Vacating UM’s 2011 Big Sky Conference Football Title Is Wrong

By JIM O’DAY

Walking down the Grizzly Sports Hall of Champions, and looking at the absence of the 2011 Big Sky Conference football championship trophy, and the impressive hardware from that year’s appearance in the semifinal round of the NCAA playoff, is sobering… and hard to swallow for this former University of Montana Athletic Director.

It was especially discouraging in light of the NCAA decision this week to only suspend Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel one-half of this Saturday’s season opener against Rice for allegedly taking cash for autographs, which is a serious, major infraction in the NCAA — and something that is constantly stressed to all student athletes at all Division I schools.  In this case, I believe cooler heads prevailed, and common sense came to the forefront.  In addition, it was settled in a timely manner, and the penalty fit the crime. If more information comes available later, they will act accordingly… but in the meantime, due process has been served – and both Texas A&M football and the NCAA are moving forward.

UM Hall of Fame. Photo © Austin Smith for MakeItMissoula.com

Re-etching history: 2011 no longer appears on this section of the Grizzly football trophy-case glass. Photo by AustinSmith.

That was NOT the case in the NCAA vs. The University of Montana. Late last month, the NCAA supported a self-imposed penalty proposed by UM to take away the 2011 BSC football title, as well as force the football program to lose four scholarships each of the next three years and vacate the final five wins of the 2011 season (which included a 36-10 win over rival Montana State and FCS playoff wins over Central Arkansas and Northern Iowa. Montana finished 11-3 that season and advanced to the FCS semifinals before falling to Sam Houston State).

The Grizzlies were also put on three-year probation to tighten up compliance policies, and fined $3,000 to atone for alleged lack of legal payment by two former players. They were involved in an incident with local law enforcement following an early-morning house party at a Missoula residence in October 2011 that resulted in both players being tazed.  Although the original charges against Gerald Kemp and Trumaine Johnson, both 21 at the time, were obstructing a peace officer, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, they were later reduced to misdemeanor disorderly conduct, and both pleaded “no contest.”

UM Hall of Fame. Photo © Austin Smith for MakeItMissoula.com_2

One remnant of recognition remains in the same trophy case. Photo by AustinSmith.

Both Kemp and Johnson were disciplined internally by the athletics department after the incident, but the NCAA ruled last month that in its estimation, both were illegal participants in the final five games as they apparently hadn’t been charged attorney fees (against NCAA policy), estimated to be about $1,500 each. Kemp also missed eight games in the 2012 season while awaiting word from the NCAA on his eligibility status. By playing “illegal” participants in those final five games, it was determined that the championship should be vacated, and the wins in those games removed from the record.

A few other minor violations were also uncovered by the NCAA investigators over their 18-month investigative period, and some resulted in former UM head coach (and now Weber State offensive coordinator) Robin Pflugrad receiving a one-game suspension at the start of the 2013 season, and some additional recruiting restrictions, for not monitoring the program and players closely enough.

During its lengthy investigation, the NCAA also discovered that three couples who were university boosters provided meals for at least eight athletes on more than 100 occasions from 2004 through 2012 and one couple provided a student-athlete with free storage space for a month along with transportation, clothing and a small cash loan. Allegedly, a few players also received periodic assistance with their laundry and other services, while others were identified as receiving free food and beverages from fans after leaving the locker room upon game’s completion, and while walking across the tailgate area on campus.

2011 BSC Trophy. Photo © Jim O'Day

Photo of my office adorned with 2011 BSCTrophy.

No doubt there were unintentional and honest mistakes made. While no violations should be taken lightly, these were minor in scope to what most NCAA investigations usually uncover. In this instance, the penalties don’t match the crime. Unfortunately, UM administrators disagree, and chose not to fight the NCAA over its discoverable violations, instead opting to settle quickly in an effort to “move forward.”

Personally and professionally, I object to that decision. I believe UM should have been sticking up more for that team, its players, its coaches and its fans…. and help put all things in proper perspective. We owed it to them to look at all sides of the issue – especially since most of the NCAA’s concern centered around that early morning party, and all the complicated pieces of the puzzle that resulted from it – none of which was done intentionally to break any rules or provide extra benefits for any players.

I can understand the university’s intentions to get this behind them, but it came at the expense of more than 100 young men and their coaches who put so much time and energy into that season, and now have nothing to show for it but a record of 6-3 and the loss of some incredible memories of what had been an amazing season. It also left a black mark on the program.

My opinion will not be shared by all, and I don’t expect it to be. Mistakes were made along the way, and as Athletic Director at the time, I take full responsibility.

2011 BSC Championship Ring (1)

My 2011 BSC ChampionshipRing.

Still, these mishaps were not made deliberately, or with intent to help an athletics program get a competitive advantage over its opponents. Instead, they were all humanitarian efforts by honest, caring people (or, I guess, what the NCAA prefers to call “boosters”) who were assisting students (or student athletes in this case) in need. In each case, the NCAA, and, it appears, UM, failed to look at all angles, and support a reasonable settlement like they did at Texas A&M this week. Instead, UM took the easy way out by self-imposing penalties that were acceptable to the NCAA.

It’s easy for many of us to say, “We know who won those games. Who cares if they put an asterisk at the end of those wins? They can’t take those memories away from us.” Well, 10 years from now and beyond, the 100 players on that team, as well as their coaches, and fans, will tell you differently when the story about that memorable season is missing from the archives of Grizzly Athletics.  I, for one, still have my championship ring, and will continue to look at it proudly as someone closely associated with the program.

I urge you to walk the halls of Grizzly Athletics history upstairs in the Adams Center as it’s a magical place. Along the way, check the trophy case that no longer contains the 2011 Big Sky Conference championship, or the NCAA semifinal participation trophy. Not only are the trophies gone, but the conference championship and playoff listings have been removed from the trophy case windows as well. Instead, it is glaring and grim reminder that according to the records, the last Griz conference football championship and playoff appearance was in 2009.  That seems like a long time ago, and in my mind, that isn’t right.

I believe others also share my opinion.

**************
Check out Jim O’Day’s blog archive. Big 10 Decision Could Have Major Impact On FCS SchoolsAre Predetermined Tournament Sites in the Big Sky Conference’s Future? What the Financial Numbers mean for UM/MSU Athletics. Hiring/Retaining College Coaches is Becoming ToughFormer UM Coaches/Missoula Stars Making it Big in College FootballWhy I chose to Make It Missoula, The Ups & Downs of Being a Griz Fan, Once a Griz, Always a Griz.

Jim O’Day was Director of Athletics at the University of Montana from 2005-2012. Prior to that, he served as the Assistant Director of the Grizzly Athletic Association and later as the Director of Development  for Intercollegiate Athletics. Prior to returning to his alma mater in 1998, O’Day was the owner and publisher of the family-owned Western Breeze newspaper in Cut Bank, MT. Jim currently works for The Farran Group, a real estate development/investment firm based in Missoula.  In addition, Jim serves as a consultant for Epio Solutions out of Seattle, a sports based agency primarily focused on monitoring social media platforms for various colleges and universities. Jim and his wife Kathy have three sons: Chris, Kevin and Brian.  Chris and Kevin are graduates of UM, while Brian is currently a senior atUM.

 

MIM NewsletterLike this blog? Don’t miss another one. Sign up for our E-Newsletter.  It provides you with a list of all the week’s stories/blogs and is delivered to your inbox every Tuesdaymorning.