Following the arrests of four Washington State University football players, coaches and administrators may need to reconsider how they respond to criminal allegations – but that’s a question for after this season, WSU President Kirk Schulz said Monday in his first remarks on the controversy.
“Clearly, at the end of the football season, I think it’s very fair that athletic director Bill Moos and myself and coach (Mike) Leach all sit down and say, ‘Hey, is what we’re doing working?’ ” Schulz said. “But we don’t do that in the middle of the season for anything.”
Schulz, who started the job this summer, said he’s confident in the athletics department’s handling of the arrests. WSU has a pre-existing “set of guidelines that have been thought through way before I got here,” he said, “and I just don’t think it’s a great idea to start changing things in the middle of anything.”
The Spokesman-Review covered the team’s recent history of encounters with law enforcement in stories on Sunday, revealing what appear to be systemic problems within the athletics department. Since Leach started coaching the team in early 2012, players have been arrested 29 times – more than any other college football program in the nation, according to ArrestNation.com.
Schulz refused to comment on incidents that happened before he came to WSU, including a 2013 assault in the Cougars’ locker room that left quarterback Domenic Rockey with a fractured jaw. No one in the athletics department reported the assault to police; instead, Rockey’s girlfriend called police the next day.
A judge later sentenced linebacker Emmitt Su’a-Kalio to 240 hours of community service, and coaches allowed him to stay on the team. Schulz would not say if coaches or others in the department should have handled the incident differently.
Leach has accused Pullman police of targeting members of his team, but Schulz said Monday he believes the department acted fairly in investigating the four players.
Shalom Luani, Logan Tago, T.J. Fehoko and Robert Barber face felony assault charges. Tago also has been accused of robbery.
“I don’t believe that our police are profiling or targeting any particular group, either student-athletes or students,” said Schulz, noting he met recently with Pullman police Chief Gary Jenkins. “I take him at his word, and I think we’re going to continue to work closely together.”
Schulz added, “I can understand coach Leach’s frustration, too. From his perspective, there hasn’t been a lot of issues, and then all of a sudden, if you will, we’ve got (four) student-athletes from a particular ethnic group that all were involved in altercations. And so I understand his comments. I understand where he’s coming from.”
The four arrested players are American Samoans, but Schulz said he hasn’t heard concerns about racial profiling.
Leach and others have criticized news outlets for intensely focusing on the recent altercations involving football players – a party brawl, a beer robbery and a broken nose at a Domino’s pizza joint.
State Sen. Michael Baumgartner believes media coverage, and particularly The Spokesman-Review’s story Sunday, has overblown the incidents to attract readers.
“I think the way the story was laid out and carried out was sensationalist and a bit of a reach,” Baumgartner said. “Instead of some rampant criminal conspiracy, it was a handful of guys doing some dumb things and getting in fist fights over the summer, and I think they have the tools in place to deal with them.”
Baumgartner, an avowed Cougar fan who regularly attends the team’s practices, also expressed concern with the process that led to Robert Barber’s expulsion, claiming WSU’s student-conduct board isn’t qualified to make such decisions. Barber faces an assault charge for his role in the July 23 party brawl, which left two students hospitalized.
Other prominent figures have been critical of Leach, Moos and other university administrators. Chris Marr, a former WSU regent, state senator and Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board member, called for action Sunday in a Facebook post.
“As a former WSU regent, I am saddened that the university’s efforts to focus on world class academic excellence are in danger of falling victim to a ‘just win baby’ mentality driven by the bottom line of big money athletics,” Marr wrote. “I encourage the regents to seize leadership on this.”
Don Barbieri, WSU’s regent in Spokane, did not respond to messages seeking comment Monday. Other regents don’t appear to have spoken publicly about the controversy.
Jim Walden coached the Cougars for nine seasons, from 1978 to 1986, and tried to work with police to keep the names of his players out of the paper. He said that practice worked when he later coached at Iowa State University, but it didn’t work in Pullman.
When Walden was in Ames, Iowa, the local police dispatcher would call him in the middle of the night to let him know calls were coming in about his players, giving him a chance to arrive at the incident and break up a rowdy scene before the cops arrived. When Walden tried to work the same deal in Pullman, the cops refused.
While Walden felt The Spokesman-Review’s recent coverage has been fair, he said it can be particularly hard for WSU football players to stay on the right side of the law. Others, including Jenkins, the Pullman police
“I felt that my football players were in a little bit of a fish bowl, but I didn’t want to emphasize that too much because one of the things I sold – one of my biggest recruiting deals – was the privacy, the smallness of Washington State,” Walden said. “I’m on record as saying my football players were the most scrutinized football team in America by the police.”
Students and alumni have offered a wide range of reactions on social media. And at least a few faculty members are upset about Leach’s comments.
“He’s embarrassing us on ESPN, on a national stage,” said Matthew Sutton, a history professor. “To me it’s just outrageous.”
Sutton said he initially brushed aside negative comments about Leach when the controversial coach was hired in 2011. Leach had been fired from Texas Tech in 2009 for ordering that a player be locked in an equipment shed, and later a darkened office, during practice.
“I gave him the benefit of the doubt,” Sutton said. “I’ve since realized that all the criticism from my colleagues about him was correct.”
Sutton and veterinary researcher Michael Court said recent events erode WSU’s positive reputation.
“This is not uncommon among sports teams, football teams in particular,” Court said. “These guys are kids, and they need to be taught how to act. They’re told to go out there and be very aggressive, and then they get off the field and they have to turn that off. And I can see how that’s a problem.”
Staff writers Jacob Thorpe and Thomas Clouse contributed to this story.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.