ATHENS — The man who some refer to as the Father of Free Agency in College Football probably knows less about the sport than anybody in the business.
Thomas A. Mars — “just Tom” as he tells anybody who talks to him — said he now knows the difference between “under center” and “shotgun” and other similar football terms. But two years ago, when his work as an Arkansas trial lawyer led him into the NCAA’s investigation of Ole Miss, he said you could fit everything he knew about college football onto a 3-by-5 index card.
“No kidding,” the 61-year old attorney said in a series of phone interviews this week. “I’m not a college sports enthusiast. Never have been. I’ve learned a lot though. Now I could probably fill up the front and the back.”
That’s a line Mars uses a lot. Don’t let him fool you.
The son of Michigan alums and a graduate of the University of Arkansas School of Law — No. 1 in his class — Mars has a good idea about which schools really value football and what the top players mean to those schools.
He is quite sure now, for instance, that the University of Georgia is one such school and that Justin Fields is one such player. But that didn’t become apparent to Mars until Dec. 13 of last year.
Mars was driving through North Atlanta traffic that Thursday afternoon when he received a call from Pablo Fields. Fields is the father of Justin Fields, but that didn’t mean anything to Mars then. At the time, he was more interested to learn that Pablo Fields was a retired Atlanta police officer. Mars, too, had served as a cop back in the day. Lynchburg Police Department, 1980-82.
During one of his many career incarnations, Mars also became director of the Arkansas State Police. But that was after he’d worked as the personal attorney for Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, which was well after he’d worked for the Rose Law Firm and represented Hillary Clinton. All that came before his stint as general counsel and then executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Walmart.
But he really bonds with cops, or ex-cops. “It’s kind of a brotherhood thing,” he says. So the part about Pablo being the father of “Georgia quarterback Justin Fields,” Mars just glossed right over that.
Until, that is, Mars’ son jumped into the car while Mars was still on the phone. Like a lot of high school sophomores, 16-year-old Thomas is very much the sports enthusiast. He’s a tennis player, for starters. And unlike his father, he knows all kinds of stuff about college football, and more than a little about the Georgia Bulldogs.
So, overhearing his father’s phone conversation while being picked up in the car-rider line at Alpharetta’s Rivers Academy, Thomas could make out two distinct words.
“Justin” and “Fields.”
“I hang up and Thomas says, ‘was that Justin Fields’ father?'” Tom Mars recounted. “I said, ‘yeah, how’d you know?’ He says ‘THE Justin Fields?’ I said, ‘yeah, I guess. Is that a big deal?'”
Mars says his son gave him “the biggest eye-roll thing” — “I get those a lot” — and starts reciting all these stats and facts about Justin Fields.
“I honestly had no idea,” Tom Mars said. “I just knew he was a quarterback at Georgia who was thinking about transferring and his dad was an ex-cop.”
Welcome to the world of Tom Mars, where his smart phone is constantly ringing and buzzing and where he rarely knows much about the famous people on the other end.
Mars would soon learn what a “big deal” Justin Fields was. After handling Fields’ case — Fields left Georgia, transferred to Ohio State and was ruled eligible to play immediately for the Buckeyes on Feb. 8 — Mars’ business has taken off to the point that he can’t handle it all anymore.
Call it the Justin Fields Effect.
Mars said he stopped counting “a while back” when he got to 50 on the number of clients he has represented in NCAA eligibility cases now. That number grows daily. He said he typically accepts two or three calls a day inquiring about his services, but he took five this past Wednesday and said, shortly after the Fields’ ruling, he accepted eight clients in one day.
Not coincidentally, Mars has left the Arkansas law firm of Friday, Eldredge & Clark to start his own practice. Going forward, he’ll be representing “Mars Law Firm,” with offices in Atlanta and Northwast Arkansas. That rather notable news in the legal community came down Friday and will be finalized on Monday.
The “Friday Firm,” as it’s known in Arkansas, might not notice he’s gone. Oh, they might miss Mars’ billing, but for the better part of his three years with the group, he has been known as their “ghost lawyer.” Mars is never in the office. He’s always practicing law, mind you, just never inside that law firm’s offices and rarely in a courthouse.
More often these days, Mars courtroom is the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Specifically, it’s wherever eligibility committees meet. He’s a ghost there, too. But while he’s not physically present in those rooms, his presence very much is being felt inside that building.
Win at all costs
Mars is not the first transfer specialist, but he might be the best one. When it comes to prevailing in NCAA eligibility cases, he’s never lost one. Technically, eligibility matters are handled by the schools at which these transfers land, but a transfer waiver on which Mars was a consultant has never been denied.
