Big Sky Braces for Another Scandal

Idaho relieves longtime AD as the Vandals prepare for 2018 season opener.   Photo Courtesy: Idaho Statesman

Idaho relieves longtime AD as the Vandals prepare for 2018 season opener. Photo Courtesy: Idaho Statesman

By Landon Johnston, FCS Fans Nation Contributor

 The Idaho State Board of Education fired University of Idaho athletic director Rob Spear Aug. 16, leaving many Vandal fans elated and, dare I say it, excited for the future.

However, Spear’s firing also left a multitude of questions as Idaho football begins its 2018 Football Championship Subdivision campaign in less than two weeks. The Vandals open their season Sept. 1 at Fresno State and begin Big Sky play Sept. 22 at UC Davis.

Prior to his removal, Spear directed the Idaho athletic department since 2004 and had worked for the university for almost 30 years. He was one of the longest-tenured college ADs in the Northwest.

As reported by the Idaho Statesman, Spear was previously placed on administrative leave in April for his unprofessional treatment of female student-athletes. It’s been verified that as many as eight women have publicly expressed concerns about Spear’s leadership, including a Vandal Hall of Famer and a current UI administrator.

These concerns were highlighted by Spear essentially looking the other way in 2013 amid allegations that former Vandal wide receiver Jahrie Level sexually assaulted former Idaho diver Mairin Jameson. In a blog Jameson posted earlier this year, she detailed a number of blunders by Spear, including his failure to alert the Dean of Students or the school’s Title IX coordinator of his athlete’s allegations.

Level subsequently transferred and continued his playing career at Stony Brook University. No disciplinary actions were taken against him.

Fast forward five years and Spear’s firing may seem unprecedented to some Vandal fans but, for others around the Big Sky, the story leaves a familiar bad taste. A football conference once known for winning NCAA National Championships is now also commonly associated with making national headlines for sexual assault scandals.

The University of Montana football program was rocked in 2012 when former starting quarterback Jordan Johnson was accused of raping a female student. Johnson was later found not guilty after a highly-publicized criminal trial, but a series of questionable decisions regarding the way sexual assault cases were handled at UM had been revealed.

Then came the account of Allison Huguet, raped by former Grizzly standout, and childhood friend, Beau Donaldson. FCS fans were stunned as Donaldson plead guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison (he served less than three). Other women soon came forward with similar statements, one alleging she was gang-raped by as many as four Montana football players.

These accounts were documented in the New York Times best-selling book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. In it, author Jon Krakauer describes an environment of victim-shaming and administrative corruptness. A similar scene appears to now be playing out in Moscow.

The story hits close to home around the region as Idaho is located less than 75 miles from rival FCS school Eastern Washington University. When she first learned of Spear’s firing, EWU alum and longtime Eagles fan Kelsey Hatch-Brecek wasn’t exactly shocked.

“If anything, I’m surprised it took this long,” Hatch-Brecek said. “It’s very unfortunate how it was mishandled but I’m hoping more information comes out soon.”

“The University of Idaho has managed to keep this under wraps for the most part, but stories like these usually spread like wildfire,” she continued. “I know situations like this could (and do) happen anywhere, its just unfortunate how they get to the point of such mishandling.”

The question now for Vandal fans, and for everyone who follows Big Sky football, is what happens next?

Montana essentially cleaned house after their scandal (which also included several NCAA rules violations) and fired their AD and former football coach Robin Pflugrad on the very same day. Since then, the UM administration has worked to promote sexual assault safety and awareness on campus. One can only hope Idaho will follow suit.

Which leads us to the big question: How long will Vandal head coach Paul Petrino last? His part in this sticky web isn’t completely clear, but his involvement is undeniable. The Statesman has also reported that in 2013 former former Idaho distance runner Maggie Miller told Petrino that Level (the same Vandal football player accused of assaulting Jameson) had physically threatened to hit her in the weight room. Petrino proceeded to do nothing.

He’s recently been quoted as saying he doesn’t remember that conversation. It is, however, documented in a Moscow Police Report, leaving some to believe he might still be next on the chopping block.

Sadly, the success of the upcoming football season could ultimately determine Petrino’s fate more than his inaction off the field. If the Vandals finish near the top of the Big Sky, qualifying for the FCS Playoffs in the process, will that be enough to save his job? Or does a mediocre .500 season after dropping down from the FBS level spell doom for Petrino?

Regional FCS fans like Hatch-Brecek know only time will tell. “I assume we may be hearing about more (Idaho) staff and/or faculty being removed from university positions,” she said.

Football dominates the scene at many FCS schools and this is a big year for Idaho. Remember, the Vandals are playing as a member of the Big Sky Conference this season for the first time since 1995. And now they’re faced with an interim AD and a head coach swirled in allegations. What a way to start a new era.

Talk to me in December, but one thing’s for sure right now: There’s nothing but question marks in Moscow.

Still, question marks might be better than what they had before.