Together, they’ve taken a lot of the heat for the NCAA’s investigation into the University of Montana football program.
With Friday’s announcement of sanctions against the Grizzlies, former UM head football coach Robin Pflugrad and ex-athletic director Jim O’Day spoke on their own behalf.
According to the NCAA report detailing infractions from 2011, Pflugrad failed to adequately monitor the football program, allowing boosters to provide extra benefits to players, including bail money and legal representation.
Currently the offensive coordinator for Weber State, Pflugrad has been suspended from his coaching duties for the first game of the 2013 campaign. He has also been leveled with recruiting restrictions for the upcoming season.
Pflugrad’s contention is that the NCAA was “extremely technical” in its Montana investigation. Specifically, he takes issue with the word “booster” in one specific instance.
In its report, the NCAA determined that a “booster” – the mother of another Griz player who resides in Missoula – bailed Gerald Kemp and Trumaine Johnson out of jail after their arrest on Oct. 23, 2011. She paid $130 for one player and $190 for the other.
Kemp’s grandfather, who lives out of state, later reimbursed the mother with a personal check for the total amount of the bail. However, under NCAA rules, he waited too long to do so, and Pflugrad failed to inform Montana’s compliance office.
“In the highest degree of technicality, I looked at that relationship, as a mother of a player whose teammate was in trouble, and when does that cross over to being a booster?” Pflugrad said. “If that’s my biggest mistake, then I’m going to move forward with it. Because there has to be some form of humanity in what we do.”
The NCAA also determined that Johnson and Kemp each received $1,500 in free legal representation stemming from the incident. O’Day and Pflugrad say they did not monitor that situation.
“I talked to quite a few coaches in the Pac-12 and the Big Sky Conference,” Pflugrad offered. “Not one of them have ever physically monitored the legal payments of an arrest.
“You know the first thing I did, I made sure none of our coaches had bailed out players. That was my job and I moved on from there.”
Incidents involving Johnson and Kemp were not the only infractions by Montana, according to the NCAA report. But the general consensus is that the NCAA came to town as a result of that situation.
Its 18-month investigation has resulted in the loss of scholarships for upcoming seasons and the vacating of five wins from 2011.
“I understand some of those scholarship losses,” O’Day said, “only in the fact the NCAA has been in here 18 months and they’ve allocated a lot of resources and personnel and time to look at it.
“They absolutely had to come away with something. It’s no different than the IRS when they go in and they are red-flagged on something. They’ve got to come away with something.”
O’Day takes issue with vacating wins, claiming “there’s so much more to the story.”
“Until all of that comes out, which I believe it will, it’s kind of a disappointment,” he said. “It took a lot of hard work and effort by a lot of people on that team. To vacate all that is not fair to those kids.”
Although Pflugrad will pay a price for what happened in Missoula in 2011, Weber State head football coach Jody Sears remains firmly in his corner.
“We did an assessment and knew there was a possibility of some things coming down the road,” Sears said. “But like I told (Weber State AD Jerry) Bovee from the get-go, the kind of character and person of integrity Robin Pflugrad is and the amount respect he has in our profession ...
“It was in our opinion he was extremely forthcoming with the potentiality of things. We were looking more at the integrity and character in the man himself than the possibility of things out of our control. We stuck with it and we are extremely happy and blessed to have him on our staff. I still think that.”
Pflugrad will call the plays for Weber State this season, so it’s a considerable disadvantage not having him in that capacity for the Wildcats’ opener at Utah on Sept. 7. But knowing what he does now, Sears would still hire Pflugrad all over again.
“In many ways, he brings a great wealth of knowledge and experience to our program,” Sears said. “From the Xs and Os to discipline and (NCAA) compliance, he’s brought lots of value to our program.”
Pflugrad and O’Day were fired by UM President Royce Engstrom in March 2012 without the university giving a reason. The firings came after numerous allegations of sexual assault also surfaced, as well as questions about UM’s handling of those allegations.
In retrospect, Pflugrad takes issue with how that situation was handled.
“There was an overall climate and publicity that assisted in creating a certain atmosphere in which the administration overreacted,” he said. “That resulted in the termination of the athletic director and myself as head football coach.”
Whether Pflugrad ever lands another job as a Division I head coach remains to be seen. Regardless, he holds a place in his heart for Missoula and the Grizzlies. His lasting support was never more evident than this spring when he showed up at Washington-Grizzly Stadium to support his former players at Pro Day.
“That team’s special up there in Montana,” he said. “Those guys are special to me.”
Pflugrad and O’Day are both hesitant to speak off the cuff. Instead, they sit back and hope that someday all the details of Montana’s athletic ordeal come out.
“People wonder how long this will take to clear this up,” O’Day said. “Just like I said when we were removed from our positions, you’ve got to let history tell the story.
“I believe that’s the case here. It’s going to take some time for us to see just exactly what kind of damage it has done to the program and the university. Those are all things we’ll be able to look back on in 10 years and see really what happened.”