Mick Delaney

Montana coach Mick Delaney announced a recruiting class of 24 athletes on Wednesday.

The University of Montana has hired a $225-an-hour sports lawyer to shepherd it through an NCAA investigation, which will extend beyond the expected six months.

The NCAA notified UM on Monday that its review continues.

“Members of the NCAA enforcement staff are making every effort to complete the necessary interviews to ensure that full information is developed,” said the letter from Julie Roe Lach, the NCAA’s vice president of enforcement.

The NCAA told UM on Jan. 30 it was investigating the Grizzlies football program – although it said at the time that “new information often is developed during an investigation that leads to expanded inquiries.”

The NCAA also said then that it expected to complete its work by spring. That same notification also said that the organization would apprise UM of its progress every six months – which Monday’s letter did.

In releasing that information, UM also announced it had hired the sports law firm of Michael L. Buckner of Pompano Beach, Fla.

“They have a level of expertise that has helped us be much more responsive. They know what to expect. They’re really looking out for us,” said Jean Gee, UM’s interim athletic director.

UM signed an engagement letter with Buckner on Monday that sets an hourly rate of $225, with a maximum of $750 per day for office activities and $1,000 per day for field work. Buckner will work with UM until the NCAA’s investigation is complete, she said.

UM President Royce Engstrom said Monday that UM will continue to fully cooperate with the NCAA. "Getting outside help will allow us to do that more effectively," he said of the decision to hire Buckner.

Gee said the NCAA gave no hint as to how long its investigation might take. The football team starts practice Monday, and its first game is Sept. 1 against South Dakota.

“It’s certainly on everyone’s mind,” said Gee of the investigation. “I just don’t know what kind of impact it will have on the program.”

But it leaves everyone wondering, “What is this, what could happen?” she said.

“It would be nice to have it over with before then, but I don’t see that that is going to happen,” Engstrom said. “We have to move forward with the season and wish the Grizzlies the best.”

***

Those questions gained urgency earlier this month after the NCAA severely sanctioned Penn State in connection with that school’s failure to deal with former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of young boys. The NCAA hit Penn State with a $60 million fine and a four-year ban on postseason games. And it scrubbed all of the school’s victories back to 1998.

David Ridpath, an assistant professor of sports management at Ohio University, at the time noted parallels between the situations at Penn State and UM. Given the NCAA action against Penn State, “I cannot see how they could justify not punishing (UM) for the criminal issues,” he said.

At UM, the NCAA investigation came on the heels of allegations of rape and sexual assault, both on and off campus, some allegedly by members of the football team. (The university also commissioned its own investigation of the allegations.)

In March, Engstrom fired both athletic director Jim O’Day and head football coach Robin Pflugrad. He has given no reason for those firings. Last week, interim coach Mick Delaney was named UM’s head football coach and given a two-year contract.

At the announcement, Delaney said he will work to restore the school’s reputation – beginning by recruiting the right kind of players.

“I can guarantee you we will recruit kids of high character No. 1, good academics No. 2 ... and No. 3, they have to be able to play a little bit, too,” he said. “We do not have the time or the resources to chase guys around who will not do the right thing.”

Buckner, the attorney UM has hired, is a former consultant to the NCAA, according to his website.

Gee said the firm specializes in smaller schools, something that made it attractive to UM.

Buckner writes a blog, where earlier this month he termed the then-anticipated NCAA sanctions against Penn State “an unprecedented, and perhaps unconstitutional, course of action.”

After the sanctions were formally announced, he wrote that such issues “would be best left in the expert hands of the criminal and civil courts, the federal Departments of Justice and Education, the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the relevant accrediting agencies.”

Investigations by the Justice and Education departments already are under way at UM. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is investigating how the UM police, the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office handle reports of rape and sexual assault. The Education Department is investigating allegations of harassment by members of the football team.

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com, or @CopsAndCourts.

Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com, or @CopsAndCourts.

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Gwen Florio is city editor of the Missoulian.