By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. —In the world of Division I Football Championship Subdivision, there are a handful of iconic programs that seem to embody what the entire, playoff-playing, 63 scholarship-competing subdivision is all about.
The Montana Grizzlies, with their packed houses in Washington-Grizzly stadium, are one of them.
In a world where the the problems of so-called “big time” football programs seem distant, however, the sudden, early-morning dismissal of head coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day comes as a complete shock.
Then again, looking at the state of the Grizzly program over the last six years, it’s clear that something hasn’t been right in Missoula for quite some time.
To say Montana has had a rough football offseason would be the understatement of the year.
And it’s not because of their semifinal loss to Sam Houston State, either.
They’ve had to deal with the fact that the actions of a few members of the football team had grown out of control of the institution.
It has been about a pattern of sexual assault from a handful of athletes, but it’s more than that.
It has been about a culture of covering up the antics of athletes, but it’s more than that.
Over the course of the last two years, a disturbing pattern had come to light involving extremely serious incidents involving Montana athletes.
Every year since 2007, there has been at least one high-profile criminal case involving current or former Griz players.
In 2007, three Grizzlies football players and a former player broke into a home to steal money and drugs. All three were suspended from the team and convicted.
In 2008, three freshman football players were charged in a beating that broke a fellow student’s jaw. Two pleaded guilty and the third pleaded no contest.
In 2009, standout cornerback Jimmy Wilson was charged in his home state of California for a fatal shooting that occurred two years earlier. He was acquitted of those charges, but later got embroiled with the law again in 2010 after his bite of a co-ed’s leg required her to go to the hospital.
On their own, they could be seen as outliers, a few bad apples here and there. The appropriate measures seemed to have been taken – the law took its course, players were suspended, and life moved on.
But in 2010, the relationship seemed to change somewhat.
Another Griz defensive back, Trumaine Johnson, and another student were charged with beating another student unconscious in 2010. Johnson was also arrested in 2011, in conjunction with an incident with police at a party, along with teammate Gerald Kemp.
The treatment of Johnson, a star cornerback, was different.
O’Day said at the time of Johnson that the matter the party arrest would be handled “internally” – which meant that Kemp and Johnson would sit for the first quarter of their game vs. Weber State, a game which the Griz would win 45-10.
Despite the fact that Johnson had had other run-ins with the law, this slap on the wrist allowed their likely NFL-bound cornerback to avoid a long suspension and ultimately play in two nationally-televised FCS playoff games against Northern Iowa and Sam Houston State in 2011.
A key part of that “internal handling” of the matter also involved Montana executive vice president Jim Foley accompanying Johnson and the other football player involved, Gerald Kemp, to the offices “of the high-powered law firm Datsopoulos, MacDonald and Lind,” according to reporter Gwen Florio of the Missoulian.
“As the University Executive Vice President at the University of Montana Jim plays an integral role in the planning and implementation of programs to ensure the fulfillment of the University’s institutional Mission,” Montana’s website says in regard to Mr. Foley’s job description. “Specifically, Jim is responsible for the administrative oversight of the public relations operations of the University and takes the lead role in communicating the intricacies and essential position of higher education in the vitality of the state.”
In other words, Foley, who other job stops involve stints as chief-of-staff to several key Montana State politicians, could be seen as the chief spin doctor.
“When high-profile student issues, or university issues – (involving) faculty and staff, too – raise their head in the public domain, we regularly meet to figure out how best the university can respond,” Foley said in regards to his unusual presence at the arraignment of two Montana football players.
Florio of the Missoulian didn’t stop at noticing the oddity of a public relations man representing the athletes at the courthouse, either. She noticed how the same firm was continually being called for a variety of athletic transgressions of varying seriousness. “Two football players charged with driving under the influence, and another was accused of biting a girl’s leg,” she wrote. “And those are just the cases that grabbed the headlines. Run-of-the-mill incidents involving arrests for underage drinking and rowdy behavior attract neither media coverage nor weekend face time with the school’s vice president.”
Some of those run-of-the-mill incidents involve speeding tickets, where during the course of the investigation it came out that Johnson also had unpaid speeding tickets to go with everything else.
Others involved a drunk driving incident involving Nate Montana, son of NFL legend Joe Montana – which was reduced after he pleaded guilty to reckless driving.
