The University of Montana football program faces a federal investigation.
Stories abound in the national media.
Eventually, heads will roll.
The year is … 1972.
That’s when a grand jury indictment accused UM football coach and athletic director Jack Swarthout and others of misusing federal scholarship money, essentially paying student-athletes for work they never did.
“It was a very difficult time for the university,” said Robert Doornek of Wolf Point, the football player whose queries about an unexpectedly fat paycheck ultimately sparked an FBI investigation. “It’s not unlike what’s going on now. It affected the community, the school, the students and the student-athletes.”
Now, of course, two federal agencies – the Departments of Justice and Education – are investigating how UM handled sexual assault allegations, some of which involved members of the football team. The NCAA also is looking into unspecified questions about the football program.
The trio of investigations has attracted national publicity. In March, UM President Royce Engstrom fired football coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day, saying only that he sought change.
Doornek, 59, who has a condominium in Missoula and season football tickets, has been following the situation closely from Wolf Point.
“I’ve thought very much about how there are some parallels,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “I hope everything works out for the best – it always does – but there could be some pain getting through it.”
The investigation into sexual assaults allegedly involving UM students began in mid-December. The NCAA started its review of the football program in January and said it would give UM a status report by the end of the month. There’s no word on how long the Departments of Education and Justice investigations will take. The latter also will review the Missoula Police Department’s and Missoula County Attorney’s Office handling of sexual assault cases over the last three years.
The intense focus on sexual assault has diverted University of Montana President Royce Engstrom’s attention from the ambitious global initiative he launched when he became president nearly two years ago. And the entire community has been caught up in the issue, with Engstrom holding several forums on sexual assault, and with city government and local law enforcement teaming with UM to announce sexual assault prevention programs.
If possible, the scholarship scandal in the early 1970s made an even bigger splash. For one thing, it went on longer – two years years – and culminated in a federal trial that saw across-the-board acquittals.
For another, Missoula was much smaller then, only 50,000 people.
One big difference – despite back-to-back undefeated regular seasons in 1969 and 1970, UM football was not the star attraction it is today.
“The school’s 8,000 students (there are 15,000 today) were largely apathetic to college football, and at times downright antagonistic,” Sports Illustrated reported in a lengthy 1973 story on the scandal. The 12,500 seats at Dornblaser Field were rarely filled, SI wrote. Washington-Grizzly Stadium now holds 27,215.
Then-UM President Robert Pantzer openly wondered whether football was even worth it.
“Football is far too costly for us. Our conference is dreary, little known, and not very exciting,” he told SI.
Few details are available about the present federal and NCAA investigations. In 1972, the allegations were quite specific – that Swarthout and the others used $227,000 of scholarship money toward work-study programs for athletes who thought they were getting full-ride scholarships.
Doornek, a member of UM’s junior varsity football team, didn’t have a scholarship, but was part of the work-study program.
That involved picking up a paycheck, bringing it to a university office, endorsing it there and getting cash back, he said.
But his W2 form that year showed he made more money than he’d received. Doornek asked why.
“I started at the Athletic Department with a payroll clerk, who sent me to the administration office,” he said. He was directed to a bookkeeper in the basement of Main Hall.
“I can almost see him there with his green-brimmed hat like the old scriveners,” Doornek said. “He sent me upstairs and I ended up talking with the assistant dean. They said they had suspicions some of this was going on.”
Later, he got a check for $103, when he hadn’t worked at all. “It bothered me. I took it over to the Athletic Department and laid it on the desk unendorsed and walked out. That was the last I heard of it until the FBI called my room one day and said, ‘We want to visit with you.’
“It really started opening up after that. It kind of fireballed.”
The government’s case dissolved during a four-week trial in 1973. Charles F. “Timer” Moses of Billings – the state’s premier criminal defense lawyer and former UM basketball player – represented Swarthout.
“I thought (the federal investigation) was outrageous, but I’m a partisan,” Moses recalled in a recent interview.
“The saving grace was the fact that the president of the university at the time had written a letter, and in that letter he approved of what was done,” said Moses, now 88. “So it was very hard to say these fellows were on a frolic of their own. It wasn’t me who carried the day. It was the letter.”
Still, UM had to reimburse the federal government. Swarthout resigned as athletic director two years later and left UM in 1976. Pantzer resigned in 1974. Both men have since died.
Forty years later, Doornek has no qualms about what he did. “It’s always best to do what you think is right,” said the semi-retired banker. “I could have taken the check and endorsed the check. But then I would have been complicit.”
The work-study scandal probably set the football program back 15 to 20 years, he said. He’s worried the present sexual assault investigations could have a similar effect.
“Favorable outcome or not, it’s going to affect it some in a big way,” Doornek said. “It’s already affected the image of the program.”
Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio
@missoulian.com, or @CopsAndCourts on Twitter.