From Comcast SportsNetNEW YORK (AP) -- Manti Te'o tried to put one of the strangest sports stories in memory behind him, insisting he was the target of an elaborate online hoax in which he fell for a fake woman created by pranksters, then admitting his own lies made the bizarre ordeal worse.Whether his off-camera interview with ESPN was enough to demonstrate that the Notre Dame star linebacker was a victim in the scheme instead of a participant is still an open question.The most important judges of the All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist may be pro football teams. Te'o has finished his coursework at Notre Dame and is preparing for the NFL draft at an elite training facility in Florida, where the 2-hour interview was conducted late Friday night.ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap said that the 21-year-old Te'o answered all his questions in a calm voice, and tried to clear up the mysteries and inconsistencies of the case.Among the highlights:-- Te'o denied being in on the hoax. "No. Never," he said. "I wasn't faking it. I wasn't part of this."-- Te'o provided a timeline and details of his relationship with Lennay Kekua, his virtual sweetheart, who went through an array of medical calamities before "dying" of Leukemia in September, just hours after Te'o got real news of his grandmother's death.-- He acknowledged that he lied to his father about meeting Kekua in person, then exacerbated the situation after her supposed death when he "tailored" his comments to reporters to make it sound as if their relationship was more than just phone calls and electronic messages."I even knew, that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn't meet, and that alone -- people find out that this girl who died, I was so invested in, I didn't meet her, as well," Te'o said. "So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away, so that people wouldn't think that I was some crazy dude."In the same part of the conversation, Te'o said: "Out of this whole thing, that is my biggest regret. And that is the biggest, I think, that's from my point of view, that is a mistake I made."-- He detailed the confusing phone conversation he had on Dec. 6, when the woman who was posing as Kekua contacted him and told him one last hard-to-believe story about how she had to fake her own death to evade drug dealers. Te'o said it left him piecing together what exactly was going on over the next few days, when he was bouncing from interview to interview while taking part in the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York on Dec. 8 and another awards dinner in Los Angeles the next night. He mentioned his girlfriend in interviews at least three times over that period.-- Even after he went to his parents, coaches and Notre Dame officials with the story by Dec. 26, and the school provided an investigation that it says corroborated Te'o's version by Jan. 4, the player told ESPN that it was not until Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a 22-year-old acquaintance who lives in California, contacted him Wednesday and confessed to the prank, that he finally believed Kekua was not real. Schaap said that Te'o showed him direct messages from Twitter in which Tuiasosopo admitted to masterminding the hoax and apologized.Schaap remarked to Te'o earlier in the interview that he still talked about Lennay as if she existed."Well, in my mind I still don't have answers," Te'o replied. "I'm still wondering what's going on, what happened."Tuiasosopo has not spoken publicly since Deadspin.com broke the news of the hoax on Wednesday and identified him as being heavily involved.At the Tuiasosopo house in Palmdale, Calif., the family did not answer the door Saturday. The AP learned Saturday through public records and interviews a house on the street as the Tuiasosopo's that Te'o had flowers delivered to after Kekua "died" was once lived in by Ronaiah. The residents now? A family named Kekua, though they've never heard of a Lennay Kekua.Whether Tuiasosopo ultimately confirms Te'o's version of the story will go a long way toward determining where this saga is headed.In the interview with ESPN, Te'o implied that he was not holding a grudge against Tuiasosopo."I hope he learns," Te'o said. "I hope he understands what he's done. I don't wish an ill thing to somebody. I just hope he learns. I think embarrassment is big enough."Te'o was the emotional leader and best player on a Notre Dame team that went from unranked to playing for the program's first national championship since 1988. And Te'o's tale of inspired play while dealing with a double-dose of tragedy became the theme of the Irish's unexpected rise and undefeated regular season.Not until Te'o and the Irish faced Alabama in the BCS championship did the good times end. The Crimson Tide won in a 42-14 rout on Jan. 7, the hoax was then exposed and suddenly the dream season was tarnished.So far no law enforcement agencies have indicated they are pursuing a criminal case in the scam, and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick in a news conference earlier this week said the university was going to leave it up to Te'o and his family to pursue legal action.Bennett Kelly, founder of the Internet Law Center in Santa Monica, Calif., said a criminal case of fraud against the perpetrators probably wouldn't work because it appears they took nothing of value (money or other items) from Te'o. The player said at one point the fake girlfriend asked for his checking account number but he declined.A civil suit would be difficult as well, Kelley said."It's not as easy as it's often portrayed," Kelley said. "The context has to be outrageous. There usually has to be some kind of physical manifestation. It can't just be that it was a bummer."Swarbrick said from the start that it didn't seem as if laws were broken or NCAA rules violated. He had publicly encouraged Te'o to give his side of the story."Manti put this to rest for me and the University long ago," Swarbrick said in a text message to the AP on Saturday. "I am just glad that everyone (at least everyone open to the facts) now knows what we have long known -- that a great young man was the innocent victim of a very cruel hoax."While fans and the members of the media might not be satisfied with where Te'o has left it, he won't necessarily be compelled to answer to them -- just to potential employers starting in February.At the NFL combine, Te'o will have his physical skills and fitness tested, and he will be interviewed by NFL executives and coaches. He has been projected as a potential first-round draft pick. If his involvement in this hoax sets off red flags for teams and it causes him to slip in April's draft, it could cost him millions of dollars.Said former Dallas Cowboys general manager and NFL draft consultant Gil Brandt: "Between now and 97 days from now when the draft comes, there'll be a lot of people investigating just what took place."
