UM president Engstrom considers appeal of NCAA sanctions

2014-05-06T15:20:00Z 2014-05-06T23:58:06Z UM president Engstrom considers appeal of NCAA sanctionsBy BILL SPELTZ Missoulian The Billings Gazette
May 06, 2014 3:20 pm  • 

MISSOULA — Four months ago, a coalition of passionate Montana football fans presented a proposal to university President Royce Engstrom, urging him to appeal what they deemed excessively harsh sanctions by the NCAA.

Engstrom addressed the issue on Monday, indicating he’s exploring all his options.

“I am in the process of talking to a variety of people about the matter that these folks have brought forward,” he said. “I’ve made some phone calls to people that are helping me think it through.

“I’m not ready to say what I’m doing at this point but I am working on it.”

The proposal, which included more than 500 signatures, outlined why Montana should pursue an adjustment in the self-imposed reduction of football scholarships. The group contends the Griz received “unprecedented penalties amid an atmosphere that was anything but fair and objective.”

Supporters of an appeal further cite that with recent news the NCAA is considering changing some of the same rules that UM reportedly broke, “the time has come for action.” The coalition is frustrated by what it views as a lack of progress by UM officials and late last week re-stated its case in an email to media outlets.

“I appreciate their enthusiasm and I appreciate that they have brought forward what they believe to be a legitimate issue,” Engstrom said. “It demands serious attention so I’m giving it that.”

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Back in July the announcement came that the Griz football program would serve three years on probation and vacate five wins, including one against Montana State University and two playoff victories, as punishment for violating several NCAA rules governing student-athletes.

UM also had its football scholarships reduced from 63 to 59 for three years.

The NCAA found that former head coach Robin Pflugrad failed to monitor the football program, allowing boosters to provide extra benefits, including bail money and legal representation, to players. The investigation also found the football team had exceeded its coaching limits and that two former players, cornerback Trumaine Johnson and backup quarterback Gerald Kemp, competed while ineligible.

At the time Engstrom said the findings ended what had been a tumultuous chapter in the university’s history, one that also included an investigation by the federal departments of Justice and Education into how the school handled reports of sexual assault and harassment — some also involving football players.

Many of the incidents go back before Engstrom’s tenure began as president, and all of the administrators involved in the past incidents have been replaced, including Pflugrad and former athletic director Jim O’Day — both fired in 2012.

“We have pledged to build a superior and effective athletic program with students who are known for their contributions to their sport, to the classroom, and to the community,” Engstrom said back in July.

Engstrom appointed Kent Haslam as the school’s athletic director in 2012, and Mick Delaney was hired as the head coach. Engstrom said the university began instituting changes to its athletics program before the NCAA released its report.

Among the changes, the school has worked to improve its communications with coaches, student-athletes, staff and boosters — the latter of which also violated NCAA rules — resulting in stiff sanctions handed down against the university.

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According to Griz supporters seeking a review of the sanctions, the severity of the punishment was in response to the climate on campus at the time of the NCAA’s 18-month investigation — an ongoing Federal Department of Education probe, sexual assault allegations, the firings of coach Pflugrad and O’Day and media attention that followed.

“This unprecedented negative environment tainted any notion of objectivity and equally casts doubt on the penalties agreed to at the time by the university,” the proposal stated.

Montana lost 12 scholarships mostly because of improper benefits to players, including bail funds, legal counsel and other perks like meals and clothes, as well as allowing ineligible players to compete.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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