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Monday, October 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Former NIC wrestling coach files tort claim seeking damages for ouster

North Idaho College’s Jamelle Jones jumps into the arms of his coach, Pat Whitcomb, after pinning Walker Clarke of Labette Community College in the 197-pound class Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011, at the Spokane Convention Center. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
North Idaho College’s Jamelle Jones jumps into the arms of his coach, Pat Whitcomb, after pinning Walker Clarke of Labette Community College in the 197-pound class Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011, at the Spokane Convention Center. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The former wrestling coach at North Idaho College has filed a tort claim seeking damages from the school for how it handled his dismissal earlier this year from one of the most successful programs in the country.

Pat Whitcomb and his attorney, James Piotrowski, filed the claim on June 17. The tort claim is a necessary step prior to filing a lawsuit. It alleges that the two-year school in Coeur d’Alene caused him to suffer from “a series of allegations of wrongful, corrupt and unlawful conduct.”

Since 1972, NIC has dominated the junior college wrestling ranks. The Cardinals won 14 national titles as a team along with 54 national individual titles. They also have produced 235 All-Americans, all of which are National Junior College Athletic Association records.

But the school fired Whitcomb in January without providing a detailed explanation. At the time, school spokeswoman Laura Rumpler said the firing had to do with “actions by personnel that do not align with our values” as part of an academics-integrity investigation.

But in the tort claim, Whitcomb alleges through his attorney that his firing constituted “unlawful discrimination, retaliation and misconduct.”

In a statement from the school, Rumpler responded to questions with an email.

“While I (or the college) cannot comment specifically on the possibility of pending litigation, NIC denies any wrongful conduct and is confident that any judicial process will afford clarity and bring the truth and facts to light,” Rumpler wrote.

Whitcomb, who wrestled his way to two national championships under former coach John Owen before succeeding Owen as coach in 1997, said the circumstances that ended in his firing started three years ago.

“Until 2016, he was treated as a valued member of the North Idaho College community, and especially the Athletic Department,” Piotrowski wrote. “That changed when Whitcomb incorrectly assumed that NIC administrators shared his commitment to complying with and fulfilling the laws of the state and federal government.”

That year, Whitcomb recruited Hassan Hawthorne, a double amputee wrestler from Alabama. The coach asked the school to accommodate Hawthorne’s special access needs but they refused, the claim states.

“In fact, the student had to be carried up and down the stairs by his teammates or crawl up and down the stairs,” Piotrowski wrote. Whitcomb’s opposition to the failure of the school to accommodate Hawthorne “resulted in multiple acts of retaliation against Whitcomb.”

The attorney said the school took over the revenue from Whitcomb’s wrestling camps, which had been used to upgrade facilities and provided income to Whitcomb.

The claim also alleges that NIC Athletic Director Al Williams put Whitcomb under a “corrective action plan” in 2017 and began criticizing the same fundraising efforts by Whitcomb that Williams had previously endorsed.

Along with several other listed reasons, the complaint also called Whitcomb’s firing a violation of law on several fronts.

“As a result of all of the foregoing, Whitcomb has suffered damages including the loss of his salary, benefits … and the loss of revenues from his business activities,” the claim states. “To date, Whitcomb’s damages are asserted to be in the range of $50,000 to $100,000.”

Williams, the athletic director, declined Friday to comment about the allegations made by Whitcomb’s attorney. Two weeks ago, NIC hired Michael Sebaaly, the former coach at Northwest Kansas Technical College, to take over the program.

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