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NCAA penalizes Montana over booster perks
No more waiting and wondering for the Montana football program. Read more
The University of Montana football program will serve three years on probation and vacate five wins, including one against Montana State University and two playoff victories, as punishment for violating several NCAA rules governing student-athletes.
UM also will have its football scholarships reduced from 63 to 59 for three years, must donate $3,000 to local charities and must have an outside agency review its athletics compliance program.
Concluding an 18-month investigation into the UM football program on Friday, the NCAA found that former head coach Robin Pflugrad failed to monitor the football program, allowing boosters to provide extra benefits, including bail money and legal representation, to players.
The investigation also found the football team had exceeded its coaching limits and that two former players, cornerback Trumaine Johnson and backup quarterback Gerald Kemp, competed while ineligible.
The NCAA handed down sanctions against the UM football program, along with separate penalties to Pflugrad, who now coaches at Weber State.
UM President Royce Engstrom said the findings end what’s been a tumultuous chapter in the university’s history, one that also included an investigation by the federal departments of Justice and Education into how the school handled reports of sexual assault and harassment – some also involving football players.
Many of the incidents go back before Engstrom’s tenure began as president, and all of the administrators involved in the past incidents have been replaced, including Pflugrad and former athletic director Jim O’Day – both fired in 2012.
“We have pledged to build a superior and effective athletic program with students who are known for their contributions to their sport, to the classroom, and to the community,” Engstrom said.
Engstrom appointed Kent Haslem as the school’s new athletic director last year, and Mick Delaney was hired as the head coach. Engstrom said the university began instituting changes to its athletics program before the NCAA released its report.
Among the changes, the school has worked to improve its communications with coaches, student-athletes, staff and boosters – the latter of which also violated NCAA rules – resulting in stiff sanctions handed down against the university.
“We will work to ensure we are in full compliance, and we intend to continue strengthening our culture of compliance,” Engstrom said. “We are proud of our student-athletes, and I consider athletics integral to the fabric of the Montana experience.”
Much of the NCAA investigation focused on the Oct. 23, 2011 arrest of Kemp and Johnson, who now plays professional football for the St. Louis Rams.
After the Grizzlies mounted a 28-24 victory over Northern Arizona University, Johnson hosted a late-night party at his Missoula apartment, where someone complained of noise at 2:40 on a Sunday morning.
Police tried to break up the party and later tased both Johnson and Kemp. They were charged with obstructing a peace officer, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, and booked into the Missoula County Detention Center.
According to the NCAA report, an unnamed female booster bailed the two players out of jail an hour later. The report said the booster posted a $130 bond for one player and $190 for the other.
The report says the two players also received legal representation from the mother of a student-employee of the athletic department. The report does not name the lawyer, saying only that she was a “shareholder in a Missoula law firm that leases a suite” in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Johnson and Kemp were represented by Darla Keck of Datsopoulos, MacDonald and Lind. The law firm didn’t return phone calls Friday seeking comment.
“The Missoula County prosecutor’s office estimated that the approximate value of the cost-free legal service (Keck) provided the two student-athletes was $3,000 ($1,500 per student athlete),” the report says.
It’s a violation of NCAA rules to provide student-athletes with free or reduced-cost services. That includes legal representation and posting bond.
Johnson and Kemp eventually pleaded no contest to the disorderly conduct charges and paid small fines. The other, more serious charges were dropped.
Both players went on to compete in regular and postseason games, despite their ineligibility. Pflugrad and O’Day knew that boosters had provided the players with bail money and legal representation, but failed to inform the compliance office, the NCAA report said.
“The former head coach failed to monitor the football program by not reporting the booster activity surrounding the arrest of the two student-athletes, not monitoring the relationships between boosters and student-athletes, and allowing a student assistant to engage in coaching activity,” the report said.
The NCAA investigation also found that other boosters provided extra benefits to players, including meals, loans, clothing, lodging, transportation and laundry services.
The report found that one woman, known among players as “Griz Mom,” provided hundreds of meals at her residence to numerous football players, including home-cooked meals and free pizza ordered from local restaurants.
The report says “Griz Mom” began the practice in 2003 or 2004. Another booster couple also provided free meals to football players during their tailgate gatherings at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The NCAA allows student-athletes to “receive an occasional meal from a representative or athletic interests on infrequent and special occasions.” The report found the “Griz Mom” provided regular meals to athletes “beyond occasionally.”
The investigation also found other NCAA violations, including several by a former assistant athletic director. The administrator became friends with a football player, a relationship that evolved to a “personal level.”
“During the fall of 2011, the assistant athletic director’s interactions with the student-athlete occurred at the staff member’s home on numerous occasions,” the report says. “During these home visits, the student-athlete received meals, snacks, lodging and laundry services.”
The penalties imposed upon UM include public reprimand and censure, and a reduction of four football scholarships per year through the 2016-2017 academic year.
The program must vacate all wins in which Johnson and Kemp competed during the 2011 regular season while ineligible. That includes a 36-10 win over Montana State, along with NCAA Division 1 playoff wins over Central Arkansas and Northern Iowa. In all, UM was stripped of five wins, and its record that year must be amended moving forward.
In addition, UM must remove all mention of its participation in the 2011 NCAA Division 1 FCS championships and the 2011 Big Sky Conference football championship – including banners, media guides, recruiting materials and archives, the NCAA said.
Finally, UM must also make a $3,000 donation to local charities and conduct an external review of the athletics compliance program.
Pflugrad will be suspended from coaching duties at Weber State for the first game of the 2013 season and faces multiple recruiting restrictions during the upcoming season.
He will also be required to attend an NCAA Rules Conference Seminar and cannot recruit off campus during the first three weeks of the 2013 fall contact period.
UM’s response to the report and sanctions was quick and positive.
“The resolution of the NCAA investigation is welcome, and it enforces our focus on excellence at UM,” Engstrom said in a campus letter Friday. “I can assure you that our athletic program has never been stronger.”
“It is good to be moving forward and to have this situation resolved,” said Kevin McRae, associate commissioner of higher education for the Montana University System.
“UM’s student-athletes, athletic department, and administration have the full confidence and support of the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education and the Board of Regents,” McRae added. “All these folks have worked very hard to get 2011 behind us and to feel good about the future.”
The NCAA said any action by UM that violates the terms of the penalties could result in more severe sanctions, or findings of additional violations. Weber State is also under the restrictions imposed on Pflugrad, as he is now an employee of that school.
“Any institution that employs an individual while restrictions are in effect against that individual, and fails to adhere to the prescribed penalties or violations, subjects itself to … possible findings of violations,” the report concludes.