MISSOULA — While a group of athletic boosters pushes the University of Montana to appeal sanctions handed down last year by the NCAA, the school’s athletic program continues to comply with the penalties nine months after they were imposed.
In his office recently, surrounded by UM sports memorabilia, UM athletic director Kent Haslam discussed the NCAA investigation and his department’s efforts to ensure that supporters, coaches and players understand booster regulations.
Under current rules, he said, becoming a booster isn’t what it used to be.
“The threshold to become a booster, as defined by the NCAA, is really low,” said Haslam. “If you’ve ever bought a ticket, donated at all or attended an event, you’re considered a booster by the NCAA. It’s safe to say that most people in Missoula are boosters.”
July marks the one-year anniversary since the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions concluded its investigation into reports that several boosters and the Grizzlies’ football program violated NCAA policies.
The investigation found a number of infractions, ranging from free meals to legal representation. The findings came with harsh penalties, including the loss of scholarships, the forfeiture of wins and probation through 2016.
For a proud football program with two national championships under its belt, it was a bitter pill to swallow, and it’s not hard to find lingering frustrations among boosters who believe the penalties were too severe.
But until now, the athletic program has taken the penalties in stride. The focus, Haslam said, remains on the success of UM’s student athletes, along with strict compliance and education.
“When we talk to our student athletes, and especially our coaches, we tell them to go in assuming everyone you deal with is a booster,” said Haslam. “We have compliance education with all student athletes, and our coaches take compliance tests so they know the rules. The NCAA likes to see you be diligent.”
Compliance letters are included with season ticket packets, reminding boosters of the rules. School officials also discuss regulations while promoting Grizzly athletics with boosters across the state.
Many boosters say they’ve noticed the university’s increased diligence.
“I really do believe UM has done a very good job in terms of counseling and guiding the boosters,” said Brad Kliber, a booster and former member of the National Advisory Board for Grizzlies Athletics. “I get an email every week from UM telling us the things you can and cannot do.”
At the same time, Kliber remains frustrated with the way UM negotiated the sanctions with the NCAA. He believes the school could have done more to dispute the charges and penalties, and he isn’t alone.
In January, a group of boosters submitted a letter to UM President Royce Engstrom, asking him to appeal the sanctions. The group also submitted a six-page report supporting their request, arguing the penalties outweigh the violations when compared to other schools.
So far, Engstrom hasn’t responded to the group, saying only that he received the letter and is considering the request. In the meantime, boosters are watching and waiting, and they say donations to the school could hang in the balance.
“This has had a negative impact on donations to UM,” said Jack Manning, a member of a UM booster organization called the Quarterback Club. “I know various people who have reduced or altered their donations. Some, like myself, no longer donate to the UM general fund or its various schools, but have increased donations to the athletic department.”
The university is in a tight spot, caught between upset boosters with money to spend and the cooperative agreement it reached with the NCAA – one that included no options for appeal.
Jean Gee, senior associate athletic director and senior women’s administrator, still fields questions stemming from the investigation and what the school plans next. But while frustrations linger among some, she said, others are looking to move on and leave the past behind.
“I know that when I start talking to a group, there could be some anger and bitterness,” Gee said. “When I explain it, it tempers it a little bit. I don’t always agree with the rules either, but we all have to abide by them.”
While on the road, Gee’s message is simple: Know the booster rules and, when in doubt, ask the compliance office. Many of the violations found by the NCAA last year were considered minor, and Gee said boosters who crossed the line intended no harm.
“It was people acting out of the goodness of their heart – there was no mal intent,” she said. “They wanted to help the program, and that’s what I really see. They were regular people trying to be welcoming to our student athletes.”
Boosters agree with that at least, and it’s one of the reasons they want the school to appeal. They believe UM administrators didn’t put up a fight when the NCAA came knocking, though they still have a chance to correct what some have come to see as a mistake.
“This booster-initiated and supported letter requesting UM to ask for consideration by the NCAA to lessen the sanctions gives both (Engstrom) and (Haslam) a great opportunity to fight for the football program,” Kliber said. “This will demonstrate to not only the boosters, but all that follow, support and care for the well-being of the program, that they also feel the sanctions are unfair and don’t fit the minor infractions.”
There was a time when a college booster was considered a big spender, someone who wrote large checks to support their school’s athletic program.
They include names like T. Boone Pickens, whose $70 million gift to Oklahoma State University transformed the school’s football program, or Dennis Washington, whose $1 million gift to UM set the stage for a larger Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Haslam said boosters have helped the athletic program accomplish much over the years, from scholarships to the “Grizzly Athletics Hall of Fame” to a planned student athlete academic center at the Adams Center.
Without booster support, the school’s 15 sports teams and hundreds of student athletes would likely notice the absence of supporters.
“Our Grizzly Scholarship Association has grown exponentially over the years,” Haslam said. “It started as the Century Club, raising $50,000 a year, and now it’s upwards of more than $2 million raised through priority seating, special events and outright gifts.”
But boosters have also landed universities in hot water, providing players with services and goods restricted by NCAA regulations. Violations have ranged from cheating scandals to recruiting violations.
Back in 1990, newly hired UM athletic director Bill Moos saw the potential trouble. He noted that probation situations at schools across the country were often linked to booster involvement.
Looking to keep the problems from reaching UM, he made the Grizzly Athletic Association – founded as the Century Club in 1955 – an official branch of the athletic department, complete with its own staff.
Nearly 25 years later, the athletic department is keenly aware of the fine line between good-hearted boosters and those who violate NCAA rules.
“For our level at this division, we operate with highly engaged boosters, but we needed to increase our education, saying there are right things and wrong things,” Haslam said. “Our boosters are involved, passionate, and they want to help and be engaged with what’s going on. But even common courtesy things can cross the line.”