With crushing NCAA penalties imposed Monday upon Penn State football, attention now turns to the University of Montana, struggling with a sexual assault crisis of its own and under NCAA scrutiny for the past six months.

“The school should be on the watch,” Michael McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School, said Monday. “The Penn State sanction is a warning to the school.”

Likewise David Ridpath, an assistant professor of sports management at Ohio University, said sanctions against Penn State portend some action against Montana.

“The NCAA just can’t look only at Penn State if they take this leap,” said Ridpath, author of “Tainted Glory: Marshall University, the NCAA, and One Man’s Fight for Justice.”

The NCAA has not said what brought its investigators to UM. But the school also is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for how it handles reports of rape and sexual assault, and the U.S. Department of Education has its own investigation into allegations of harassment by members of the football team.

UM President Royce Engstrom said Monday he hasn’t heard from the NCAA since the organization notified him Jan. 30 of its investigation into unspecified allegations. At that point, the NCAA said such investigations usually take about six months.

“I don’t know how strictly they adhere to those timelines they set for themselves,” Engstrom said. “I think until we hear from the NCAA we are just going to go about improving things the way that I’ve discussed throughout this.”

“This” is a situation revealed in December at UM, with allegations that two female students, possibly drugged, were raped by several male students. UM commissioned an independent review that turned up several other allegations of rape and sexual assault involving students, some of them football players.

At Penn State, an investigation released this month found that famed football coach Joe Paterno, who died in January, concealed allegations about Jerry Sandusky, a former coaching staff member found guilty of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years.

While the NCAA stopped short of imposing the “death penalty” that would have shut down Penn State’s football program, the steps it took Monday were devastating.

It fined the university $60 million, imposed a four-year ban on postseason games, cut the number of football scholarships, and vacated all football victories since 1998.

“The situations (at Penn State and UM) are so totally different that it just doesn’t make any sense to compare them,” Engstrom said.

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But Katherine Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, called them “very similar cases – just with different victims.”

“They’ve allowed this culture” that elevated football over the concerns of victims, she said of both UM and Penn State. At Penn State, that attitude was concentrated in Paterno, she said, but at Montana, “this was all of the administration and everybody falling into line … wanting to do what was ‘best’ for the team and the athletic department.”

The investigation into Penn State by former FBI director Louis Freeh found that Paterno tried to protect the school’s reputation.

When the alleged gang rapes at UM originally came to light in December, then-Vice President Jim Foley described them as “date rapes” and later, in an email obtained in a joint FOIA request by the Missoulian and the Wall Street Journal, complained about media accounts that didn’t use his preferred term. In another email, he questioned whether a victim who had spoken publicly about her ordeal had violated the Student Code of Conduct.

Engstrom announced last month that Foley had resigned as vice president, although he will retain his university job and nearly $126,000 salary through the end of his contract in June 2013.

And in March, Engstrom fired UM football coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day without explanation.

Engstrom pointed out Monday that even before the NCAA and two federal agencies began their investigations at UM, the school revamped its Student Athlete Code of Conduct and mandated sexual assault education for all students.

“All we can do is march forward with what we know are the right things to do,” he said.

Only one UM student faces a criminal charge in connection with the alleged sexual assaults involving students.

Beau Donaldson, a UM Grizzlies running back, awaits trial on a single count of sexual intercourse without consent. In March, a Missoula woman accused Grizzlies quarterback Jordan Johnson of rape, but the Missoula County Attorney’s Office has not decided whether he’ll be charged.

(The County Attorney’s Office, along with the UM Public Safety Office, also are being investigated by the Justice Department for how they handle sexual assault reports.)

A case involving the expulsion of an unnamed student accused of rape is on appeal to the university court.

Meanwhile, interim football coach Mick Delaney dismissed quarterback Gerald Kemp from the team earlier this month for unspecified violations of team rules.

Delaney has said Kemp could be reinstated. Both Kemp’s and Johnson’s names remain on the team roster.

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

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