By Dillon Tabish, 4-11-12
||Caption: Justin Franz/Flathead Beacon
In the wake of a campus-wide sexual assault investigation, the University of Montana is losing money from upset donors after the recent firing of its head football coach and athletic director, while prominent former players and a member of the board of regents are defending the decision.
Just one week after the March 29 firings, the executive director of the Grizzly Scholarship Association, which directs fundraising efforts for UM athletics, said the financial losses were “fairly substantial.”
“We’ve had some people that have said we’re Griz fans through and through and we will stick it out,” Greg Sundberg said. “We also have had some folks at this point in time say they will not renew their donations and pull support.”
Sundberg declined to name the exact dollar amount.
Last year, private donors gave roughly $3.5 million specifically to intercollegiate athletics, according to the GSA.
Support for the university has been fractured recently. Just over two weeks before a spring football scrimmage under newly installed lights at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, UM president Royce Engstrom dismissed Jim O’Day, the university’s athletic director, and Robin Pflugrad, the reigning Big Sky Conference football coach of the year. No explanation was given.
The decision came exactly one week after the university released its final report of a special investigation into sexual assault at UM. The investigation found nine reported cases of sexual assault in a year and a half. The report did not publicly specify if any cases were related to the football program. There is currently a rape charge against one Griz player and an allegation against another.
In a statement concluding the investigation, Engstrom vowed to improve education and prevention efforts on campus and also “hold accountable every member of my administration and indeed every member of the campus as a whole.”
The university has not publicly made a connection between the criminal allegations and the firings.
Whitefish resident Doug Betters, a former Griz football standout who played in the NFL for 10 years, described the sexual assault allegations as “a black eye” for the university and everyone connected.
“This is an embarrassment to the whole university, the faculty, the community, the fans, the alumni,” Betters said. “It needed to be dealt with.”
In a four-sentence statement released to the public, Engstrom said the university would not renew the contracts of O’Day and Pflugrad.
“We thank Jim and Robin for their dedicated service to the University, and we wish them well,” Engstrom said in the statement.
That same day, in an email from the University of Montana Foundation, the organization in charge of private fundraising for the school, Engstrom lent more insight into the matter with a separate statement delivered to roughly 5,000 donors.
“I want to let you know that this morning I made the decision not to renew the contracts of Athletic Director Jim O’Day and Head Football Coach Robin Pflugrad,” Engstrom wrote. “I am not able to go into detail about personnel matters, but I want you to know that I made this decision in the long-term interests of the University and the athletic program. Some of you may have strong opinions on this decision and I respect that. Regardless, I hope that you will remain strong advocates for UM and will continue to work with us to move forward on so many exciting fronts.”
As Engstrom predicted, the removal of O’Day and Pflugrad has divided the fan base of Griz Nation. But the fallout has extended beyond strong opinions and has delivered a financial blow to the athletics department.
Jack King, a Kalispell native and UM alumnus who played football for the Griz between 1948-50, has been a season ticket holder for Griz football games for over 25 years. King has donated more than $100,000 to the school, qualifying him as a member of the Benefactors Society, a title reserved for UM’s most significant supporters.
King’s support is on hold until he hears an explanation for the sudden upheaval.
“I haven’t bought my football tickets this year and I’m not going to until they bring this out and get it straightened out,” he said, adding, “I’m unhappy about it. I don’t really know any facts (surrounding the firings). The university has covered that up.”
Engstrom and the university remain silent about the firings. A phone call to UM Vice President Jim Foley’s office last week requesting an interview was not returned. Neither was an emailed request forwarded to Engstrom’s office. Angela McLean, the chair of the Montana University System Board of Regents, declined to comment on the matter.
Former Congressman Pat Williams, a member of the state board of regents, has pledged his support for Engstrom and how the university is currently handling the situation.
“Each of the regents is in support of President Engstrom,” Williams said. “Eventually he will be making a public statement but first he wants to conclude negotiations with the athletic director and coach. For my part, I think he’s proceeding correctly.”
Both Pflugrad and O’Day have hired lawyers. Pflugrad took over as head coach in 2010 and the Griz went 18-7 in his two years. He was named the top coach in the Big Sky last season after the Griz won a share of the conference title and advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals. His contract expires in December.
O’Day, a UM alum from Cut Bank, was hired as athletic director in 2005. His contract expires in June.
The developments on the Missoula campus have become national news. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, titled “Montana and Its Troubled Football Team,” highlighted the recent firings and described the multiple sexual assault allegations involving the football team. The story referenced Penn State University, where last winter a child sex abuse scandal rocked a town engrossed in its football program.
At Montana, “the simultaneous and unexpected dismissal of a phenomenally successful head coach and athletic director is so unusual that Skip Bertman, Louisiana State’s former athletic director and baseball coach for three decades, says the only other case of it he can recall is last November’s ‘Penn State incident,’” the story says.
The University of Montana’s motives remain a subject of intense interest and scrutiny, and the nature surrounding the firings has led to widespread speculation. The common perception is that the dismissals are connected to a string of sexual assault allegations against Griz football players over the last two years.
Griz player Beau Donaldson was charged with rape in January and suspended from the team. He pleaded not guilty. An indictment filed in Missoula County District Court said police heard Donaldson confess to his alleged victim over the phone.
Team captain and quarterback Jordan Johnson was accused of rape in early March and is currently under a court-ordered restraining order while an investigation is ongoing, according to the alleged victim’s attorney, Josh Van de Wetering. Johnson has denied the allegation through his lawyer. No charges have been filed.