MESA, Ariz. — The day after Fortune magazine ranked Theo Epstein No. 1 on its list of "The World's 50 Greatest Leaders," Anthony Rizzo led the team in a standing ovation and asked the Cubs president to offer a few words before the morning workout.
"I only have one thing to say about that," Epstein told the group. "It's about f------ time."
Epstein always understands his audience — whether it's professional athletes, Democratic donors, Cubs Convention diehards or the pesky media — and knows how to deliver a one-liner with perfect timing.
Epstein loves baseball, but he's not some poet or romantic, dropping F-bombs at the right moment and calling BS when he sees it. Of course, Epstein has a huge ego. There's no other way to end 194 combined years of curses between the Cubs and his hometown Boston Red Sox. But Epstein also didn't crash all the late-night talk shows this offseason or cash in with a quick book on leadership skills and management philosophy/fluff.
The day before, Epstein had been awoken by a text message from a national baseball writer, asking for a reaction to the viral list that ranked him two spots ahead of Pope Francis. Epstein didn't even know this internet attention grab was coming and released a copy-and-paste statement to reporters, calling it "patently ridiculous" and writing: "Um, I can't even get my dog to stop peeing in the house."
But the Cubs didn't hold that pre-stretch meeting to roast Epstein, moving it to an off-limits area of the spring-training complex to settle something about South Carolina and March Madness brackets without it winding up all over Twitter. Years ago, while touring the construction site in Mesa, Epstein turned to strength coach Tim Buss and said something sarcastic like: Take a good look around, Bussy, you'll be fired by the time this is done.
Buss survived and became a Speedo-wearing star at Camp Maddon, where the manager recently nominated him to become Madonna's dance trainer. That weight room in Arizona now has a mural depicting the raucous celebration outside the Wrigley Field marquee after the Cubs won their first World Series title since the Teddy Roosevelt administration.
When the 2017 Cubs are booed on Sunday during the Opening Night pageantry at Busch Stadium, they will be a reflection of Epstein's complex personality — colorful, edgy, confident, self-motivated, analytical, instinctive, inclusive, really, a worst nightmare for St. Louis Cardinals fans who used to love watching a one-sided rivalry.
"He understands that we're not robots," said Rizzo, the All-Star first baseman Epstein drafted for the Red Sox, traded to the San Diego Padres and then reacquired as a foundation piece on the North Side. "He does his due diligence. You see the guys in here being good people, and that comes first. He's not bringing in guys that have talent and bad reputations, because it's cancerous in the clubhouse.
"He does a good job of being very approachable, especially with the players, and easy to talk to, and not coming in there and being this dominating, intimidating figure in the clubhouse where everyone perks up."
Yet even the character-driven narrative can sometimes oversimplify and undersell a Cubs Way that obsessively gathers information and sees the world as an endlessly complicated place.
It's not scouting vs. analytics or head vs. heart or good guys vs. bad guys. It's all of that, all the time, when you oversee one of the most popular teams in the world, eight minor-league affiliates and employees covering everywhere from Latin America to the Pacific Rim.
The Cubs dug enough to know that an ugly incident involving Aroldis Chapman would publicly surface before the Los Angeles Dodgers agreed to — and backed out of — a controversial deal with the Cincinnati Reds during the 2015 winter meetings.
Once Chapman served his 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball's domestic-violence policy — and the New York Yankees took the bigger PR hit and the Cubs looked like a legitimate World Series contender last summer — Epstein gave up top prospect Gleyber Torres in a blockbuster trade for the mercenary closer.
Epstein hired and fired two handpicked managers with completely different personalities — Dale Sveum and Rick Renteria — and didn’t hesitate when Joe Maddon used an escape clause in his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays to become a free agent after the 2014 season.
During that year, Epstein shocked the baseball world by giving Manny Ramirez a second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance and hiring him to be a player/coach at Triple-A Iowa because he thought it would help Javier Baez. "Javy Being Javy" led to a National League Championship Series co-MVP performance last year.
The Cubs indulged Tommy La Stella when he refused to report to the minors last summer/took a New Jersey sabbatical — just in case they needed a left-handed pinch-hitter for a particular playoff matchup.
"Look, Theo's been successful everywhere he's gone," said Mike Hazen, the new Arizona Diamondbacks general manager and former Red Sox executive. "It's not a coincidence. It's not by accident. He's probably the smartest person I've ever worked for. He's as driven a person as I've ever worked for. He's passionate about baseball, about the draft, about player development. Every small decision is monumental to him — with everything.