Fields was probably Mars’ highest-profile client. After agreeing to represent the former Georgia quarterback last December, everybody noticed that Fields’ had his eligibility fully restored about a month after enrolling at Ohio State.
For that reason, Georgia fans generally don’t like Tom Mars. Or at least they didn’t. He helped take away their 5-star backup quarterback. Moreover, there are the allegations that Mars used a highly-publicized racial incident that occurred at Georgia during the Tennessee football game last October to help expedite the process under the NCAA’s new “mitigating circumstances” waiver.
For the record, Mars won’t say what circumstances he used.
“I’m just not going to tell you,” Mars said.
But he did admit to having a long, close relationship with The Rev. Al Sharpton, who happened to speak out on behalf of Fields and against Georgia on his MSNBC national television show 12 days before the final ruling.
“I had a very specific reason for saying that if everybody knew the full story they’d feel differently,” Mars said. “That Tennessee incident was very public, so people jump to conclusions. I won’t talk about it publicly, but there is more to it than that.”
Interestingly, though, Georgia fans now find themselves rooting for Mars now that he is representing tight end Luke Ford. The No. 1-ranked recruit when he came out of Illinois, Ford signed with Georgia and played in nine games as a freshman last season. But then Ford decided to transfer after the season, citing the need to be closer to his Carterville, Ill., home and his ailing grandfather.
When Ford’s initial request to have his eligibility restored via the NCAA’s hardship waiver was denied last week, Georgia fans led a national outcry and launched a #FreeLukeFord movement on social media. Then the family hired Mars last week and there was across-the-board celebration.
“Yeah, I read that stuff,” Mars said. “It might surprise you but I have a Twitter account. I don’t have any interest in tweeting, but I like to stay abreast of what’s being said on social media about cases I’m working on.”
The fact is, Mars is indiscriminate about the cases he accepts. He helped facilitate the transfer of Georgia Tech offensive lineman Jack DeFoor (son of former UGA offensive lineman Russell DeFoor) from Ole Miss last year. To date, he hasn’t helped a player come to Georgia — he was not connected to the Demetris Robertson transfer from Cal — but now he has assisted two Bulldogs with leaving. And there likely will be more.
Georgia has been stacking up 5- and 4-star recruits like cord wood in Athens, and simple math tells us that they won’t all be able find viable roles on the field. With Mars’ new practice housed in Atlanta, demand for his services should only increase.
And now that he’s on Ford’s case, everybody is certain Ford’s eligibility will be restored. On Mars’ recommendation, Illinois took a path less taken by filing a “reconsideration” rather than an appeal. Reports out of Champaign Friday were decidedly optimistic.
“I don’t think the Illini Nation will be disappointed,” Mars said confidently.
Said Tim Ford, Luke’s father: “Tom’s 100 percent immersive once he gets on something. I got a text from him at 1:26 in the morning the other day. He’s fantastic.”
Mars is a fierce litigator. His weapons are records and documentation. He’s both prolific and meticulous in the gathering and presentation of them. He has spent hours conferring with NCAA officials about their eligibility requirements and learned his way around the membership’s voluminous rule book, which he described as “byzantine.”
Simply put, he knows what the NCAA needs to see and hear to rule in favor of the student-athlete and he delivers it.
Mars is careful to point out that he does not go “against the NCAA.” He actually has made a few friends in their Indianapolis headquarters.
“A lawyer doesn’t battle the judge in a court of law,” Mars said. “I think that’s a whole area that’s pretty much misunderstood by everybody. The NCAA gets criticized pretty harshly for the rules, but they’re not up there in the national offices writing rules. University representatives are the ones who write the rules, then the NCAA has to apply them.”
To be clear, Mars gets paid for this. This is not pro bono work. He typically charges clients “a reduced student-athlete rate” of about $400 an hour. NCAA rules now allow schools to pick up those tabs.
That’s a bargain considering Mars might get $800 an hour for his non-NCAA business. And he actually practices more of that kind of law than college eligibility. His résumé includes cases that have resulted in more than $75 million in judgments. Currently, he is representing the Universal Tennis Academy and its five Atlanta tennis facilities in an action against the City of Atlanta.
“That’s the thing I’m working on the most right now,” Mars said.
Somewhat famously, Walmart hired Mars in 2002 as general counsel after he successfully sued them. He worked for the retail giant for the next 12 years and rose through the ranks to the position of executive vice president and chief administrative officer. Mars next became a partner in The Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo., a world-renown sports-injury surgical center that works with Olympians and other professional athletes. That was before joining the Atlanta law firm of Taylor English Duma in 2014.
