Mike Kramer settled his lawsuit with Montana State University on Wednesday, the end of a 3-year ordeal that was bitter, damaging and even humiliating – and certainly couldn’t have been more personal.
But squirreled away inside the acrimony was a broad challenge to the entire college athletic culture:
Make up your mind.
What do you want? Glory? Or just good boys?
The what-should-be? Or the what-is?
“In the end, what this is about is pretty obvious,” said Kramer. “You can hide behind the façade of academic success and the term ‘student-athlete’ as much as you want. But you’re going to ask your coaches, especially in the high-profile sports, to be successful, and to get to that level it’s not always going to be with ‘student-athletes.’
“You’re going to have guys who are rough around the edges. You’re going to have to provide support for those coaches and scholarship players that will exceed what you might do for the average student or non-revenue sport. You have to provide academic support, social training, mentoring over and above what a coach can do so they fit within a community. Because in the end, the coaches are driven by the fact that you demand they be successful.”
Kramer was driving back from Bozeman, having accepted a $240,000 payment to settle the suit filed over his May 2007 dismissal as MSU’s head football coach. He was due back at Washington State to perform his duties as a football operations assistant for Paul Wulff – chores that might be as modest as doling out sandwiches to the coaches at their daily meeting. But it’s the only football job he’s been able to get in the past three years – despite pursuing more than 100 coaching positions, a circumstance that finally nudged him from wanting his day in court to simply getting it over with.
“It happened when I was a finalist for the Ventura JC job – they hired Steve Mooshagian, a good guy who I coached against when he was at Sac State,” Kramer said. “I’d tried to get jobs for three years and every time we’d get down to it, everybody Googles me and all of a sudden it’s, ‘We’re going in another direction.’ At least now they can tell me I’m not a good candidate or my breath is bad.”
Future employers aren’t too jazzed when you’re suing your former employers. Nor are they too impressed when your tenure is derided as “a crisis in leadership.”
“The No. 1 tool in any coach’s toolbox is his leadership,” Kramer insisted. “When they came out and said I was a bad leader, they laid it down. They’re saying you’re untrustworthy, that you can’t be a teacher, handle funds, academics, recruiting. That you’re a bad guy.
“They tried to take my career and break it over their knee.”
Kramer’s career included 13 seasons as a head coach at Eastern Washington and MSU, four Big Sky championships and a journey to within a game of playing for the national title. But his Bobcat program began accumulating stains from a series of drug arrests in Bozeman of players he’d brought to town – by this time, all but one of them former players he’d dismissed for other reasons. One of those former players had also done murder.
Kramer, in 2006, pulled himself out of the running for the University of Idaho job that went to Robb Akey to return to Bozeman and huddle with his staff on ways to improve behavior, character evaluation and academic performance – and came up with measures that prompted then-president Geoff Gamble to claim, “We’re on the right track.”
Five months later, another former player – a graduate – was pinched as part of the same drug ring, and athletic director Peter Fields suddenly had found his tipping point in one headline too many.
“The president said, ‘Perception is reality,’ ” Kramer recalled. “When guys in a higher level of university leadership are more concerned with perception, that’s not leadership. That’s reactivism.”
True, the amount of educratic butt-covering was obscene.
But we have yet to satisfactorily resolve just how far a coach’s responsibility extends in matters of player behavior – and how much we’ll stomach relative to the results on the scoreboard. We should be able to expect that the teams we follow not be a breeding ground for criminals. There has to be some reckoning of when some becomes too much.
“But in the forensics of what happened to me,” Kramer said, “I looked for evidence where we cut a corner or overlooked something. But none of these players had previous criminal activity. None had failed a random drug test on campus. Nothing from their coaches or counselors said ‘bad guys’ when we recruited them.
“I’ve asked myself what more I could have done – but it’s no different than Paul or Robb trying to figure out what guys are doing 24 hours a day. If I can get whacked like this, every coach should sleep with one eye open.”
It is no stretch to say Kramer was lost without football, even when he went into business with his brothers last year (“Kramer Diversified – it means we’d do anything for money”). He is still without it, technically – grateful to Wulff for the lifeline but “so far down the chain you’re happy to know where the field is.
“I have no contact with the players and that’s the nexus of why I coach – the relationships with the young guys. Whether it’s a kid from Republic or a kid from Los Angeles, there’s nothing like it in the world and I desperately want the opportunity to be involved again.”
Even if, when it comes to that big question, college football can’t make up its mind.