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Attorneys press Black, Berlo on Miller decision

Shannon Miller reacts to the news that her contract is not being renewed in 2014. (News Tribune file photo)

Attorneys for Shannon Miller sought to show jurors Wednesday that the University of Minnesota Duluth shifted its rationale for letting go of its longtime women's hockey coach only after facing significant public backlash.

Questioning Chancellor Lendley Black and athletic director Josh Berlo on the second day of the federal discrimination trial, the attorneys focused heavily on the explanations given to Miller for her 2014 non-renewal.

Miller secretly recorded the Dec. 9 meeting at which Black and Berlo informed her she would not be retained — and while the jury has yet to hear that recording, it weighed heavily in the testimony.

During the hourlong meeting, Berlo reportedly told Miller that "I don't think anyone is questioning how we're doing, coach," but, "we have to make some really tough decisions about where we are going financially in athletics. And that is probably the biggest piece of this."

Asked by Miller if the decision was related to finances, the athletic director told her: "We've tried to explain that it's financial. By and large it's financial."

Miller attorney Dan Siegel asked Berlo if he or Black ever expressed at the meeting that Miller's performance was a factor.

"We felt it was more appropriate at that time to stick to finances," Berlo testified in response. "It was a tough decision at a tough time. It was a business decision in the best interests of our institution."

He later added: "At (that) time, the decision was final. We felt there was no reason to put salt in the wound."

The discussion also turned to a Dec. 14 follow-up meeting Miller had with Berlo, on the eve of the public announcement. At that meeting, Siegel said, Berlo told Miller that "you've got my total support there. We lost a good coach because of dollars. It's embarrassing for us."

Berlo said he did not recall making that specific comment. But he added that his discussions with Miller were aimed at "moving forward" and that he did not want to relitigate the decision.

"I felt like Ms. Miller had great success at UMD, but based on an analysis of finances and academics, it was time to move on," Berlo testified.

Additionally, Berlo said a performance review from the past spring gave Miller only a "competent" rating, which he said should have been an indication that her performance needed to improve.

Miller, who guided the Bulldogs to five national championships in 16 seasons, is suing UMD for sex discrimination and retaliation. The trial in U.S. District Court in Duluth started on Tuesday and is expected to continue into next week.

Earlier Wednesday morning, Black concluded what amounted to about 4½ hours of testimony over two days. He also was pressed about performance issues not being explained to Miller at the Dec. 9 meeting.

"It's not a good time to get into details," Black testified. "There's a lot of emotion, it's difficult for them to hear what you have to say. Mr. Berlo and I felt we needed to keep the focus on financial considerations, and not get into any other details."

Donald Chance Mark Jr., another attorney for Miller, turned the discussion to one of the factors subsequently cited by UMD in its decision: a financial analysis prepared by Berlo showing that Miller was paid about three times as much per win as the women's hockey head coaches at Minnesota and Wisconsin during her final four seasons.

Mark told Black that UMD men's hockey coach Scott Sandelin earned nearly $2,200 more than Miller for each of his wins during the same period, in which he accumulated a similar record.

Mark asked the chancellor how Miller, who had won about 70 percent of games in her career, received the non-renewal in December 2014 while Sandelin, with a near-even career record, received an extension in March 2016, bringing him pay raises and job security through 2021.

"He was doing very well," Black testified. "He had won the national championship in 2011. He did have some down years, but he was bouncing back. The team was performing very well academically, he was an all-around good coach and things were on the upswing."

He added that the women's program was facing challenges near the end of Miller's tenure, failing to quality for the NCAA tournament in each of her last four seasons.

"With coaches, it depends on what they're doing now and in recent years," Black said. "While I respect the past, the focus is on what they're doing now as a predictor of the future."

Berlo and Black were asked to draw comparisons between Miller's tenure and that of new head coach Maura Crowell. In her three years at the helm, the women's team returned to the NCAA tournament in 2017, but finished with losing records in each of the other two seasons.

Both the chancellor and athletic director spoke highly of Crowell.

"She has had a great start with us," Black testified. "She was named coach of the year last year. She is recruiting well, her team is doing well academically and she is very engaged in the community."

Two other witnesses were called by Miller's attorneys Wednesday.

Herb Lewis, a UMD donor and a member of the chancellor's advisory committee, testified about conversations he had with Black and Berlo. He said he was given no indication before the December 2014 decision that Miller would be let go, and he said he was only told later that it was that it was a "business decision."

John Gilbert, a longtime Minnesota hockey reporter, testified about Berlo's appearance on his Duluth radio show a day after the decision was announced. Gilbert, who compared Miller to legendary coach Herb Brooks, said he was "baffled" by the decision but that Berlo did not offer any reason other than finances.

The university began its questioning of Berlo shortly before day's end. He will resume testimony Thursday morning.

The jury consists of eight women and four men.

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