Published November 20, 2014
The red carpet in Camelot has been replaced by a long trail of egg shells.
Nobody in the University of Montana football program will walk with a sense of easiness for quite some time.
Thursday's firing of athletic director Jim O'Day and football coach Robin Pflugrad, in the wake of a trail of brushes with the law surrounding the team and the university's recent investigation into numerous alleged sexual assaults on campus -- some involving football players -- has changed this proud program going forward.
Suddenly, life's priorities are reasserted, a sign that the football program doesn't run the show at UM.
The Grizzlies have been dominant while qualifying for all but one of the last 19 Football Championship Subdivision playoffs (the exception was in 2010, the first of Pflugrad's two seasons as head coach) and appearing in seven of the last 17 national title games, winning championships in 1995 and 2001.
Now the program is mired in uncertainty, and not all the questions have easy answers.
Here are some of the key questions:
Were the firings warranted? No doubt. UM football players have faced too many arrests and allegations in recent years -- some on Pflugrad's watch, others under former head coach Bobby Hauck and too many during O'Day's tenure. University president Royce C. Engstrom had to show publicly that UM is attempting to take hold of its house again. Let's not forget this is an institution of higher learning first and an athletic program second. Thursday's stunning move was a teaching moment. O'Day and Pflugrad, both well- liked and highly regarded in their professions, hadn't done enough to stem the problems.
Can Montana's image be cleaned up? The recovery period will last a long time. For each positive step going forward, there will be thoughts of doubt back to this negative period in Montana history. People within the program have to be forthcoming about the mistakes made and that there was this need for change. At the very least, the new coaching staff must tighten the strings on the players. The right steps will yield the right results.
Who will be the new head coach? In the next day or days, Montana is expected to name an interim coach. Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Ty Gregorak, who has coached in the program in eight of the last nine seasons, may be a strong possibility for that position, although he also encountered off-the- field problems in 2010 while he was an assistant at UNLV. Offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach has been in the program less than a month and isn't a logical choice for the interim position. After Engstrom's strong statement through the firings, it would seem he might hire a permanent head coach from outside the program. The Griz job, of course, remains a coveted position, especially for those with ties to the program.
What kind of season lies ahead? By Montana standards, the 2012 season could be a struggle. The program already had inherited problems considering last year's national semifinalist lost plenty, including nine defensive starters, six first-team All-Big Sky selections on both sides of the ball and longtime kicker/punter Brody McKnight. The road schedule includes Appalachian State, Eastern Washington and Weber State, and then there's a better Montana State team across the state. The Grizzlies needed to beat their rival in the 2010 finale to make the FCS playoffs and didn't. They may face a similar scenario this season. The seven wins of 2010 is more likely than the 11 of a year ago.
What are the long-term affects? The university has taken some necessary steps, but the fact remains it has been embarrassed in the national spotlight. The Grizzlies program has been built on high school talent from within the state, but Missoula won't quite be the place to be unless the next head coach quickly does a phenomenal job. Rival Montana State, whose program has come on strong, will benefit here. With UM football focus now more off the field than on the field and its leadership about to be different for the third time in four years, it will be hard for the Grizzlies to remain the same juggernaut.