By Tim Eberly
Two coaches attended Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team's practice Tuesday.
Neither of them was Kevin Emerick, the estranged Skylights coach.
Standing alone in a corner of MSU-N's gymnasium, Skylights assistant coach Joan Steffen, whose coaching career this season has been adversely affected by her link to Emerick, watched the team practice without offering any input.
"I'm just observing practice today, and I'm thinking about my options one of which is to be the assistant coach," said Steffen, 33, leaning against the retracted bleachers while maintaining a distance from the court.
The other was Mike Erickson, who before 1:30 p.m. Tuesday was in his first year as an assistant coach with the MSU-N men's basketball program. At that time, athletic director Ted Spatkowski walked into Erickson's office and offered him his first collegiate albeit temporary head coaching position.
"He knew when they first suspended (Emerick) that I was interested in the job," Erickson said of Spatkowski.
For the second time this season, Emerick was removed Tuesday from his post as head coach of the Skylights. As a result, the Skylights conducted their first supervised practice since their eight-day walkout in protest of Emerick.
On Thursday and Saturday, the Skylights have back-to-back home games against the University of Montana-Western and Montana Tech, respectively.
Emerick sued to regain his job after his initial suspension Dec. 12, and a district judge reinstated him in early January. Lawyers for MSU employed an uncommon appeal route to the Montana Supreme Court in their first attempt, which was unsuccessful. The most crucial portion of MSU's second appeal a more traditional courtroom route was successful Tuesday, when the Supreme Court ruled 4-1 to allow MSU-N to remove Emerick while the case is pending.
Emerick's coaching contract, which will not be renewed, expires June 18.
The 30-year-old Erickson accepted the offer to coach the team for the next four games of its regular season and in the postseason, which begins Feb. 28 in Butte. Spatkowski and Chancellor Alex Capdeville, meanwhile, are in the process of compiling a search committee to find a head coach for the 2002-2003 season. Erickson does not know if he will be in the running for that position.
"It's all about the girls right now and the university," said Erickson, who led the Wolf Point boys basketball team to a 54-12 mark in the two seasons prior to joining the MSU-N staff. "In the future, we'll have to sit down and talk after the next five weeks of basketball."
Steffen took a back seat to Erickson during the practice, though Spatkowski told her that her job remained intact. The assistant coach is taking some time to decide whether to stay with the program, she said.
When the nine members of the Skylights team penned a petition demanding Emerick's immediate removal, they included Steffen in their boycott because of her close ties to Emerick.
Steffen was the starting point guard on the Mount Mercy College women's basketball team while Emerick helped the team as a part-time volunteer assistant coach, a position he held from 1990-96. She was also an assistant coach under Emerick while he briefly held head coaching positions at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and Oklahoma Panhandle State University.
But when Spatkowski met with the players after Erickson agreed to coach them, the Skylights (17-8 overall, 3-7 in Frontier Conference) decided to play despite the possible presence of Steffen.
"It's more of how she reacts to us," senior forward Amanda Walter said Tuesday. "We're kind of waiting for her attitude toward the situation. I don't think anybody talked to her today" at practice.
Emerick said today he has not been contacted by Spatkowski or anyone representing the university. He said his two lawyers may have spoken to university officials, but that he got word of his resuspension through the media. He also chastised MSU-N for not appointing Steffen, who took over for Emerick after his December suspension and collected two wins, to the interim head coach position.
"I think that's criminal, really," Emerick, 41, said. "She's had nothing to do with this up until this last week. She should have been able to take the team over and coach them for the rest of the season. I assume it's because she supported me."
Spatkowski could not be reached for comment.
Recently, the controversy surrounding Emerick has been picked up by the national sports media. At the Skylights practice were a reporter and producer from ESPN's television show "Outside the Lines." ESPN conducted an interview with Spatkowski today. Last week, senior center Sarah Gaugler was contacted by a reporter from Fox Sports Net.
The boycott was a protest of verbal and psychological abuse players say increased as Emerick's court victories over MSU accumulated. Spatkowski forfeited the Skylights' Saturday game against the University of Great Falls. Players said that if Emerick was not removed, they would not play for him and were willing to forfeit the remaining games.
Emerick denied the allegations of abuse and misconduct and accused Spatkowski and Capdeville of manipulating the players and orchestrating the walkout. Capdeville and Spatkowski denied those allegations.
Capdeville first suspended Emerick with pay because Emerick was maintaining a personal relationship with a student.
Emerick has said Capdeville and Spatkowski gave him permission to see the student socially.
Emerick still has an administrative review by MSU president Geoff Gamble pending regarding his original suspension. But it's unlikely Gamble's review will not be complete before the close of the season.