- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
On a friday a few months ago 23-year-old Ashley Kroon wrote a letter to the editor of the Bozeman ( Mont.) Daily Chronicle. She had been writing letters to the newspaper since high school--over the closing of a youth center, or urging people to vote--and she knows how to make her point. She banged this one out in 30 minutes on her lunch break. � Kroon, a bookkeeper for a construction company, has short, blonde hair and hazel eyes behind stylish turquoise glasses. She was born and raised in Gallatin County and cherishes her life there. When she sat down to write, Kroon was angry, like many who live in Bozeman. "How far are we, as individuals and most importantly as a community, going to let this deplorable behavior on behalf of the athletic department at MSU go?" Kroon wrote. "Shame on us as a community for not being more outspoken, for not holding the school accountable long ago."
Kroon's missive followed the most recent alleged transgression by a former or current Montana State athlete. On May�15 federal investigators arrested onetime star wide receiver Rick Gatewood, 24, from Richmond, Calif., and his brother Randy, accusing them and a second former Bobcats football player (unnamed in the indictment) of running a drug ring that had imported some 11 pounds of cocaine to Montana over a 23-month period. Gatewood allegedly used scholarship money to front the cash to start his operation in Bozeman. Last winter two other former football players and one current one were also arrested for dealing drugs, including cocaine. (One of them pleaded guilty to two counts of marijuana possession; the other two cases are pending.) Six months before that, a former football player and a former basketball player from Montana State allegedly murdered a local man who police believe was a cocaine dealer.
While Montana State athletes had been in trouble with the law before--in 2005 a former Bobcats point guard served a 90-day jail term for raping a 15-year-old girl; in '04 an assistant football coach was sentenced to four years in jail for dealing methamphetamines--the number and severity of the latest misdeeds were, to Bozemanites, beyond comprehension. The accused have had two things in common: All are African-American and from faraway states such as California and Florida. As Kroon and others see it, the university's athletic department has been importing crime to an idyllic mountain setting. The website Deadspin.com joked that Montana State was bringing Tony Montanas to Montana. Wrote Kroon, "They're destroying the quality of life and general peace of mind in my hometown."
Bozeman (pop. 35,061) sits in a wide swatch of rangeland surrounded by the Absaroka and Gallatin mountain ranges. It often lands on Top 10 lists like America's Dreamtowns (No. 1 by Bizjournals in 2006) or Most Active Towns (Men's Journal, 2006). Much of the quality of life can be attributed to Montana State, whose 12,338 students and 1,067 faculty members give the town just outside the aptly named Paradise Valley an intellectual vibrancy to match its beauty.
On Main Street an ancient Army-Navy store sits a block from Plonk, a four-year-old wine bar that serves Argentine Malbec while a deejay plays Thievery Corporation. Still, a hometown vibe prevails. There are no Starbucks in Bozeman, and if a franchise arrived, residents would likely shrug and continue to support the Rocky Mountain Roasting Company, opened by a local couple 15 years ago.
Accounts vary as to when Montana State began bringing troubled out-of-state athletes to this setting. One football player who attended the Division I-AA school in the early 1990s says the practice started before he got there. "There were players who would brag how they could have gone to a Pac-10 school if they had had the grades, which made you wonder how they got into Montana State," says the player, who asked not to be named. "And everyone on the team knew who the guys were who had been in trouble with the law."
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.)