The University of Montana fired athletic director Jim O’Day and head football coach Robin Pflugrad early Thursday.
In a statement, UM president Royce Engstrom said the university “has determined not to renew the contracts” of O’Day and Pflugrad. “We thank Jim and Robin for their dedicated service to the university, and we wish them the best.”
He released no further explanation for the men’s dismissal. However, the change comes after several months of investigation into a series of sexual assaults, some allegedly involving football players.
In an interview with the Missoulian, O’Day said he was told: “Mostly it was about a change of direction was needed.”
“I’m sure the president has been reviewing all the different things that have been going on for some time and just decided, both in leadership of the department and in leadership of the football program, it was time to make a change.”
“I think we (O’Day and Pflugrad) were both stunned and shocked. We both know that that’s part of the business we’re in. This sort of thing happens from time to time to good people. While it’s tough on families and individuals, universities and institutions are much bigger than any person or two people, and they have to do what they feel they have to do to keep things moving forward in a positive direction.”
Pflugrad was contacted by the Missoulian as he left the university, and confirmed his dismissal. However, he said he wanted to talk with his players before giving any statements to reporters.
O’Day said the president scheduled a meeting for 7:45 a.m. Thursday to “revisit the football program,” but both O’Day and Pflugrad believed it was a routine get-together. When they arrived, Engstrom informed them of his decision to remove them from UM athletics.
According toMontanaassociate athletic director Dave Guffey and others, the athletic department staff was called to a meeting at 9:30 a.m., where O’Day informed the staff that he and Pflugrad had been fired.
“Shocked is a good way to describe it,” Guffey said. “Disbelief … It could have major negative ramifications on Grizzly athletics and Grizzly football for a long time to come. Speaking from my perspective, it’s pretty scary.”
At 11 a.m., Engstrom reconvened the athletic department staff and a few football players who were available to attend to formally make the department aware of his decision. Engstrom then allowed those in attendance to respond to his statement. However, the president refused to answer questions or comments from the staff, Guffey said.
“(Engstrom) said he wouldn’t respond to anything that was a result of what he decided to do,” said Guffey. “He said to lay it all on him and that it was his decision entirely. That was pretty much the gist of it.”
Greg Sundberg, executive director of the Grizzly Scholarship Association, echoed Guffey’s statements.
“It’s a big surprise to everybody,” he said. “I don’t think anyone saw this coming and I probably can say the sentiment of the staff and coaches is that it’s a sad day for Grizzly athletics.”
Sundberg praised both O’Day and Pflugrad and their dedication to theUniversityofMontana.
“You have two gentlemen that have held this institution in the highest regard,” Sundberg said. “They’ve worked hard day in and day out to uphold what theUniversityofMontanastands for. It’s just not the fairy-tale ending, that’s for sure.”
Sundberg provided the first public, official notice of the change in a Thursday morning email to Grizzly Scholarship Association board members:
“It is with great sadness that I inform you all that this morning our Athletic Director, Jim O’Day and Head Football Coach Robin Pflugrad were released of their duties as of 8:00 a.m. this morning. It will be a very difficult time for all of us in the coming days and I would ask that you stay positive.
“As more information comes out, I will be sure to let you know. At this point and time this is all that I know.”
Shortly thereafter, some supporters of UM athletics received emails from O’Day.
Robert W. Minto Jr., president and CEO of ALPS Corp., posted this message on his Facebook page and called it to the attention of the Missoulian:
“I just got this e-mail from Jim O’Day,” Minto wrote: ‘Thanks so much for all the hard work and support I’ve received from each of you the past 8 years as athletic director and 6 years prior to that with the GSA and UM Foundation. It has been quite a ride. While this comes as a shock to both Robin and myself, it is part of today’s global picture of intercollegiate athletics across the country. I realized that when I took the job.’ Good bad or indifferent I will miss him. He is my friend and always will be.”
O’Day said he did not believe the firing was directly related to a recent decision to allow Grizzlies quarterback Jordan Johnson to practice with the team after a UM student filed a police report and received a civil no-contact order against Johnson. The women alleges she was sexually assaulted by Johnson; his lawyer has denied the allegation.
However, the firings do come on the heels of a university investigation into sexual assaults involving students, some of them allegedly UM athletes.
A woman who said she was sexually assaulted by several Grizzlies football players at a house party in December 2010 reported the incident to police; however, no charges were filed.
The Missoula Police Department said one of the players allegedly involved notified an assistant football coach of the incident, and that police met with Pflugrad when the investigation was completed.
When asked during an interview with the Missoulian earlier this month whether Pflugrad faced repercussions for not reporting the allegations to university administrators, Engstrom said that "we have not taken up that matter at this time. We’re trying to get clarity on federal law on mandatory reporting."
That December 2010 incident was one of nine alleged sexual assaults involving UM students investigated by the university. That investigation began in December, after two women allegedly were gang-raped, reportedly after being drugged.
UM appointed former Montana Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz to conduct an independent investigation, and continued that review after Barz turned in her report in January.
Engstrom issued the university’s own follow-up report March 22, in which he said five students have left school as a result of UM investigation – conducted under Student Code of Conduct procedures – into the alleged sexual assaults. However, he did not indicate whether those students had been expelled, dropped out or graduated, citing the Conduct Code’s privacy restrictions.
At a public forum in January, Engstrom attributed part of the sexual assault issues to a small number of UM athletes.
One football player, running back Beau Donaldson, was charged in January with sexual intercourse without consent in connection with a September 2010 incident. His accuser came forward after the university announced its investigation.
On March 9, a UM student took out a restraining order against starting quarterback Jordan Johnson, alleging he’d sexually assaulted her. A police report filed March 16 alleges a Feb. 4 rape and the police investigation into that accusation continues.
Through his attorney, David Paoli, Johnson has denied the allegation. The restraining order was replaced last Friday by a civil no-contact order that commands Johnson and the woman not to have any contact with each other. Johnson also must keep at least 1,500 feet away from her.
Missoulian reporters Michael Heinbach, Sherry Devlin, Chelsi Moy, Fritz Neighbor, Bill Speltz and Gwen Florio contributed to this story.