"That wasn't like in a micromanaging way. When I was the farm director, every game report, every night, if there was something in there that he had a question about, I would get a phone call or an e-mail: 'Hey, what's going on with this? What's going on with that?' He was locked into everything. He has a huge capacity to make decisions and give advice on so many different levels."
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Epstein doesn't want a preview to revolve around the idea of his next job, because he's in the first season of a five-year extension worth in the neighborhood of $50 million and not at all looking to leave Wrigleyville, a place where he can keep winning big while walking to work and raising his young family.
But getting an equity stake in a big-league franchise would be the logical next step if Epstein decides to stay this involved in baseball once he nears Bill Walsh's ideal of a 10-year shelf life for coaches and executives.
David Axelrod — the Cub fan/former Chicago Tribune political writer/chief strategist to President Barack Obama — asked Epstein that natural what's-next question about owning a team on "The Axe Files" podcast.
"Um, sure, yeah, I think you can do things as an owner that you can't necessarily do as an employee," Epstein told Axelrod near the end of an offseason conversation that lasted more than 70 minutes, "helping the team really get involved in the community and doing some great work, using baseball as a vehicle to do some important work in society.
"My twin brother is a social worker, so I try to view the world through his eyes, and he's always telling me about what's really going on in the trenches.
"The reality is, these days so much of the most important work in society is done by these nonprofits, most of which don't get real government funding, so it's really important to identify the most impactful nonprofits in your community, especially in a city like Chicago right now that is battling so many critical challenges, and then support them.
"Baseball is just bread and circus, right? I mean, what we do is we just entertain the masses. And, of course, at certain moments it becomes really meaningful to people and transcends that. But by and large, it's just bread and circus.
"But there are rich fans who are willing to spend money to get access to games and sit in better seats or sit in the general manager's box or get autographs or have these experiences, going to dinner with players or with general managers. And if you can use that — and raise some money and redirect it to nonprofits — I think that's a great thing and really our responsibility in some ways."
In the meantime, owners will keep trying to find the next Epstein and copy a five-year plan that went from 101 losses to 103 wins. That underestimates: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the Red Sox; the built-in credibility with fans and the media from the moment he arrived in Chicago; an ability to manage up and work around the initial payroll restrictions; and the shadow he casts over the entire organization.
"Theo's got a long memory," said Sam Hughes, the national crosschecker who has worked for the Cubs since 1996. "We spend two weeks together (during the draft). We go every player — from the guy we might select in the 40th round (to the top pick) — and you'd be amazed at how much attention and how thorough we are with each and every guy.
"It's crazy, because you're in that room and it's like a frat party for two weeks, (with) great dialogues going on. But then when you leave, it's like crickets. You don't hear from him. And then he's off to probably paying the same attention to the pro department getting ready for trade deadline.
"But when he's there, he's all on. And then you might not see, hear or talk to him for six months. Out of the blue, you'll get just like a random witty e-mail or something about a player that you liked."
Epstein could always drop the Theo-has-spoken hammer while discussing first-round picks like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber or free agents like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist. But Epstein would rather listen, ask questions and play devil's advocate.
"He wants you to come to the table with an opinion," said Lukas McKnight, the assistant director of amateur scouting. "He doesn't mind when you disagree with him, which is awesome. It's great to have somebody that is more than respectful of your opinion when it differs from his.
"As long as you're thorough — and as long as you can back it in evidence and talk thoroughly about it — he loves that."
Epstein is 43 years old, but this will be his 26th major-league season, which gives him an incredible network of sources and a database of experiences to draw from as the Cubs try to win back-to-back World Series titles for the first time since 1907 and 1908.
Epstein remembered the 2005 Red Sox opening their season in The Bronx on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" — and how finally winning it all didn't exactly allow manager Terry Francona to relax.
"Yeah, it sucked," Epstein said with a laugh. "We had a bunch of injuries in our rotation, so David Wells had to pitch Opening Day and got hit pretty hard and we lost. And then we came back and Matt Clement pitched (and we) lost. And then before the third game of the season, Tito started having like heart palpitations.
"I ended up going to the hospital with him. We listened to the third game of the season from Tito's hospital room. We felt like if we lost, neither one of us were going to be welcome back in Boston because we were getting swept at Yankee Stadium, even though we were coming back to get our rings.
"So I hope the series in St. Louis goes better. But if it doesn't, I'll have been through it before."
Joining Kap on today's episode of STL is Sam Panayotovich (WGN Radio), David Haugh (Chicago Tribune) and Hub Arkush (Pro Football Weekly).
The Bulls take on the Cavs, playing at home on TNT, so a season sweep of their rivals is a lock, right? Plus, should Dwyane Wade return to the court this season?
Also, the Blackhawks trounced the Penguins last night. Are the Hawks the best team in the NHL? Finally, the guys discuss whether the Cubs can repeat this season, and welcome Scott Podsednik to the White Sox pre and postgame team.
Check out the latest SportsTalk Live Podcast here.