Current, former players shocked by Montana firingsMISSOULA, Mont. — Current and former Montana football players say they were shocked by the sudden firings of athletic director Jim O'Day and head coach Robin Pflugrad, who told the team “to be champions” in his final address.
MISSOULA, Mont. — Current and former Montana football players say they were shocked by the sudden firings of athletic director Jim O'Day and head coach Robin Pflugrad, who told the team “to be champions” in his final address.
An open letter signed “The University of Montana Football Team” and posted on the athletic department's website on Friday referenced the firings and allegations of sexual assault against some players, saying those events have “had a deep and profound impact on us.”
“As student athletes of this university we are left without an answer as to why our two leaders, Coach Pflugrad and Jim O'Day, are gone,” the letter reads.
The letter concludes by asking for support and for “those who have been entrusted with authority and power to carefully consider the impact of their statements and actions on our team and our great tradition.”
University President Royce Engstrom told Pflugrad and O'Day on Thursday that he would not be renewing O'Day and Pflugrad's contracts. He did not give a reason in a statement announcing the firings, nor did he go into specifics when he broke the news to the coach and athletic director.
“He just said, ‘We need a change of leadership,’ ” Pflugrad told the Missoulian. “That's all he said.”
The university on Friday picked associate head coach Mick Delaney to serve as interim coach.
Delany has been on the UM coaching staff for four seasons after a 15-year stint as an assistant at Colorado State and 44 years of coaching.
Associate athletic director Jean Gee will be the interim replacement for O'Day.
Friday's practice, the last before players go on spring break, was closed to the public. Pflugrad said that he addressed the team on Thursday, telling them that he loved them and they've got to battle through.
“I told them I expect them to be champions,” he said
An investigation led by a former Montana Supreme Court justice looked into reports of sexual assaults on campus, including a December 2010 report in which two women alleged they were drugged and raped by members of the football team.
No players were charged with a crime.
Pflugrad said he had every football player questioned on the allegations just hours before their Football Championship Subdivision semifinal playoff game last year, which the Griz lost to Sam Houston State.
“We interviewed 61 players on game day,” he said. “Sixty-one. We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing, and if there was someone we thought should be suspended for that game, we would have been sure to do it, or we wouldn't have spent 2 1/2 hours on it.”
Then in January, Griz running back Beau Donaldson was charged with sexual intercourse without consent for an incident dating back to September 2010. He has pleaded not guilty.
On March 9, a UM student took out a restraining order against UM quarterback Jordan Johnson, alleging he sexually assaulted her. An investigation is under way but no charges have been filed.
Former quarterback Cole Bergquist told the Missoulian that he wants to know the reason for the dismissals.
“I don't know if this is to try and clean up Montana's image or what, but I only have the best things to say about Jim O'Day and Coach Pflu,” he said.
The turmoil off the field and the sudden change in leadership could be detrimental for the program after a successful season in which the team reached the FCS semifinals, some players said.
“We have a relatively young team coming back and spring practice is one of the best times to grow. Guys get a chance to prove themselves and step up into a starting role,” said Bryan Waldhauser, a senior all-conference defensive tackle for the 2011 Grizzlies. “You need guidance. You need the head coach to guide everybody and say, ‘This is why we're doing this.’ It will definitely be interesting to see what happens.”