The collateral damage will be extensive.
That much is a given.
Thursday’s firing of University of Montana head football coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day does more than send two high-profile officials packing. It leaves the Grizzly athletic department – the football program in particular – in serious limbo.
“It’s like we’ve jumped out at 35,000 feet and now we’re looking for a parachute,” lamented one UM official.
For Big Sky Conference Commissioner Doug Fullerton, the news was unsettling.
“You never like to see anything like this happen,” he said. “But I have complete respect for (UM) President (Royce) Engstrom and his ability to make the right decisions for the University of Montana.”
Griz players were as surprised as fans by Thursday’s bombshell. Those players weren’t even afforded the opportunity to hear the news from Pflugrad first.
“I heard about it from the general student population before I heard anything from my teammates or coaches,” said Bobby Alt, a senior defensive end for the 2011 Grizzlies. “I couldn’t believe it.
“It’s definitely a sad day. Coach Pflugrad has been a father figure to us. He’s a great man and coach, and we’re indebted to him for two great years as head coach. It’s tragic and sad to see it come to an end that’s not on his own terms.”
Support for O’Day, who has been on the job since 2005, was just as heartfelt.
“It’s hard to think of a sport that we love as a business, especially in college when athletes aren’t getting paid, but it is man,” former Montana quarterback Cole Bergquist said. “I can’t wait to find out exactly what the reason is. I don’t know if this is to try and clean up Montana’s image or what, but I only have the best things to say about Jim O’Day and Coach Pflu.
“I’ve never seen an AD care so much about the athletes. (O’Day) is passionate about Griz sports. Pflu, the players really liked him. He went out of his way to write me a handwritten letter when I was in (the Canadian Football League). His letter was so nice I put it up in my locker. You hate to see guys like that go.”
When will the new football coach be hired? Tough to say considering the person responsible for making the hire – the athletic director – also needs to be hired.
Each day without a football coaching staff in place is detrimental for a Griz program coming off a memorable season in which it reached the semifinal round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
“It hurts a lot,” offered Bryan Waldhauser, a senior all-conference defensive tackle for the 2011 Grizzlies. “We have a relatively young team coming back and spring practice is one of the best times to grow. Guys get a chance to prove themselves and step up into a starting role.
“You need guidance. You need the head coach to guide everybody and say, ‘This is why we’re doing this.’ It will definitely be interesting to see what happens.”
Two weeks of spring drills remain, including two more scrimmages. The Griz will be led by an interim head coach, who will be named by the end of the week, and assistants who can’t say for certain whether they’ll be back in the fall.
“When (Bobby) Hauck left, he left prior to spring ball,” Ross said of Pflugrad’s predecessor. “Coach Pflu had the chance to see our winter conditioning when he started as head coach (in 2010). We had a whole coaching staff in place for spring practice. We had to adjust, but we had time.
“The way they’re doing it now, two weeks into spring ball, even if they hire an interim coach it will be so difficult because there’s so much uncertainty. For position coaches, there’s no guarantee. The timing is the worst part of this.”
O’Day said Thursday night he has faith the football program he helped establish will rebound from its current predicament.
“It’s really difficult right now, but they’ve got a good staff of assistants on hand,” he said. “There’s always going to be some uncertainty when there’s change. The kids are really resilient. They’ll come on and battle together and things will be fine.”
Engstrom has not established why he fired O’Day and Pflugrad, prompting widespread speculation. The change comes after several months of investigation into a series of sexual assaults, some allegedly involving football players.
Former Griz All-American safety Colt Anderson, now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, offered the following on his Facebook site: “It’s sad that people are guilty before proven innocent. I thought it was the other way around.”
Ryan Fetherston, a senior defensive end for the 2011 Griz, was more specific.
“One or two players blow it up and make everybody look bad,” he said. “And Coach Pflugrad doesn’t support that behavior. I think he’s done a great job getting us out in the community and representing the university.
“I think we all make mistakes and they’ll understand their mistakes and pay the price. We do as much as we can in the community. Guys like Jordan Tripp. But the bad things are magnified. It’s unfortunate. But we’re also someone that people look up to, and we stick out, so you have to be careful what you do.”
Asked if he believed he was being treated unfairly, O’Day answered philosophically.
“I really don’t want to get into that,” he said. “It’s part of the business these days, unfortunately. Intercollegiate athletics is an ever-changing world out there. We’re seeing that around the country.
“As I’ve always told coaches and kids, you know life isn’t always fair and you have to move forward with the cards that you are dealt. I’ll pick up and move on and things will work out for me. I wish it were different, but it’s not. I want to wish the best to everybody on the staff.”
Like Engstrom, O’Day and Pflugrad, current Griz players are staying tight-lipped about Thursday’s events. Those players are being shielded from the media by UM officials.
Friday’s regularly-scheduled spring practice at Washington-Grizzly Stadium, typically open to the media, has suddenly been closed. The team will take next week off (April 2-6) for spring break. Montana’s next practice will be on April 9.
Meanwhile, Griz supporters are left to wonder; left in the dark, once again, by guarded university officials.
“For me, I just want to know why, right away,” said Waldhauser, echoing the collective sentiment of Griz Nation.
– Fritz Neighbor contributed to this story. Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-52555 or firstname.lastname@example.org.