When Johnson was allowed to return to practice, Pflugrad came under criticism for comments he made to the Missoulian: “I think any time you have a person of Jordy’s character and tremendous moral fiber, and he’s your team captain and part of the leadership council, your players are going to be fired up.”
The Missoulian also reported another accusation stemming from a December 2010 incident where four Grizzly football players were accused of gang-raping a female university student. Police later told the accuser that no charges would be filed due to insufficient evidence. In December 2012, the Missoulian reported an alleged incident where three football players were accused of date-raping two women.
In response to the reports, Engstrom and the university hired former Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz to conduct an independent investigation of sexual assault at the university in December. In her final report released March 22, Barz identified nine reported cases of sexual assaults between September 2010 and December 2011. She told the university that her investigation was hampered by lack of response and cooperation in some instances.
Engstrom said the university would be making several campus-wide changes in regard to how reported incidents are handled on campus, including in the athletics department.
“Now we must focus on the goal of eliminating sexual assault from our campus,” Engstrom said in a statement. “I will expect and hold accountable every member of my administration and indeed every member of the campus as a whole to do his or her utmost to address that goal.”
Twila Brenneman has watched the latest events unfold in Missoula, not as a booster or alumnus, but as a concerned mother. Her daughter Tess, a standout three-sport senior at Flathead High School, has committed to play soccer at UM next year. The string of recent sexual assault allegations “absolutely” caught Brenneman’s attention.
“You’d like to think it doesn’t happen, but it does,” Brenneman said.
“I didn’t think about it as much until they fired the coach and the athletic director. Then I thought: ‘This is bigger than just the football program.’ I thought about it: ‘How does that affect my daughter?’”
Brenneman said she still feels comfortable with her daughter attending school at UM but has talked with Tess about the importance of taking precautions no matter where she is.
“We’ve just talked about how some people seem to think they can do whatever they want,” Brenneman said. “It’s not just in Missoula. You have to be careful wherever you are. I think you just have to make kids aware of that.”
Jim Smithwick-Hann of Kalispell, who played football at UM and whose son Shay is a redshirt sophomore quarterback for the Griz, said his son was surprised like everyone else by the recent firings.
“(The football players) have had no information from President Engstrom other than what he’s told people publicly,” Jim Smithwick-Hann said. “To a large degree it’s a mystery to those guys as well.”
He declined to speculate about the university’s reasoning, saying, “I’m pretty patient on stuff. Those things are bigger than my pay grade. But knowing coach Pflu and Jim O’Day, I’m just really sorry for them. We’ll miss having them there.”
“We’re still proud that (Shay’s) there,” Smithwick-Hann added. But the future of the program’s success, something Shay admired when he was dreaming of playing for the Griz as a kid, remains in question.
“From a football standpoint,” Smithwick-Hann said, “we’ll just wait and see what happens.”
The sudden news of the firings blindsided staff, players, boosters and fans. Many are outraged.
UM sophomore Kyle Schmauch of Kalispell launched a Facebook page called “Demand Answers” aimed at campaigning for an explanation. By April 9, the group had 106 people on board.
“We can speculate all day long about sexual assault and other misconduct,” Schmauch wrote, “but such a damaging action to the football program and athletic department MUST be explained, whether you agree or disagree with the action.”
Scott Zeier remembers Griz football before it was a dynasty with national championships and consistent 25,000-plus home crowds.
Zeier, who has ties to the Flathead Valley but lives in Missoula, started out as a UM basketball fan. But when Washington-Grizzly Stadium began expanding behind the success of Dave Dickenson and Don Read, Zeier joined the wave of people filling the stands.
The timing of the recent tumultuous events – in the middle of spring ball – has him seriously concerned about the program’s current turmoil and what that could lead to in the future.
“I’m a believer that if the program doesn’t win, people will stop coming,” Zeier said. “That’s what happened to our basketball program. If our football program slides for three or four years, you’ll see more empty seats. I’ll still be going, but I’m nervous how many people will.”
Mick Delaney, a 69-year-old former assistant coach who retired after four years at UM in February, has been named the interim coach for 2012. Delaney has said the goal is the same as it always is at Montana – win a national championship.
But the confidence that once surrounded the program has been replaced with uncertainty.
“You hate to see something like this (firing) be a distraction or take away from a program, or have a negative impact,” said Joel Rosenberg, a Kalispell resident who played football for the Grizzlies from 1998-2002. “It’s really hard to say what will happen. You hate that this could possibly derail (the program). There’s still a lot of good people there.”
Jean Gee, the interim athletic director, said she is not aware of any transfer requests or recruits dropping commitments to play football. She said the mindset within the athletic department is “moving forward together.”
“Those student athletes need our support. Regardless of how anyone feels about what has taken place, the student athletes still are going to get on the field and work their tails off,” she said. “They do what they do because they love it. But they are also very proud of what they bring to this state. There is not another single thing I want to say except they deserve our support.”
Zeier said he hopes to see Griz Nation come out in full force for the spring scrimmage on April 14, the first game ever under the permanent lights in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The university said the theme of the milestone game will be “One Night, One Nation, Under the Lights.”
“I hope we pack that stadium with 20,000 people,” Zeier said. “Then hopefully that sends a message to these kids that we’re behind you.”
Regardless, another message is already spreading throughout the university and beyond.
“I think that some students, including athletes, need to understand that they’re at the university to get an education,” Williams, from the board of regents, said. “Coaches are first and foremost educators. They’re teachers. And sometimes we and the fans forget that. This might be a good reminder of the fact that the institution is above all a place where students go to learn.”
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