By Tim Eberly
The third time is the charm for Montana State University in its legal battles with Kevin Emerick.
After Emerick's early-season suspension was overturned in state District Court, followed by the Montana Supreme Court's initial rejection to assume jurisdicition in the case, the high court ruled in MSU's favor this morning, allowing the institution to again suspend the women's basketball coach with four games remaining in the Skylights' regular season schedule.
"We were hoping they were going to rule quickly and in our favor and both those things happened," said LeRoy Schramm, chief legal counsel for MSU.
The Supreme Court ruled 4-1 to suspend District Judge Marc Buyske's decision that returned Emerick to his post. MSU filed the appeal late last week, and Emerick was given until 5 p.m. Monday to file a response.
The court's ruling today put Emerick's suspension back in place while MSU pursues its appeal to the Supreme Court to reverse Buyske's decision. In its four-page order, the Supreme Court concluded that "there is a strong likelihood that MSU-Northern's appeal will be successful."
"As a lawyer, one can't help but be gratified by that kind of language," said Schramm, adding, "This should, for the moment, bring some peace and quiet to the women's basketball program."
The court's action has come on the eighth day of a walkout by the Skylights, who said they were protesting verbal and psychological abuse that increased as Emerick's court victories over MSU accumulated. Athletic director Ted Spatkowski was forced to forfeit the Skylights' Saturday game against the University of Great Falls because of the boycott.
"I feel like we accomplished what we set out to do and that our word wasn't overlooked," junior forward Angee Thomas said today. "Whether we win the rest of the games or lose the rest of the games, we just want to finish the season with no headaches."
Schramm notified MSU-N Chancellor Alex Capdeville of the court order shortly after 10 a.m. Capdeville promptly organized a meeting in his office with Spatkowski and Chuck Jensen, vice chancellor of student affairs.
"We're pleased," Capdeville said during a brief break in the meeting. "We're gratified."
When reached at his home, Emerick said he was not aware of the court ruling and referred any questions to his attorneys, Havre-based Dan Boucher and Robert Peterson. "I don't know what they're going to do," Emerick said of MSU-N. "No one has tried to contact me."
Boucher and Peterson could not be reached for comment.
Emerick still has a pending administrative review by MSU president Geoff Gamble regarding his original suspension. But it's unlikely Gamble's review as well as MSU's appeal to the Supreme Court will be complete before the close of the season.
"I think it's virtually impossible that that would happen, which of course was part of our argumemt," Schramm said.
Spatkowski is in the process of finding an interim coach to guide the Skylights (17-8 overall, 3-7 in Frontier Conference) through the remainder of the season, including the Feb. 28 conference tournament in Butte. Capdeville is forming a search committee to hire a new coach for next season. Emerick's contract, which will not be renewed, expires June 18.
"We will do a thorough check on anyone that we hire," Capdeville said. "Even if it means we have someone from out of state, we will visit those campuses."
Mike Erickson, an assistant coach on MSU-N men's basketball team, may be considered to temporarily take over the Skylights. Erickson, who has some experience coaching girl's basketball on the high school level, has expressed interest in the position.
"Mike would be considered," Spatkowski said Monday. "He's talked to us about it. He's expressed interest but no decision has been made."
Skylights assistant coach Joan Steffen, whom the players named in their boycott petition because of her close ties to Emerick, will retain her position. The players have said they don't want to play for Emerick or Steffen. But Capdeville said he doesn't think Steffen's presence as long as there is a new head coach will prolong the boycott.
"We'll have a new head coach for the rest of the year," Capdeville said. "I don't think that" the players would continue their boycott if Steffen remains.
On Feb. 4, the Skylights presented to Emerick a petition requesting his and Steffen's immediate removal. Players said that if Emerick was not removed, they would not play for him and were willing to forfeit the remaining games on their schedule.
Emerick, who has denied the allegations of abuse and misconduct, refused to accept the letter.
Emerick has accused Spatkowski and Capdeville of manipulating the players and orchestrating the walkout. Capdeville and Spatkowski denied those allegations.
Emerick threatened to form a team of substitutes to play, but Spatkowski informed him that was not an option.
Capdeville suspended Emerick with pay Dec. 12. Capdeville said his action was based on the fact that Emerick was maintaining a personal relationship with Anna Fabatz, a former Skylight who is still a student at MSU-N.
Emerick has said Capdeville and Spatkowski gave him permission to see Fabatz socially after her final season ended.
In response to his suspension, Emerick sued the university and Buyske reinstated him Jan. 3. After Emerick returned to his post, MSU lawyers asked the Montana Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction in the case and remove Emerick as coach.
On Jan. 29, the Supreme Court rejected the university's first appeal 4-3.