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Montana and Its Troubled Football Team
A Winning Coach Is Let Go Amid Player Rape Allegations; Questioning a ‘Frontier Culture’
In parting ways last week with its head football coach and athletic director, the University of Montana emphatically delivered no message.
Instead of firing the pair, the school said it declined to renew their contracts.
Unmentioned were the rape and sexual-assault accusations and charges outstanding against various members of the Grizzlies football team, including its star quarterback, and the fact that an independent investigator looking into some of those accusations recently reported that her efforts had been thwarted by a “lack of response” from witnesses.
Also unmentioned was that the dismissed coach was a star, the winner of last season’s Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year award. (Montana plays on the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision level.) In a town where Grizzly football is king, “we’re in denial, at the college level and at the community level,” says Marilyn Marler, a university botanist and member of the Missoula City Council.
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.”
People in Missoula certainly seem to believe that the dismissals of athletic director Jim O’Day and football coach Robin Pflugrad are connected to widespread accusations of sexual assault against football players. “I think O’Day and Pflugrad got terminated because the administration thought that in the face of all this publicity and national attention, someone’s head had to roll,” said Milton Datsopoulos, a lawyer representing Pflugrad. O’Day’s lawyer did not return calls seeking comment. University president Royce Engstrom declined to return calls and a university lawyer declined to elaborate on the dismissals.
Some in the community worry that the dismissals could deflect attention away from what they regard as the more-serious problem. “We still have a group of athletes who have not been held accountable,” says Cindy Weese, executive director of the YWCA in Missoula. “That fact seems to be buried at this point.”
The only player to have been criminally charged with rape is running back Beau Donaldson. He has been suspended from the team. In a December phone call monitored by Missoula detectives, he confessed to his alleged victim, according to an indictment filed in Missoula County Court. Donaldson has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Datsopoulos, said the recorded conversation didn’t prove anything.
In December of 2010, a female student gave a report to Missoula police that she’d lost consciousness early in an evening of drinking and woke to find herself being sexually assaulted by a group of five men, four of them Grizzly football players, according to the victim. The police reported back to her that no charges would be filed due to a insufficient evidence. Nonetheless, in an interview with the Missoulian newspaper, the victim said police told her that the men said they were sorry. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the alleged victim confirmed the Missoulian account.
In December 2012, the Missoulian reported that at least three players had been involved in the sexual assaults that month of two women, reportedly by using the date-rape drug.
To investigate the allegations, Engstrom, the university president, that month asked a former state Supreme Court justice, Diane Barz, to conduct an inquiry. A month later, she identified nine cases of alleged sexual assault or attempted sexual assault involving students in the 16 months ending in December 2011. Barz, who declined to comment, didn’t specify how many of the suspects played football. As for the December 2011 cases involving football players, she reported that the victims declined to cooperate.
But the Barz report indicated the continuing determination of the victim in the December 2010 case to seek justice. A person familiar with the matter said that the university is actively investigating that case. Barz concluded her report with a lamentation about lack of cooperation and truth: “I am disappointed with the lack of response from students with knowledge of house parties where the incidents were alleged to have occurred. Some that have been questioned have not been truthful. I believe ‘lying’ is also covered under the Student Conduct Code.”
Last month, a female student reported that she had been raped by Jordan Johnson, the team’s highly touted sophomore quarterback. After a judge issued a no-contact order against Johnson, the team initially disallowed him from practice. Johnson has denied the allegations through his lawyer Datsopoulos. Police are investigating, according to Datsopoulos.
But then the athletic department allowed Jordan to return to practice, eliciting public praise of the quarterback from coach Pflugrad. “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” about his return, Pflugrad told the Missoulian.
The series of rape allegations, along with Pflugrad’s dismissal, “is a shock to Montana,” said Pat Williams, a former U.S. congressman who sits on the Montana university system’s board of regents. “We can’t believe it.”
By STU WOO, Wall Street Journal