by John Baden

Like many other MSU supporters, I'm sorry Rob Ash was fired as its football coach.  The person who fired him, Athletic Director (AD) Peter Fields, said this when hired in March of 2002, "...Athletics can be a window to the university for the academic side.”  I take his statement to mean that the athletic programs offer insight to the university's soul.  They indicate what university leaders value most highly when making hard decisions.  

footballBUniversity athletic programs also provide lessons in economic anthropology.  Decisions in this arena use multiple metrics in emotional situations.  Firing Coach Ash surely must have been a trying decision.  The trial isn't over and I'm a biased juror.  Here is why.

MSU President Geoff Gamble hired Ash in 2007.  The new coach promised to clean up the school's reputation after years of scandals.    MSU varsity players and coaches had been central in horrific cases involving drugs and violence, even a murder.  Of course the reputation of the University suffered greatly.

I served on the Presidents Advisory Council when 
Ash was hired and met the new coach at a dinner hosted by Gamble at his home.   I pressed Ash regarding his academic and ethical standards in recruiting players and was favorably impressed by his responses.  Gamble later told me Ash had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell College, a high academic honor indeed, and Ash was an academic All-American.  

This seemed a remarkable improvement and indeed it was.  The following summer Ramona and I called Coach Ash for his recommendations and we began hiring his football players for summer ranch work. We've hired one or two each summer.  All have been good workers; honest, dependable, and smart.  One went on to medical school and has completed residency.  We'd be happy to have any of them back.  

Our sample is small but these men testify to Rob Ash's high standards and integrity.   The players consistently spoke highly of their head coach and were proud to play for him.  Naturally, their respect for Coach Ash communicated to the high schools from which they graduated.  This gives MSU a great advantage when recruiting, especially from Montana high schools.

Firing someone with Ash's qualities, reputation, and winning record, surely is difficult.  Why do so?  Is Fields likely to find a superior coach? On the dimensions of character and intellect, it's most unlikely.  What metric trumps the rare qualities Ash demonstrates?  As Athletic Director Fields stated, "Athletics can be a window to the university....”

First, consider the duties of a university AD where sports are important*.  A school's AD is the chief sports administrator.  He (or she in the University of Chicago and MIT's cases) is responsible for budgets, sets policies, and hires and fires coaches.  Perhaps most importantly, the AD is the political flack catcher who deals with alums and others whose interest in football victories trump academic considerations.  These are the vocal, persistent, generous few.  Their influence can't be ignored, especially in a state as small as Montana but with two competing universities.  Aside from occasional post-seasons tournaments, only one game really counts, Cats vs. Griz.  

I was a student at Indiana University in 1969 when I decided to move to Montana. Bozeman was my first choice, Missoula second.  Alert to Montana happenings, I noticed New Yorker Magazine's sports writer, H. W. Wind attending a Cat-Griz game to "...get away from the big time, publicized schools, and go way off somewhere and see what college football is like there these days.... (N)o one living west of the Dakotas and east of Idaho ever referred to the Montana State and Montana football teams except in terms of their (Cats and Griz) mascots...."  

Here is a snippet by Rial Cummings in Butte's Montana Standard, Nov. 13, 2000:  " The Griz-Cat series isn't about winning any single contest. It's about crushing the spirit and will of the other guys, mangling them so thoroughly that your side rules for decades. The Griz absolutely dominated until 1956; the Cats ruled the next 30 years...."

 

Ideal vs Actual behavior in universities

All types of organizations and institutions express and expound their behavioral ideals.  That is their face to the world. Boy Scouts, biker gangs, Marines, nunneries, and physicians, all have some expression of ideal behavior for their group.  These ideal types communicate a vision to insiders and outsiders.  They also economize on decision-making costs when questions arise.  There is, however, never perfect harmony between actual and ideal behavior.  A few priests have affairs.  Nearly all politicians tell lies.  

Ideally, students in varsity sports are academic scholars.  Under Coach Ash's leadership MSU made significant strides in that direction. Accomplishing this in golf and tennis is easier than when recruiting for football.  Coach Ash moved team members toward this ideal. Yet, he was summarily fired.

What happened?  Would Ash have been fired if the Cats had stomped the Griz?  

This sorry event gives yet another window to MSU's administrative culture. Before peering in, consider major accomplishments.  Montana State University is nationally recognized as one of the leading universities for the number of Truman and Goldwater scholars it produces.  Its Honors College is excellent and MSU is 8th in the nation, just over Yale, for its number of Goldwater scholars. Others at the top include Duke, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.  These are clearly great schools with which to be compared.  

Still, firing Rob Ash is consistent with MSU's administrative culture.  Few faculty leave the school with warm feelings toward it.  Most of those I know have at least a tinge of bitterness and resentment.  While not all have, most administrators have earned a reputation of caving to outside pressures.  Ash seems to be a victim of this tradition.

Question: how much ash, if any, will fall on the University's capital campaign?  A former Bobcat starter told me Ash would make a great AD.  He has excellent qualifications, a gentleman even when fired.


*They are not everywhere important.  Here are some windows to major universities.  MIT lists crew, pistol shooting, women’s ice hockey, and men's volleyball as varsity sports.  It won two and lost eight football games.  Cal Tech lists fourteen varsity sports but its men’s basketball team had a 207-game losing streak, its women’s basketball team had a 50-game losing streak, and men’s soccer team lost 201 games in a row.  Chicago sponsors nineteen varsity sports, including football with nine coaches, but has no athletic scholarships.  It was 6 and 4 this year.

 

Editor's Note: John Baden found Bozeman in the late 1960s when looking for the best place to build his life.   He explored and ranked every town in the Northwest having a four year college or university.  Bozeman ranked first and he left Bloomington, Indiana in 1970 to accept an offer from MSU. He earned a Ph. D. in economic anthropology from Indiana University and was a NSF post doc in environmental policy.   He founded the Foundation for Research in Economics and the Environment (FREE) in 1985 which he and his wife Dr. Ramona Marotz-Baden lead.  FREE's mission is to harmonize three oft conflicting values; environmental quality, responsible liberty, and modest prosperity.  John and Ramona live on an irrigated Gallatin Gateway ranch, all but thirty acres of which they placed in a conservation easement.