Former star transfer offensive lineman J.D. Quinn, too, had a second drunk driving charge mysteriously dropped – after he had already been convicted once before.
A pattern had been set: rather than handle the matters with suspensions or meaningful discipline, it appeared as if folks at Montana were trying to spin their trouble athletes’ way out of trouble.
The cozy relationship between university public relations, campus police, powerful lawyers, and athletes would be
bad enough. But it’s not nearly as horrifying as what has come out over the past few months, however – something that could not be spun away.
In 2011, extremely serious allegations came to light involving a party involving football players, a female victim, and the sedative Rohypnol, which is sometimes called the “date-rape” drug.
They were shocking allegations – and immediately questioned by fans.
But soon thereafter, another woman came forward with an eerily similar story of blacking out and being raped by football players in 2010, proving that the one report was no fluke.
Horrifying as they were, both stories had some stark similarities – how their reports of these serious crimes were mishandled by the people on campus, and the local authorities. And with two victims coming forward, thoughts shifted: how many victims were there, really?
“Although the woman who said she was assaulted on Dec. 15, 2010, reported the incident to police, no charges were filed,” Gwen Florio of the Missoulian said in a report on the matter. “We were left with no answers and no further investigation,” the victim’s parents wrote to Ms. Florio in an email about their daughter’s case. “I really felt that we were brushed off, and my daughter did, too.”
Foley, the spin doctor, was on the case.
He did his best to try to protect the perpetrators and not the victims, by attempting to limit the investigations to “on-campus assaults” instead of one involving football players in an off-campus venue.
But as more and more sexual assault cases came to light – some related, some not – it couldn’t be spun away.
Eventually, a retired state supreme court justice was brought in, Diane Barz, to investigate, she included the off-campus incident and filed a preliminary report saying that the University of Montana “has a problem of sexual assault on and off campus.”
While waiting for the report to be filed, eventually Katherine Redmond, founder/president of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, weighed in on the matter via the Huffington Post.
“Women are slowly coming forward to talk about the systemic protection of athletes at the University of Montana by leaders at the university of Montana, as well as local law enforcement. Citizens have been calling the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes to ask what they can do to dismantle the pervasive environment in Missoula that protects athletes. The lack of institutional control of this university is alarming and, when it occurred at Penn State University, on the east coast, with a legendary coach and program in play, it shocked us all to ask, “How did this happen?” It’s happening in Missoula, Montana, and no one outside of this isolated college town knows any better,” she said.
Ms. Barz’ investigation was taken over by the University, and Montana’s president, Royce Engstrom, announced the results Thursday, March 23rd, a week before O’Day’s and Pflugrad’s firing.
“We have had a serious issue with sexual assault and we have to take bold and decisive measures to move toward the elimination of sexual assault,” he said in a telephone interview with Ms. Florio. “It is a new time for the university with respect to sexual assault. We are as serious as we can possibly be about this matter.”
Looking over the report, it was clear that plenty of mistakes were made at Montana. Victims made reports to the hospital and school, with the expectation that there would be a follow-up with authorities. None came. One Montana staffer inadvertently tipped off one of the perpetrators that someone was charging him with sexual assault. He then left the country.
Engstrom’s clear message from the filing of the report was that things needed to change.
“The closure of the investigation does not mean that we will be a campus free of sexual assault,” Engstrom wrote in his statement. But he also wrote that “the events of the past few months have delivered a critical message to the university. … Now we must focus on the goal of eliminating sexual assault from our campus. 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.”
I don’t think it’s coincidence that Mr. Engstrom issued this statement, and a week later fired O’Day and Pflugrad.
While O’Day and Pflugrad are not responsible for every single action of their students, it is apparent that Engstrom felt like both men did not do “their utmost” to report the sexual assault or discipline the players.
Engstrom’s official dismissal of the two men, a short press release only mentioning a “change of direction”, did not go into any details as to the particulars of their termination. But taken in context with his zero-tolerance policy on sexual assault, his intent couldn’t be more clear: No more spin. Maintaining a safe campus is a priority on my campus, and if you’re going to get in the way of that, you’re gone. I don’t care if you’re in the middle of spring practice or not.