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Trouble in Paradise (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday August 7, 2007 11:00AM; Updated: Tuesday August 7, 2007 3:39PM
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Gamble (above) launched an independent probe, while Fields replaced the football coach, citing
Gamble (above) launched an independent probe, while Fields replaced the football coach, citing "a crisis in leadership."
Rich Frishman/SI

Under coach Mike Kramer, who arrived before the 2000 season and led the Bobcats to three Big Sky Conference football titles over the next seven years, an average of roughly 35 players per team came from California, Florida or a major metropolitan area in another state, such as Denver. Division I-AA teams are limited to 63 scholarships, so in some years Kramer awarded more than half of his to athletes from those places. Kramer also had up to 20 transfers on a team, which some coaches liken to playing with fire: If a player didn't go to a four-year college out of high school, or did go but wanted to leave a year or two later, it's often because of bad behavior or poor academics. The basketball team under coach Mick Durham was not as reliant on transfers but went from having only two or three players from faraway states to eight (on rosters of 14) in 2005-06 and '06-07. (Brad Huse replaced the retired Durham before the last season.)

Some minority athletes recruited from urban areas have thrived in Bozeman. John Taylor, from Denver, graduated in 2002 and went on to play two years as an NFL defensive end before returning with his wife. He is now an assistant in student-athlete services at the school. But it has also been common for an out-of-state player to be kicked out of school or leave a team well before his eligibility expired. The most recent six-year graduation rate, for the freshman class that entered in 1999-2000, was a mere 21% for football and 33% for basketball. Under the new NCAA benchmarks known as the Graduation Success Rate (GSR) and the Academic Progress Rate (APR), there is no breakdown based solely on transfers. But in 2003, the last year such figures were available, 2% of Montana State's football transfers and 13% of its basketball transfers graduated. The rate for black transfers in both sports: 0%.

One transfer who failed to graduate was Branden Miller, who arrived in Bozeman in 2004. He had gone to high school in Milwaukee (earning all-area honors as a 6' 1" point guard) and then to Colby (Kans.) Community College. The bounty of outdoor activities in Gallatin County -- skiing, fly-fishing, rafting -- that lure telecommuters from Silicon Valley and Seattle held no appeal to Miller. He told a reporter from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that other than the occasional dinner with his teammates he mostly stayed in his apartment and played Grand Theft Auto on his PlayStation2.

In December 2005, in the middle of his second season, Miller, a starter averaging 12.2 points, was ruled academically ineligible and left the team. The following April he entered his girlfriend's apartment in Bozeman and kicked in her bedroom door because he suspected that she had been unfaithful. He shattered a mirror, broke a cellphone and punched a wall. Miller told a judge at the time of his arrest on charges of partner assault and criminal mischief that when he graduated with his degree in sociology in May 2006, he would move back to Mississippi; he was born in Starkville. (Miller eventually pleaded no contest and was credited with time served.)

But Miller neither finished school nor left town, and on an evening in late June of last year he got a call from John LeBrum, a former Montana State defensive back, who wanted a ride to a Perkins restaurant. Miller picked him up, and when the two men, then both 22, got to Perkins, they spotted the black Chevrolet Tahoe of Jason Wright, 26, a restaurant worker and coach of a local American Legion baseball team, who police would later learn was also dealing cocaine. According to statements Miller would eventually make to the police, when Wright emerged from the restaurant, the 5' 11", 175-pound LeBrum, who was wearing gloves, rushed toward him and punched him in the head, knocking him to the ground.

LeBrum, a Fort Lauderdale native who was suspended from the Montana State team in the fall of his first season (2003) and dismissed the following spring for undisclosed disciplinary reasons, had previously shown the damage he could do with a single blow. In October 2005 he punched a player who blocked his shot during a pickup basketball game on campus, shattering the man's jaw. LeBrum was convicted of felony criminal endangerment, handed a six-year deferred prison term and ordered to pay nearly $35,000 in restitution.

Miller told police that LeBrum loaded Wright into Wright's Tahoe and drove west on Huffine Lane. An unnamed witness told police that around 3 a.m. an agitated and scared Caucasian with blondish hair who the witness was "100 percent" certain was Wright tried to flag down the witness's car on a street off of Huffine. The following afternoon Wright's body was found in a nearby field. An examination found several blunt-force-trauma injuries and multiple gunshot wounds.

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