By Tim Eberly
Lawyers for Montana State University today mailed a letter of their intent to appeal to the Montana Supreme Court in its fourth effort to remove MSU-Northern women's basketball coach Kevin Emerick from his job.
LeRoy Schramm, the chief legal council for the MSU system, mailed the letter from Helena to the state District Court in Hill County. When it arrives in Havre, the letter will be forwarded to the Supreme Court, where Schramm will file the actual appeal.
"We will be filing shortly a document asking for" a reversal of District Judge Marc Buyske's Jan. 3 decision to reinstate the suspended coach to his position, Schramm said today. "We think it's more important than ever given the turmoil the women's basketball program is in."
The Skylights are in their third day of refusing to play for Emerick.
The basis for the appeal rests on much of the same grounds of the university's first appeal, Schramm said, who declined to provide additional specifics.
After Buyske's decision to return Emerick to his post, MSU-N lawyers asked the Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction in the case and remove Emerick as coach. The university's request was denied early last week. Schramm said the Skylights' request Monday to remove Emerick and his assistant coach, Joan Steffen, did not prompt the letter of appeal sent today.
"When the Supreme Court decision came down, we had already decided that we were going to take this route," Schramm said. "I think those events show that something needs to be done. We would be doing this even if that hadn't happened."
The Supreme Court narrowly rejected the university's request 4-3.
After returning from a four-game road trip in Idaho and Utah on Sunday morning, the nine members of the Skylights drafted and signed a "Skylight Position Statement," requesting the immediate removal of Emerick and Steffen.
The Skylights originally had planned to protest by skipping practice on Monday afternoon, but after conferring with one another, they wrote the statement to Emerick and handed it to him at the scheduled start of Monday's practice. Emerick refused to take the letter, and the players went home without practicing.
The letter cites seven reasons for their boycott of Emerick and Steffen: verbal abuse, psychological abuse, inconsistent coaching style, lack of respect for players, lack of respect for players' personal rights, lack of coaching ethics, and threats to forfeit the remainder of the season.
Emerick "has made his position clear by stating: I can do anything I want to the team now, they can't get rid of me," the statement said. "Following this realization, the verbal and psychological abuse has increased, and we feel this abuse violates our personal rights which have been violated throughout the season."
A copy of the statement was also given to the chancellor's office.
Emerick said the university is behind the players' action, and said Chancellor Alex Capdeville and athletic director Ted Spatkowski helped coordinate the affair.
"It's looks like the whole thing was orchestrated by the university to thumb their nose at the Supreme Court ruling," Emerick said today. "The players are being used as pawns by the boosters and the university."
In the last two days, Emerick has found several university students who are willing to play for him Saturday against the University of Great Falls if his team refuses to play.
"If this team doesn't want to take the floor Saturday, then we have a team that will," he said.
Emerick said he has five or six players some of whom are former Skylights ready to play for him.
Players said Emerick's victories in court, coupled with losing five of the last seven games, fueled his belligerent behavior. He threatened to double the Skylights' daily court time with 5:30 a.m. practices, players said. In addition to degrading individual players, Emerick called the team "worthless," "the joke of the conference," and told them they "played like high school girls," players said. For these reasons, the players say they are prepared to play the remaining five games on their schedule without a coach.
"Do I yell at the players? Do we discipline them when we're coaching? Of course," Emerick said. "That's part of coaching, especially when you're not playing well."
On Tuesday, several players said they would attend the afternoon practice but would run practice themselves without the guidance of Emerick or Steffen. Instead, when the players got word that Emerick planned to go to the practice, they quickly arranged to meet at the gym at 8 p.m. to scrimmage during the two-hour open gym session and skip their second straight practice. Emerick and Steffen arrived at 4 p.m. and observed the empty gym.
"I'm just waiting to see if anybody shows," Emerick, 41, said while in the doorway of the gym.
Said junior forward Angee Thomas: "We just thought it would be best if we practiced later on. We didn't want to cause any controversy with him."
The entire team met later that evening, but an hour-long meeting with Roger Barber, the university's provost, briefly kept them off the court. "He just wanted to hear our standpoint," Nichole Neill, a freshman forward from Great Falls, said.
For two games of pickup basketball, eight Skylights junior guard Miranda Weiser had a prior engagement and left after meeting with Barber practiced for 40 minutes. Shy of 10 players, the team picked up one former Skylight and a male spectator to round out two five-person teams. Though the atmosphere was typically lighter than a usual practice, the players ran plays and adhered to their disciplined offense and defense.
"It's like a weight has been lifted off us," senior Tamecia Watkins said. "We aren't walking on eggshells."
Capdeville and Spatkowski have been out of town for the last two days, Capdeville in Washington, D.C., for a business trip and Spatkowski on vacation in Connecticut. They are both scheduled to return to Havre this afternoon or evening.
University employees released a brief statement about the situation Tuesday afternoon. Chuck Jensen, the vice chancellor of student affairs, said the university is in the process of interviewing each member of the Skylights team.
"The position statement issued by the students raises serious allegations about the women's basketball program and its coaching staff," the press release said. "We are very concerned about the welfare of our student athletes, and will review these issues with them in an effort to resolve their concerns and allow them to complete the basketball season."
The release also said MSU-N is in the process of forming a search committee to hire a new woman's basketball coach.
Steffen changed the padlock on the Skylights' locker room Monday afternoon. Thomas, who had a class book in her locker, called Emerick Tuesday to ask that the padlock be removed. Emerick referred Thomas to Steffen.
Steffen "said that we couldn't get our personal belongings until we turned our uniforms in," said Thomas.
Barber ordered the removal of the padlock Tuesday afternoon. "I just told (an athletic department employee) to have it removed so the players could retrieve their personal property," he said today.
Though a cloud of controversy has shadowed the MSU-N squad all season, the Skylights players maintained a low profile through 24 games, building a 17-7 overall record and a national ranking among NAIA teams. They waded through allegations Emerick publicly directed at a former Skylights recruiter: The coach accused the recruiter in a mass e-mail sent to MSU-N staffers and faculty of having inappropriate sexual contact with Anna Fabatz, a former Skylight who played for Emerick last season and is now his girlfriend.
After a lengthy invesitgation into the allegations, Capdeville suspended Emerick without pay Dec. 12 and informed him his contract, which expires June 18, would not be renewed. Capdeville said his action was based on the fact that Emerick was maintaining a personal relationship with Fabatz, who is still a student at MSU-N. Capdeville also criticized Emerick for teaching Fabatz in a physical education class and for briefly assigning Fabatz as a student assistant coach.
Emerick has said Capdeville and Spatkowski gave him permission to see Fabatz socially after her final season ended.