The triad of investigations into rape and athletics at the University of Montana isn’t the school’s only public relations headache.
For the past eight months, UM’s deep-pocketed boosters, alumni and members of the general public have been demanding information on the complex mess that centers on the Grizzlies football team.
Emails obtained via a joint public records request from the Missoulian and the Wall Street Journal show outrage at the abrupt firings in March of football coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day, concerns about the effect on donations, and suspicions about special treatment for athletes.
“I want answers. I feel we deserve answers,” wrote Dave Fisher, a self-described generous donor to Grizzly athletics and a member of several influential booster boards.
The university is being investigated by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education for the way it handles sexual assault cases, and the NCAA is investigating unspecified allegations about its football program. The Education Department review focuses on the football team as well.
When UM President Royce Engstrom fired Pflugrad and O’Day in March, he gave no reason beyond saying change was needed. However, some of the sexual assault allegations, including those of gang rape, involve football players.
That lack of explanation for the twin firings provoked a flood of emails.
“This is certainly a dark day for the U of M,” wrote Bob Simonson, responding to an email from Pflugrad sent to Quarterback Club members about his dismissal on March 30.
“Engstrom needs to step forward in the next 24 hours and give us the detailed reasons for his actions,” Simonson wrote. “If there is a ‘smoking gun’ we need to know the facts. If there is somebody behind the scenes pulling Engstrom’s strings, we need to know who these people are and what their motivations might be.
“There can be no cover-up.”
Fisher weighed in on the firings by responding to the Quarterback Club emails, and expressed his shock.
“I believe I can honestly say I have never been so disappointed in the way a matter was handled at the University of Montana,” he wrote. “At this time I want answers. I want answers from President Engstrom as to why this decision was made and who was involved in making it.”
Fisher also donates to UM’s rodeo club and countless others. As members of the President’s Club and UM’s Excellence Fund, Fisher said in his email that he and his wife, Paulette, did not think the demand for clarity to be an “unreasonable expectation.”
“As you can see the University is an important part of Paulette’s and my life,” Fisher wrote. “It is because of the place it holds in our lives that I want answers.”
In the hours after UM made the announcement about Pflugrad and O’Day’s firing, Jack Manning went and sought information from “numerous direct and indirect sources.”
In an email to fellow Quarterback Club members and others, Manning came to this conclusion:
“This decision is going to hurt UM athletics and UM – a lot. It’s going to hurt fundraising.”
“Engstrom took this action without any plan for moving forward,” Manning said. “He has left the athletic ship and football without rudders and leaders. He has miscalculated, or didn’t even consider, the support for Pflu and O’Day among Griz supporters. I wonder if Engstrom will ultimately be able to survive at UM.”
Engstrom said Wednesday that he’s gotten as much support as criticism, although not all of the former came via email. As to financial concerns, he said that “I am quite confident that all of the good qualities of the university and the athletic program will remain well recognized by our supporters, students and friends.”
And, he said, “I am confident that we are on the right track and that people recognize that and will continue to recognize that going into the future.”
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Meanwhile, UM administrators also tried to appease concerned members of the public, and parents of potential UM students whose emails called for tangible, corrective responses to the campus sexual assaults.
A common thread to those emails?
How UM handled the alleged rape of a woman by a Saudi student – who fled the country when UM notified him of the accusation, how football players seem to have special permission to live by different rules than other students on campus, and how Engstrom is failing as the university’s leader.
“I am really tired of UM making national news for the stupid decisions made by our football players,” said an individual who wrote to Engstrom and whose name was redacted. The emails released to the Missoulian were all heavily redacted, sometimes to the point where entire pages were black.
“It seems every year we have players do stupid enough things for it to be reported by such outlets as ESPN, MSN, Yahoo ... etc. Yet, we don’t see any discipline. It’s clear winning at all costs has become job # 1 at UM. The fans know it, the coaches know it and it’s clear the players know it.”
Shortly after Grizzlies cornerback Trumaine Johnson and quarterback Gerald Kemp were tased by Missoula police breaking up a post-game party in October, one person wrote the following stinging email to O’Day, Pflugrad and Jim Foley, UM’s vice president for external communications.
“Where is the accountability and consequences of their actions, the coaching staff, the University?”
Johnson and Kemp, who eventually pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct charges, were ordered to sit out a quarter of a game.
“To be allowed to play again? Are you kidding me?” the email read. “... Yes, I understand letting the investigation ‘play through,’ but I could really care less about their athletic talent and ability to win games. I’m more concerned about morals, values and integrity than how they play football.
“And what about the perceived empowerment to these two and the entire University and communities at large, that if you mess up with law enforcement ... ‘it’s ok boys, I’m disappointed ... just don’t do it again.’
“Where is the integrity of this?”
In the flurry of emails regarding Grizzlies football players are other criticisms lobbed at UM’s leaders, with but a few letters of support.
“It was disturbing how uncritical you have been of the failures of school protocol to fully protect students on your campus and how you declared the campus safe because an accused rapist had fled the campus and country,” one person wrote to Engstrom in February, after the alleged rape by the Saudi student. “It should be clear that there are serious flaws in how this case was handled and that there was injustice done to every student on this campus.”
“You are paid a great deal to be the ‘face’ of the University of Montana,” the email author continued. “As that representative I am seriously disappointed with how you continue to handle this situation. ... There is a tremendous amount of financial resources committed to reshaping the school’s image and in my mind, that is a tragic waste. The football team continues to tarnish the school’s image. The problematic policy regarding sexual assault reporting and prosecuting has yet to be addressed and you continue to deny there is any responsibility for this on the part of the University.
“In my mind you have failed in your leadership role and failed to protect the students on your campus.”
Leslie McClintock expressed a different perspective that represented a tiny minority among the emails provided to the Missoulian.
“I never thought I’d see the day when a University of Montana president would fire the football coach and athletic director,” said McClintock, a UM alum, who wrote to Engstrom in March. “I have appreciated your leadership and your transparency during these past few months and have come to see that you are a man with a strong moral compass. I cannot tell you how much this means to see that it matters to you, that you hear and take seriously what victims and crisis responders and community professionals and community members are saying.
“When the president of the University of Montana stands up and makes the hard and courageous decisions that you have made and treats with respect and seriousness what has happened, then and only then can that pervasively ugly atmosphere begin to change.”
Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio contributed to this article.
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.