Was A Penn State Effect Felt At Montana?


Thursday’s firings of Montana athletic director Jim O’Day and head coach Robin Pflugrad is the most shocking occurrence of this off-season. Pflugrad led UM to the FCS semifinals and a share of the Big Sky Conference championship, the program’s 14th in the last 16 seasons. Present for six of those crowns, as well as three berth in the NCAA basketball tournament, was UM alumnus O’Day. A fan base could not ask for much greater success from a coach and AD.

Covering the Championship Subdivision for CBS in 2009 and 2010, I had the opportunity to engage with both Pflugrad and O’Day. Two friendlier, more accommodating individuals a reporter could not have asked for. That makes the speculation behind their dismissals all the more surprising.

The word from Missoula is mum thus far, but coming off an outstanding season for the football program and UM athletics in general, their firings stem from something other than wins and losses. The litany of sexual allegations and charges against UM football players have been the common conclusion for mediaites to jump to.

All that transpired at Penn State last November became a warning for other athletic departments. That warning: error on the side of caution in legal matters and act swiftly.

As details of the grand jury testimony against Jerry Sandusky surfaced, and members of the PSU football program and athletic department including Joe Paterno were implicated in various fashion, the public had a common lamentation: How could football be allowed to overshadow decency?.

Students rallying around Paterno after his firing furthered public bewilderment. Such attachment is difficult to understand for an outsider, but Paterno became intertwined in State College’s culture. Pflugrad was heading into just his third season as the Griz’s head coach, thus not comparable to Paterno as reaching that entity status. Montana football though is to Missoula what the Nittany Lions are to State College.

Grizzly Stadium is packed every Saturday with raucous fans, devoted to the maroon-and-silver. The Griz may play in the FCS, but everything about the program is big time. I was in Chattanooga for the 2009 FCS championship, 2100 miles from Missoula, yet the city was overflowing with Griz fans. UM football is an entity intertwined in its community: the athletes, the coaches, the alumni.

People will come to the defense of those close to them. It’s human nature.

Those who rallied around Paterno did not believe someone who for years had stood for virtuousness could purposefully turn a blind eye to wrongdoing.

That wasn’t the Paterno they knew. Likewise, the evidence we know suggests the very same sentiment cost Paterno his job. And that sentiment was also evident just over a week ago at Montana. From a Missoulian article on March 19:

"“I think any time you have a person of Jordy’s character and tremendous moral fiber, and he’s your team captain and part of the leadership council, your players are going to be fired up,”"

“Jordy” refers to quarterback Jordan Johnson. Johnson threw 21 touchdowns and 2400 yards last season and captained the Grizzlies’ offense to 34 PPG. He also was accused of sexual assault.

The charge was waived when Johnson agreed to adhere to a restraining order, and a student advisory board approved Johnson’s reinstatement to the football team. It would seem Pflugrad fulfilled the steps he needed to as coach, but in the wake of the PSU scandal, perhaps his public support of the quarterback was just too brazen.

Said support was not as strong as Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim’s initial defense of Bernie Fine, who flatout called molestation allegations against his longtime assistant lies. But the underlying emotion is the same.

People can be wrong about those close to them, though. Recent circumstances have proven that.

Cynicism toward Division I college coaches is high. The jaded among us believe the bottom line is made solely of wins and losses. The cynical approach to Pflugard’s reinstatement of Johnson, and other accused athletes, is the ultimate goal is repeating last year’s 11-win total. If that means retaining a quarterback under undesirable circumstances, so be it.

Or maybe Pflugrad is the victim of putting too much faith in his relationships. Football cannot overshadow decency or lawfulness, but no longer can one afford to be too trusting. Not after Penn State.