficial visits, her attorneys assert.

The filing references a written request in which a recruiting supervisor told staff to “address with every single coach” the need “to get coaches to pay for unofficial visitors.”

“Ms. Bowles was aware from her own observations and from prior communications from her superiors of UGA football coaches’ use of cash in recruiting activities involving unofficial visits prior to that evening,” the filing reads.

A checkered driving history

The lawsuit filed last July claimed LeCroy’s history should have been a red flag for the athletic association that she was not qualified to drive recruits and their families as part of her job. It referenced four speeding tickets LeCroy, 24, had received in the past.

The amended complaint says there was other evidence known to UGA that should have raised concerns about LeCroy’s driving.

Bowles’ attorneys outline an incident eight months before the fatal accident in January. They describe how LeCroy crashed a golf cart during a recruiting scavenger hunt on UGA’s campus.

On May 21, 2022, LeCroy and the mother of a recruit riding with her were thrown from the golf cart when she pulled in front of another cart driven by a coach, according to an incident report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through a state open records act request.

Both carts were undriveable following the collision, according to the incident report. When an associate athletic director for sports medicine responded to the incident to check for possible injuries, the recruit’s mother assured him she was fine, the report said.

The incident report noted that Gantt, the football program’s director of player support, responded after the crash and was walking with LeCroy on a grass practice field.

The “Association was aware that LeCroy was not reasonably suited for the particular position as a recruiting analyst, a position regularly requiring the transporting of recruits and their guests,” the complaint reads.

Bowles’ attorneys allege the athletic association also sought to minimize the consequences of her driving, which served to encourage her reckless driving.

Just five months after the golf cart episode, LeCroy was pulled over in Morgan County and ticketed for driving 22 mph over the speed limit. She was returning home from UGA’s win against the University of Florida in Jacksonville with her supervisor, Logen Reed, the athletic association’s associate director of recruiting operations, according to the lawsuit.

After LeCroy received the ticket, Gantt intervened on her behalf, the lawsuit noted. He contacted the Morgan County clerk of courts in an effort to reduce LeCroy’s super speeder fine. The clerk declined, citing LeCroy’s driving history, the lawsuit says.

Gantt’s involvement in LeCroy’s case is not an isolated event. An AJC investigation last year revealed that he contacted court officials on at least 82 separate legal matters involving players between 2016 and 2023, often intervening as an informal liaison between Georgia players and police. Gantt also responded the night of the crash and actually notified the Athens police chief before any of his officers spoke to him. Gantt was present at the scene as police investigated.

UGA football staff member Bryant Gantt leads the team onto the field at Sanford Stadium in Athens during a January 14 championship celebration. Gantt, the program's director of player support and operations, has job duties that include acting as the team's liaison to law enforcement. Gantt grew up in Athens and was a player who lettered on the team in 1989 and 1990. (Ryon Horne/Ryon.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Ryon Horne

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Credit: Ryon Horne

The lawsuit adds additional information regarding Gantt’s reputation within the program. A text exchange detailed in the amended complaint reveals how staff members seemed to make light of the reach of Gantt’s influence with law enforcement.

A June 11, 2021 text from a football staffer offered guidance to others if they were stopped by police.

“If you get pulled over for texting, do NOT say you were texting Kirby Smart… IT DOES NOT WORK”

Another football staffer replied: “Should have said Gantt!”

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