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Column: Time to move on in Missoula, but for me, there's a lot of damage that's been done

From the Fringe...


August 1, 2013

Over the past 18 months, and to some extent, even longer, the University of Montana football program, and by extension, the school itself, has gone through some tumultuous times. Investigations by the NCAA, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education will do that to a school.

Along the way, there have been many announcements, many landmark days, and not too many of them have been positive.

While many Griz fans, and the program itself might have seen last Friday’s announcement by the NCAA as a positive, as the investigation, and much of the drawn-out saga, which included the firing of head coach Robin Pflugrad and Athletic Director Jim O’Day in the spring of 2012, is now over, I can’t feel the same.

I, like many, am relieved that this chapter of Griz football is now in the rearview mirror, but for me, as a longtime Griz fan, and a former UM student, I still don’t see a whole lot of good after reading the final NCAA report, and learning of the sanctions levied against the program.

In fact, relief is the last emotion I felt last Friday morning. The first were sadness, disappointment and even a bit of betrayal.

Now, first off, as many have you have heard, the infractions found inside the UM football program centered mainly around what the NCAA deems impermissible benefits, and if you read the report, it boils down to UM players receiving food, the use of washing machines and things of that nature. We’re not talking Reggie Bush money here, or players who were working phantom jobs and being paid $20 per hour to do so.

Aside from the issue of legal representation and bail for former players Trumaine Johnson and Gerald Kemp, and those two playing in four games following the incident meaning the Griz had to vacate the wins they played in, we’re talking pretty minor stuff, and I, like many in the world of college fandom, think it’s ridiculous how stringent the NCAA is on what players can and can’t receive. I truly believe these kids have too many NCAA guidelines to follow for what they get, and the fact that they aren’t allowed to have jobs while participating in a sport, there’s no question the NCAA has gotten more and more petty as the years have gone.

But, having said all that, rules are rules, and according to the NCAA’s final report on its findings at UM, three Missoula couples, as they are named in the report, broke those rules. Furthermore, it turns out UM coaches and admins were aware of at least some of the situations and didn’t report what they knew.

Now, I’m not going to dive deeply into who’s right, who’s wrong, who should have gotten fired and who should still have their job. What’s done is done, and it seems as though everybody is trying to move on, and I want that too.

Before I move on, I just have to say I’m saddened that die-hard Griz fans would break the rules the way they did in the report. Now, are Griz fans’ hearts in the right place by having hungry football players who are given very little during the school year over for dinner, or giving them a ride somewhere, or letting them do their laundry at their house? Certainly. I know how some of these kids come to Missoula with very little, and I know first-hand what they can’t have while they’re members of the Griz football team.

But again, right or wrong, the NCAA has rules, and at least three Missoula couples, listed as “boosters” knowingly broke those rules, and that disappoints me. It disappoints me because I know just how deeply all of Griz Nation loves this program, and to think that some people were willing to jeopardize all that was built over time, and did so knowing just what could happen, that’s disappointing to me.

Now, before anyone says it, I’ll say it for you. I’m fully aware that these types of impermissible benefits go on at every college football program in the country. I’m not naïve. It’s going on at Alabama, and is strict as the NCAA is these days, it's going on in your favorite program too, no matter how many stones you throw at UM. As strict as the NCAA’s guidelines are, rules are being broken in one form or another at every college football program in the country. I mean, even the CEO of Twitter got himself in hot water with the NCAA recently, and he didn’t do anything I could see as being wrong.

But I don’t care about the boosters at Alabama and what they do. I don’t care about Penn State or Florida State or Miami, or what happened to USC with Reggie Bush and on and on … I care about the University of Montana and what’s going on with that football program, and that football program alone.

I care that boosters of the UM football program seem to be too close to these players sometimes. I care that because of the actions of a few, many kids who didn’t do anything wrong, and want nothing more than to be Griz players and give Griz Nation everything they have have to be affected by all this. I care that the penalties levied by the NCAA will affect future players, meaning that a reduction in scholarships by four over the next four years might just mean there is some young football player in Great Falls or Billings or Colstrip or Big Sandy or who knows where, who might be good enough, and wants badly to be a Griz someday, but because of the sanctions handed down last Friday, there may not be room for them to ever be a Griz.

I don’t care that people call USC or Miami cheaters; I care that people call the Grizzlies cheaters.

Quite frankly, I don’t care how ridiculous NCAA guidelines are regarding boosters and student-athletes. They are what they are and a select few chose to cross those lines, and now the program has three years of probation, has vacated wins in a magical 2011 season, and has four fewer scholarships to offer in each of the next four academic years.

That brings me to this point, and it isn’t a Montana football problem, it’s a college athletics problem. Some boosters, and even some fans in general, seem to need to be too close to these kids these days. It almost seems like an obsession. Fans need to be able to say “I talked to such and such a player and he told me.” I can’t tell you how many times I hear that anymore.

It just seem like it’s not enough for people to be fans from the stands anymore. It just seems like many fans need more. They need more access, they need to be in these kids’ personal lives and they need to be able to say they know these players. And you know what? Maybe, if the NCAA had a completely different set of rules, than that mentality wouldn’t be such a danger, but that’s not the world we live in right now, and as long as the University of Montana football team is a member of the NCAA, it’s not OK for the fans and “boosters” to do the things that were written in the NCAA’s report last Friday.

That’s what bothers me the most. I might be wrong, but the “boosters” who helped commit these so-called minor infractions, aren’t penalized by the NCAA or by anyone. No, I think only the other side of the coin is penalized.

Before I end this lengthy, high-horse diatribe, let me just say, I’m not coming down on the concept of boosters themselves. Every college football program in America needs boosters. Programs need financial support, and many, many boosters across this country do amazing and great things for these programs. There’s no denying that. Many boosters support and love their programs the right way and don’t cross boundaries set forth by the NCAA.

No, I’m coming down on the select few who knowingly chose to break NCAA rules, no matter how silly those rules are, and now many people who did nothing wrong have to suffer the consequences. And make no mistake, the athletes themselves aren’t blameless either, because I know for a fact, NCAA rules regarding these matters are drilled into their heads the day they arrive on campus, and are continuously drilled into their heads during their time as college football players. No, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

But that also brings me back to the final emotion I felt last Friday morning. I felt relief. This chapter is now closed. Montana has a lot of work to do to recover from the last two years, and all that’s happened, but what’s done is done. It’s now in the past and it’s time to move on. I know I will because I won’t be writing another column about what’s gone on with the UM football program over the last 18-plus months.

Now that I’ve said what I have to say. I’m moving on. I know the Griz are too. I hope everyone else will, and the program will be better and stronger than ever in time.

Yeah, that’s a good idea now. Let’s move on. Next stop, Aug. 31 and Appalachian State under the lights of Washington-Grizzly Stadium.


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