But it was with the Little Rock-based Friday Firm that Mars made what he calls his “serendipitous” foray into college athletics in 2017.
Mars had weekly coffee visits with Rex Horne, the pastor who baptized him at Little Rock’s Immanuel Baptist Church in 2001, at a local Starbucks “just to talk.” Horne asked him one day in 2017 if he’d heard about what was going on with Houston Nutt down at Ole Miss.
Mars didn’t know that Horne knew Nutt, and Horne didn’t know that Nutt used to be Mars’ next-door neighbor in Fayetteville while he was coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. Interestingly, neither Nutt nor Mars knew each other back then either because they’d both been so busy while living next door to each for several years that they never met.
“Rex asked me if I’d been following what had been going on with Ole Miss and the NCAA, and I literally laughed out loud because Rex knew I didn’t keep up with college football,” Mars recounted. “But he told me the story, which on the surface just seemed sort of unbelievable, about how Houston felt he was getting blamed by Ole Miss for a bunch of stuff he didn’t do and he sounded pretty sincere about. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll be in Dallas (where Nutt lives) next week. If he’s interested, we’ll get together.’”
They got together, and what followed was a lawsuit against Ole Miss that would turn that football program and its coach Hugh Freeze upside down.
To make a long story short, Mars filed an 88-page lawsuit against Ole Miss on behalf of Nutt in the middle of SEC Media Days. That complaint would include damning phone records that exposed multiple NCAA violations by Ole Miss and various and sundry moral indiscretions by Freeze.
Freeze would resign and Ole Miss was charged with 15 Level 1 NCAA violations and the Rebels subsequently were ordered to vacate 33 wins. Meanwhile, Nutt was awarded an undisclosed settlement and was issued a public apology from Ole Miss.
“This kind of research is something I happen to be very good at, always have been,” Mars said of all the documents he procured for Nutt’s lawsuit. “So, that was the kind of situation that played into my strengths.”
Champion of student-athlete rights
The unexpected consequence of those actions were the many Ole Miss players who felt they’d been deceived by the institution about the seriousness of the NCAA investigation and wanted to play elsewhere. Among them were quarterback Shea Patterson, who Mars assisted in getting transferred to Michigan, and receiver Van Jefferson, whose eligibility at Florida Mars helped restore just weeks before the 2018 season began.
Each became key players for their respective new teams last season.
But before Patterson and Jefferson, he assisted Ole Miss safety Deontay Anderson, who’d end up at Houston. Call him “patient zero” in the migratory trend we’re currently witnessing in college sports.
“I’ll never forget it,” Mars said. “Houston and I talked about the fact that these kids are the ones who are being misled and it’s the university’s intention to mislead them. They’re really the victims here.”
In all, Mars helped six Ole Miss football players find new homes. It won’t be long until his number of assists reaches 100.
The advent of the NCAA’s infamous “transfer portal” last year has sped up the process. It allows student-athletes to survey the landscape for a potential landing spot should they decide to transfer — or not. And so has the one-year-old “mitigating circumstances” waiver that the NCAA created. Mars has had a field day with that one due to his penchant for documentation of records.
As a result, student-athletes are now taking advantage of transfers by the hundreds. Not only is the portal being utilized by Division I football and basketball players, Mars said he is hearing more now from lower division student-athletes and from tennis and volleyball players, even hockey players in the Northeast.
The typical email Mars receives is: “My son’s in the portal. Can you help us?”
While college coaches might complain about the portal’s existence and the headaches it has created, Mars sees it as a good thing for college athletics, and individual rights.
“I started to think this effort could actually result in transfer reform if we played our cards right,” Mars said. “To get six guys an immediate eligibility waiver, it probably made sense to think about this in different terms and take a look at NCAA rules. But I also think the biggest factor has been the court of public opinion.”
Clearly, Mars can’t handle all these cases. So in addition to the creation of his own firm, he’s planning to conduct a series of seminars to train fellow lawyers on the art of the NCAA transfer. Mars said the first one will be in Atlanta.
“Given the volume of calls and emails I’ve been getting since Justin Fields received a waiver, it’s obvious there’s a need for more lawyers to help the parents of student-athletes in transfer waiver cases,” Mars said.
That’s the thing with this new niche; Mars said he’s not a “transfer magician.” Any lawyer could do what he does. It’s just a matter of digging in to find the facts, documenting them and taking the time to do what’s right.
“The hyperbole of adjectives to describe me are pretty ridiculous actually,” Mars said. “I’m just a trial lawyer that’s pretty good at what he does.”