In terms of sheer entertainment, it was one of the busiest weeks the little Montana lumbering town of Missoula had known since 1863, when a band of visiting vigilantes strung up four road agents. First there was Country Singer Buck Owens, who strummed into town with his red, white and blue guitar for a hee-hawin' one-night stand. Next came New York's Governor Nelson Rockefeller to deliver a ponderous lecture on international relations. Then there was Heavyweight Ron Lyle, making his first fistic appearance since Jerry Quarry cooled him two months ago. All good, clean fun. But the most interesting piece of drama in Missoula last week was the gnarled and nasty little morality play that unfolded in Federal Court. It might have been titled The Football Coach's Fiscal Nightmare, or: He Who Gets Slapped.
Foremost among the dramatis personae was H. Jack Swarthout, athletic director and head football coach at the University of Montana. Swarthout and his key assistant, William D. Betcher, were on trial under a Federal Grand Jury indictment that charged them with criminal and conspiratorial misuse of government scholarship funds—a figure the prosecution toted up at $227,000. According to the counts, Swarthout and associates "did agree, combine, confederate, and conspire to hamper, hinder, frustrate, defeat, impair, and impede by craft, trickery, deceit and dishonest and unlawful means, including the falsification of material facts, the lawful and legitimate functions, operations, and purposes of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in...its student financial aid program." In short, Swarthout had been accused of playing a game many successful football coaches might like to play: using government money to build strong teams.
The case was fraught with ominous implications, not just for Swarthout and his Montana Grizzlies, or for the eight-member Big Sky Conference to which the school belongs, but for semi-smalltime athletics throughout the nation. Unlike such giants as UCLA or Ohio State or Texas—which can earn enough money through gate receipts and television contracts to construct their engines of athletic endeavor and keep them running interminably—most colleges must rely on contributions from booster clubs, alumni donations and Federal scholarship funds to recruit and educate their athletes. One of the principal supports of such mini-teams is the so-called "College Work-Study Program," funded by HEW. Under it, a needy student can work up to 15 hours a week at such disparate tasks as tutoring laggards in Classical Greek or simply unpacking shoulder pads, in either case earning up to $189 a month to defray the high cost of learning. Traditionally, in the age-old conflict between athlete and egghead, it has been argued that serious students really work for their scholarship money, while jocks get paid for playing—or, worse, get paid for nonexistent jobs. It was precisely this latter accusation that lay at the heart of last week's trial.
The Federal attorneys sought to prove that Swarthout and some of his staff had recruited athletes with promises of "full ride" scholarships, then had shifted them to the work-study program, and finally had illegally banked the checks earned by the jocks—at meaningless or nonexistent jobs—as repayment for money advanced to the athletes for tuition, room and board. Reduced to non-courtroom language, here is how the system worked during the period in question. The athletic department "loaned" the recruit enough money to cover tuition, room and board. Next, he was enrolled in the work-study program and assigned a job. It may have been something as simple as hauling tackling dummies from the equipment room to the practice field, or something a bit more complex, like helping the college recruit high school hotshots.
The student might work as many as the 15 hours a week, 60 or so a month—or he might work a lot less. At the end of the pay period, a time card was submitted to the university business office. The recruit received a check, and then endorsed it over to the athletic department—which in turn deducted that amount from the jock's original "loan." The money was then deposited in the athletic department's account. Despite fluctuations in work time, Swarthout made it a practice to average out the total monthly amounts on his payroll, usually to the upper limit of 63 hours. This system, Swarthout said, "banked" the student's unused time against hours he would presumably work on future jobs.
Jobs aside, what really hurt, as far as Grizzly boosters were concerned, was the fact that Jack Swarthout had been their first winning coach in almost 20 years. Swarthout, an assistant to Darrell Royal at both Washington and Texas in years past, came to Montana in 1967 and promptly produced a 7-3 record. In 1969 and 1970 the Grizzlies had perfect seasons of 10-0, only to lose in the Camellia Bowl at Sacramento to hated North Dakota State. Still, that was good enough for Montana fans, who were tired of seeing their Grizzly serve as the perennial bearskin doormat.
By contrast, the 'school's 8,000 students were largely apathetic to college football, and at times downright antagonistic. The UM campus, on the edge of downtown Missoula (pop. 50,000), is a sprawling mélange of red brick and towering pine trees, surrounded by some of the most magnificent and climbable mountains in North America. Montana students are doers, not watchers. Even during the best of Swarthout's seasons, the school's 12,500-seat stadium was seldom filled to capacity. Last year the student government voted a sharp decrease in tuition fees diverted to sports.
The Federal charges were set off by a benchwarming football player named Bob Doornek, from Wolf Point, Mont., who wandered into the university business offices on Dec. 1, 1971, puzzled at why he should have received a $103.98 work-study check when he'd only put in three hours the previous month, parking cars. UM Controller William J. Hannon reported the matter to University President Robert Pantzer, who himself had already initiated an internal audit of athletic department finances. Hannon interpreted the system of "banking" hours as a violation of Federal work-study rules, and when the policy continued he grew fearful of a government audit. On Jan. 15, 1972 Hannon blew the whistle. A team of HEW auditors was on campus, and Hannon went to them with details of the athletic department's work-study setup.
