During an interview at a cafe patio on Market Square, Speck recalled that he made the drive to Maryland, struck a representation deal with Williams, drove back to Knoxville through the night and negotiated a deal with the 49ers about 8 a.m.
“Isn’t that crazy?” he said with a laugh, adding that in hindsight it was a simple deal to negotiate, but also his first. “That was an exciting day.”
Williams never caught fire in the NFL, but Speck is another story. Since then, the president of Knoxville-based Allegiant Athletic Agency — also known as a3 — has negotiated a $100 million deal for former University of Tennessee Vol Albert Haynesworth that includes a record-breaking $41 million in guaranteed money and negotiated a rookie contract for Eric Berry, the beloved ex-safety for the Vols who was selected fifth in this year’s NFL
draft by the Kansas City Chiefs.
Taken together, those deals have put Speck on the map in a business where the best-known agents are an oftquoted presence on ESPN and in the sports pages, but the bad apples have cast a sleazy shadow. For his part, Speck and his team are eager to prove themselves as agents who do things the right way.
“Every industry needs good people,” he said. “And that’s what we are in this industry.”
While a3’s roster of clients is heavy with former Vols — the company’s basketball operation, led by Jared Karnes, represents clients including Wayne Chism, Chris Lofton and Tyler Smith — Speck earned his gridiron stripes in a different shade of orange.
He grew up in Texas, but moved to Nashville before his senior year of high school and eventually signed with Clemson, where he was a captain on the football team, played safety and special teams, and as a freshman returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in the Peach Bowl.
Speck said he considered going back to Texas for law school, but settled on the University of Tennessee because of relationships he made in Knoxville. One of the ties he forged was with Jeff Hagood, a local attorney and UT supporter who provided Speck with an internship during his last semester at Clemson. Speck worked as a clerk for Hagood’s firm during his time in law school, and when he launched Allegiant Management in 2004, Hagood was his financial backer.
Asked why he originally thought Speck would be a good person to have working at the firm, Hagood said the football player had a good referral — a client of Hagood’s — and that he and Speck had much in common.
“He was a person of faith, was active in his faith and (he) was a college football player, and I’m a college football fan,” Hagood said. “We both enjoyed sports and just had a lot of the same interests. He was a bright guy. And I didn’t know how bright, but I knew he was a bright guy and had a lot of … walking-around sense.”
It didn’t take long to land a major client. During his time in law school, Speck met Haynesworth when Hagood’s firm handled a legal matter for the defensive lineman, and the two hit it off. In spring 2005, Speck said Haynesworth “was looking for new representation and he trusted our friendship and trusted me and wanted me to represent him.”
As a former first-round draft pick, Haynesworth’s decision to sign with Speck boosted the agent’s credibility, but Speck really made waves in 2009 when Haynesworth signed a seven-year, $100 million contract with the Washington Redskins that included $41 million in guaranteed money (Speck’s fee is 3 percent of the money he negotiates that is actually paid to the player, the maximum allowed under NFL Players Association rules).
Besides making Haynesworth a very rich man, the deal brought some unwanted scrutiny for Speck and the Redskins, who reached an agreement only hours after the official opening of the league’s free- agent period, in which certain players have the option to sign with a new team. The compressed time frame prompted an NFL tampering investigation to determine whether the Redskins and Speck began negotiating before free agency began, but the league eventually said it could not conclude that a violation occurred.
Speck insisted that he “did not talk one dollar amount with the Washington Redskins until after midnight of when free agency opened up.”
So how did the agent and the Redskins come to terms on a nine- figure deal in less time than it usually takes to reach agreement on the sale of a $150,000 house?
The agent said it’s not as difficult as it may seem, in part because the teams have spent months preparing for free agency — deciding what players they want, how much they can pay and how the salary cap will come into play.
In the case of Haynesworth, he said, a list of interested teams was quickly whittled down by financial considerations, with Washington and Tampa Bay ending up as the biggest financial players among teams that ran the defensive scheme favored by Haynesworth.
“So it really doesn’t take a long period of time to determine if the Washington Redskins are willing to pay him 41 guaranteed on a $100 million deal over seven years,” Speck said. “They’ve determined that well before this day.”
In July of last year, the agent teamed with Karnes and Isaac Conner to form a3, which set up shop on Market Square last August. Less than a year later, a3 reached another milestone by signing Berry to its roster, a deal that bolstered the firm’s reputation because it was Speck’s first chance to negotiate a rookie contract for a first-round NFL draft pick.
It’s a steep trajectory early in his career, and for at least one of Speck’s mentors the time frame has been a surprise. Doug Blaze, the dean of UT’s law school, taught the agent during his first year of law school — Speck graduated from law school in 2004 — and also supervised him in a legal clinic that allows thirdyear law students to provide services to actual clients.
Blaze said Speck, 32, is diligent, hard-working and skilled at developing a strategy to achieve a goal, but even so the dean said his former student has “pulled it off far faster than I ever thought he would be able to.”
The dean attributed that fast rise partly to Speck’s honesty and ethical behavior. While those terms aren’t universally used to describe agents, Blaze said Speck knows that “for him to be really effective, people need to have trust (that) what he says is true.”
The a3 firm also has forged close ties to the University of Tennessee’s athletic power structure. Besides the relationship with Hagood — who is president of the Knoxville Quarterback Club and coauthored former UT football coach Phillip Fulmer’s book about the 1998 national championship season — a3’s director of client development is Judy Jackson, the former associate director of student athlete welfare for UT’s men’s athletic department.
Speck said Jackson’s relationship with the Berry family is what ultimately got a3 an interview with him.
“She understands what the student-athletes go through in college,” he said, adding that Jackson for years “kind of stood in the gap for parents while their kids are on campus. And she understands how to be an advocate for a player. … And that’s exactly what she does for us at a3.”
In some ways, Berry’s signing exemplifies the conflicting pressures that are brought to bear on elite college athletes. Speck said several firms did not approach and treat Berry in an ethical way and were trying to recruit him in violation of the NFL Players Association’s “junior rule,” which generally prohibits agents from recruiting players until Dec. 1 of their junior year.
“Luckily for us, Eric really wanted to handle the process the right way,” Speck said.
The agent noted that a3 represented many former Tennessee players and said Berry was aware of the firm. Asked how important those connections are, Speck called them “very important” and said that’s the reason why a lot of agents sign players from the same school year after year.
“It’s a relationship-driven business,” he said, noting that prior to signing Berry, he had bumped into the player once or twice while meeting with Anthony Parker, another former Vol, but said there were no substantive conversations with Berry.
As for his firm’s general approach to signing clients, Speck said it’s usually done through current relationships a3 has, and added that the firm doesn’t employ runners, which he defined as individuals who are paid to deliver athletes to an agency.
Speck indicated that his firm will have some contact with players or their families while the athletes still are in college, but said a3 has never broken an NCAA or NFL Players Association rule.
“If you have not built some level of relationship prior to their eligibility expiring, you don’t have a chance to win their business,” he said.
Asked if he feels the pressure of losing a potential client because he’s not willing to use the tactics adopted by some agents, Speck said it comes down to character and integrity.
“We are confronted with those things on an annual basis, no question about it. … But at that point in time, if we realize that that’s important to a particular player, (we’re) not going to judge them, but we’re going to move on.”