The NCAA notified the University of Montana on Jan. 30 that it is investigating the Grizzlies football team, though the particulars of the investigation are unknown.
Kevin McRae, the associate commissioner of higher education for the Montana University System, released the NCAA’s Letter of Inquiry to the Missoulian a little after 5 p.m. MDT on Wednesday.
The announcement came after the media asked for specific information about a possible NCAA investigation. UM already is the subject of investigations by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice into its handling of sexual assault and harassment allegations.
On Wednesday, McRae said the NCAA had mandated that its investigation be kept confidential to protect the review’s integrity.
“Because the NCAA directed the university to treat the NCAA’s investigation as confidential, the university complied by making no public announcement about the investigation,” McRae wrote in a prepared statement.
Since January, in fact, the Missoulian had repeatedly asked UM officials if the school was under investigation by the NCAA. Until Wednesday, the question was not answered.
McRae noted that UM President Royce Engstrom was “instrumental in UM’s efforts … to reach an understanding with the NCAA that UM will make this information public at this time because of UM’s interest in openness and transparency.”
Reached by phone, Engstrom said he does not know the particulars of what the NCAA is investigating.
“Even if I wanted to tell you, I couldn’t, because the NCAA has not told me the intent of their investigation,” Engstrom said. “I can speculate, but I’m not going to do that.”
The Letter of Inquiry notes that under NCAA bylaws that the university “may request a meeting with the enforcement staff to discuss the inquiry in more detail.” Engstrom requested such a meeting.
“I did meet with them shortly after the letter was received,” he said. “But they would not tell me anything further than what was in the letter itself.”
The letter opens by saying its purpose “is to advise you that the NCAA has begun an investigation into the institution’s football program in accordance with the provisions of NCAA Bylaw 32.5 of the NCAA enforcement procedures.”
It continues, “It is the present intention of the enforcement staff to complete this investigation during the spring of 2012.”
The Letter of Inquiry mainly stayed on two points: “(1) the duty to develop full information and (2) the duty to protect the integrity of the investigation.”
The letter continues, “During the course of this inquiry the enforcement staff expects that the institution will coordinate in advance with the enforcement staff with respect to all case-related activities.”
Engstrom said he did not know when the process would be completed.
“I honestly don’t know how long it’s going to run,” he said. “I guess it would play out over a matter of months. But that’s speculation.”
The NCAA warned, though, that the investigation could broaden.
“At this time, the possible violations primarily involve the football program,” the letter said. “However, please note that new information often is developed during an investigation that leads to expanded inquiries. In the event such information is developed, you will be kept informed insofar as possible.”
The NCAA also said the university would receive a status report after six months.
The Missoulian left a message with one of the NCAA investigators Wednesday evening.
Engstrom would not say if the NCAA’s probe into UM’s football program had anything to do with his dismissal of coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day on March 29.
“I’m still not going to comment on those personnel matters,” he said.
Pflugrad and O’Day were relieved of their duties – with pay – in the midst of internal and external investigations into UM’s handling of numerous reported rapes and sexual assaults, some allegedly involving Griz football players. The firings came days after Pflugrad spoke in support of quarterback Jordan Johnson, who has been accused of rape by a UM student.
At the time, Engstrom released a statement saying only that UM “has determined not to renew the contracts” of both men.
Since the firings, UM has come under more scrutiny for how it has responded to complaints of sexual violence, including an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education into alleged sexual harassment and assaults by members of the football team.
Earlier in May, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would investigate how 80 reported rapes were handled over the past three years by UM and its campus police, along with the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office.
And last December, the university hired Diane Barz, a former Montana Supreme Court justice, to conduct an independent review of sexual assaults at UM after two students reported being assaulted, possibly after being drugged, by several male students in separate incidents.
Barz’s review eventually included nine alleged assaults, including one reported to police in December 2010, when a woman said four UM football players forcibly had sex with her, possibly after spiking her drink. At some point, police informed Pflugrad there was not enough evidence to pursue charges. The coach apparently did not tell the university’s top administrators.
Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.