A story about football coach Bobby Hauck's refusal to answer questions from the University of Montana student newspaper ran rampant across the Internet this week, providing fodder for national sportswriters at outlets such as SportsIllustrated.com and ESPN.com.
Despite the national media attention, Hauck remained steadfast in stonewalling the student reporters, as UM administrators attempted to deal with the flood of negative publicity.
"We are taking this seriously, as we do all issues with our student athletes," said UM athletic director Jim O'Day. "If people think we are ignoring it they are wrong. We are handling the situation internally, and we are doing what we feel is right and best under these circumstances, and that won't be met favorably by all."
On Tuesday at his weekly press conference, Hauck continued his refusal to answer football-related questions from student reporters. The Kaimin, the student newspaper, earlier reported a story about an alleged assault by two Grizzly football players, which the football team says was unfair and biased. However, none of the facts in the story have been disputed.
At the news conference, however, Hauck took a nicer tone with Kaimin reporters - he'd belittled them at two previous news conferences - and, for the first time, he provided a reason for his silence.
"My players have asked me not to participate in this," he said. "I had two seniors in my office this morning, and I apologize, but I'm not going to participate."
No reporter at the press conference even asked a question about the local controversy heating up the Internet. Yet, national media didn't hesitate to weigh in on the conversation, calling Hauck "egotistical," "a bully" and - on a leading sports blog, Deadspin.com - a term for female genitalia.
ESPN college football reporter Pat Forde christened Hauck "The Bum" of the first half of the football season in his weekly column "The Dash," published on ESPN.com.
SportsIllustrated.com writer Richard Deitsch called Hauck's refusal to answer questions "an intimidation play" and "a sorry strategy as old as time," adding that "the Montana administration should put an end to that kind of nonsense ASAP."
The story was referenced on Romenesko, a national journalism blog. Many daily newspapers in Montana ran the story or wrote editorials. Sportswriters at university newspapers across the country thanked their head football coaches on the editorial pages for not acting this way.
The biggest blow came on Friday, when the CNN homepage featured a link to SportsIllustrated.com columnist Jeff Pearlman, who spanked Hauck for his behavior in his column "Pearls of Wisdom."
Pearlman wrote: "Generally speaking, pinning behavioral stupidity on your players is an even worse move than, say, locking out the student newspaper in a town where - on a good day - you're covered by three media outposts. And even if your athletes did decide to protest, it's your job - as a presumed educator - to do the opposite; to pull the student writers aside, explain your gripe and try to work it out in a mature manner."
The way in which the story ballooned doesn't necessarily surprise UM administrators or Kaimin adviser Chris Jones, a UM visiting professor and feature writer for Esquire and ESPN The Magazine.
"People see it as a David and Goliath story," Jones said, and readers are drawn to that.
In fact, Jones intends to write an article for Esquire about Hauck and the Kaimin.
Why Esquire and not ESPN The Magazine?
The story has more to do with politics than football, he replied.
UM President George Dennison has been in Europe for the past two weeks working to expand student exchange programs in Italy and Ireland, and is attending the International Student Exchange Program's annual convention in France, and therefore has been unable to weigh in on the issue.
Executive Vice President Jim Foley was traveling this week, attending a Big Sky Conference meeting in Salt Lake City and a meeting with the Collegiate Licensing Company in Atlanta. On Friday, he was in Sacramento, Calif., with the Grizzly football team.
Because of his absence from Montana, Foley referred questions to O'Day, who understands negative publicity comes with the territory. It's not the first time and it's not likely to be the last, he said.
"I would prefer (Hauck) did talk, but I respect the decisions he's made," O'Day said. "I'm against forcing someone to do something against their wishes and would prefer an amicable solution."
Hauck's behavior has brought unwelcome attention on the entire university. As an administrator, balancing an employee's right not to talk to the media with protecting the university's image is a tricky situation, O'Day admits.
"You rely on others who have been in similar situations," he said. "You talk with them. You visit with players and the coach and other administrators, and you hope that the best works out. I've been doing all of that. There's no easy answer."
While O'Day said UM is handling the situation internally, he wouldn't elaborate on what that means - other than to say it will be addressed in Hauck's annual review, and that's private.
"We've spent a lot of time on this issue," O'Day said.
How does he see the issue being resolved?
"In a professional manner with both parties respecting each other," he said.
When asked whether that's possible at this time, O'Day declined comment, saying that, out of respect for the football players, the matter is private.
There is one thing, however, that all parties involved can agree on: They need to put the controversy behind them - and soon.
"I came here to teach, and yet, I'm also learning," Jones said. "It's been a good experience for me to see how these things work sometimes. At the same time, I'd love for it to be over. I've learned everything that I need to learn."
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.