"There was a certain amount of self-preservation involved," Hannon admits, "but basically I felt it just wasn't right. Don't get me wrong, though, I think athletics are great at any level. Fine discipline. But we have to find a better, a more realistic way of funding college sports than using Federal bucks."
Whatever Hannon's thoughts on the subject, he may very well not be airing them at Montana after June 30; he has been informed that his services are no longer needed, and although he intends to fight the ouster he is clearly persona non grata to the administration, though a minor hero to some students. "There's an old saying up here," he notes bitterly. "Montana is a state of high mountains and low politics."
Hannon's tip-off brought a clutch of FBI agents to the campus, interviewing tongue-tied athletes and indignant coaches, and on July 19, 1972 the grand jury indictment appeared. The trial itself did not commence until March 19 of this year—after eight months of agony for the accused and ecstasy for their detractors. With the aid of donations from Grizzly boosters, Swarthout hired Montana's top defense attorney, Charles F. (Timer) Moses, of Billings. Moses, 48, is a tall, white-haired former Montana basketball star whose renown in murder cases hovers over the Mountain West like the ubiquitous golden eagle.
During the four weeks of testimony—which alternated between torpor and high dudgeon, leavened only by the dry wit of U.S. District Judge Ray McNichols—Timer Moses got the indictment counts reduced from 32 to 18, which left the basic conspiracy charge and 17 counts of questionable work-study pay periods. If convicted on every one of the original counts, his clients conceivably could have spent the next 160 football seasons in the slammer. Swarthout, 53, a serious and somewhat unimaginative man with the traditional coach's flattop haircut and a massive capacity for self-righteousness, could not quite believe it was happening.
"When the FBI agents first showed up I thought it was all a big mistake," he said. "Athletics have so much value, not only to the university and the community but to the U.S. itself. Football particularly. It hones the competitive instincts, it promotes discipline and cooperation. And here were these guys—G-men—treating me like I was some criminal. Still, I wanted to be honest with them; I've always been honest. Sure, we may have made some mistakes in our work-study accounting, but there was no intent to defraud Uncle Sam. I called my boys together, my players, and told them to be perfectly open with the FBI agents, to tell them everything the way it happened. A couple of them, maybe, were vindictive, but they're just boys, and I want to help them."
The unkindest cut of all, in Swarthout's opinion, came from a former Grizzly quarterback, Jay William Baumberger, who claimed he had been paid for virtually no work at all. Baumberger, a passing quarterback, found himself frustrated with Swarthout's Wishbone offense. After the 1971 season, Swarthout had helped Baumberger to get a transfer to North Dakota State, and when Baumberger showed up at the trial as a key prosecution witness, Swarthout felt hurt but still mustered a sincere semblance of understanding. "You gotta help the kid," he said during one lunch break last week. "He felt he should play more. He said some things during the trial that weren't true but, heck, I might have done the same thing at his age and in his position."
"You're too kind," said co-defendant Betcher, a husky swinger who is not afraid to contradict his boss. "Baumberger is a selfish, inconsiderate kid. I recruited him myself, and he's basically my mistake. But what he said about us—you shouldn't be that gentle on him."
There was little doubt in the minds of observers that Jack Swarthout was suffering during all of this—suffering the sweats of the man who has always felt he was doing what his peers considered to be the right thing, but who suddenly awakens to find himself accused of being out of step.
It is said around Missoula that by Old West tradition, a Montana jury assumes the defendant to be innocent, period—unless he is an Indian. After near a month of palaver, the jury retired to deliberate and emerged last Saturday afternoon with a hearty "not guilty." Swarthout and Betcher brightened with relief. "Golly," said Swarthout. "I'm glad that's over. Now I can start thinking about spring practice." But in the wake of the verdict other coaches across the land would doubtless be thinking about more than just Z's and O's. Indeed, Swarthout's method of athletic finance may ultimately become even more famous than his mentor Royal's Wishbone T—unless, of course, the Federal Government decides that it does not wish to continue as an unconscious contributor to football success and rewrites the work-study program accordingly.
Even before the outcome was decided, however, UM President Pantzer voiced strong doubts about the basic issue: Can small-time football survive in a climate increasingly dominated by escalating costs and student apathy? "Perhaps the sport of two-platoon football ought to be ended in schools of this size," he said. "The kids who don't feel like mountain climbing can always watch the NCAA Game of the Week instead. Football is far too costly for us. Our conference is dreary, little known, small, not very exciting. If we could play all of our schedule within the conference and fix the costs of recruiting and scholarships at a reasonable level, we could continue. Alternatively, the state legislature must fund us or else we get out. Football is really the most frustrating problem of all on the campus."