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Testimony: Sandelin was 'shocked' by Miller decision

Former UMD women's hockey coach Shannon Miller (left) is accompanied by attorney Dan Siegel (center) as she walks up the stairs to the federal courthouse in Duluth for a pretrial conference Monday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

University of Minnesota Duluth men's hockey coach Scott Sandelin testified Thursday that he was "shocked" and "surprised" by the mid-season announcement that his colleague Shannon Miller would be let go as coach of the women's program.

Sandelin, whose tenure at the school had roughly paralleled Miller's, recalled being caught off guard by news reports of the December 2014 decision.

"It was big news," he said. "I was shocked a little bit, surprised at the timing of it. We were colleagues. It was the middle of the year. I was a little shocked."

Sandelin was one of five witnesses who testified on the third day of Miller's sex discrimination and retaliation trial against UMD in U.S. District Court in Duluth.

The men's hockey head coach since 2000, his career performance, salary and team resources have drawn significant comparisons to those of Miller over the course of the case.

Dan Siegel, an attorney for Miller, asked Sandelin to assess Miller's team at the time of her non-renewal.

"I think they were doing pretty well," he testified. "I was entrenched in my season, but we'd see each other around and I read the paper. I saw they were doing pretty well."

Miller claims that she received fewer resources and a lower salary than Sandelin at UMD, despite a better career performance, and that she was retaliated against for her complaints about gender disparities. Miller won five national championships in 16 seasons at UMD, but failed to make the NCAA tournament in each of her last four seasons.

UMD maintains that the decision to sever ties with Miller came as a result of declining competitive and academic success, roster instability and a significant cost-per-victory as the university faced a budgetary shortfall. The university's attorneys contend that the mid-season announcement — and its initial characterization only as a financial decision — came at Miller's insistence.

On cross-examination, defense attorney Katherine Swenson asked Sandelin about challenging years and job performance reviews.

Notably, after bringing the team to the Frozen Four in 2004, Sandelin accumulated four consecutive losing seasons — saying he was "nervous" about job security each year.

"Did the athletic director have to tell you that your job was on the line?" Swenson asked.

"No," Sandelin replied. "You hope that doesn't happen, and I'm glad it didn't, but you certainly expect that might happen if you have three, four years in a row."

Athletic director Josh Berlo, in his second day of testimony, said he believed Miller's performance issues were sufficiently expressed to her in the months before her non-renewal. He cited an April 2014 review giving her a "competent" rating and a subsequent meeting.

Berlo testified that he believed Miller failed to take responsibility for her recent slip in performance and "was blaming her staff and others."

"She told me they were going to get better," he added, "that they were going to return to being a dynasty."

Earlier in the day, Miller called an expert witness, Donna Lopiano, to testify about alleged disparities between the men's and women's hockey programs.

Lopiano is the former women's athletics director at the University of Texas at Austin and currently serves as president of the consulting firm Sports Management Resources.

"Sandelin had four consecutive losing seasons and obviously was not terminated, so that appears to me to be a double standard," she testified.

Lopiano said she believed UMD made efforts to hire top coaches for both programs, but said "from that point on, there are great differences in treatment." She testified that, in her opinion, the women's team did not receive equal resources in terms of athletic trainers, strength and conditioning, operations management and recruiting resources.

"This coach had to be successful with significantly fewer resources than her male counterpart," Lopiano told jurors.

In its defense, UMD cited a higher recruiting budget for the women's team and a more competitive market for men's coaches due to numerous junior and professional teams.

Lopiano, in turn, responded that budgets don't need to be mathematically equal — so long as men's and women's programs are being provided with equal opportunities — and that salaries for men's and women's coaches should be evened out over time.

Also testifying Thursday were Gina Kingsbury, an assistant coach under Miller in her final season, and Zoe Hickel, the team's senior captain that year.

Kingsbury, who is now working for Hockey Canada and the Calgary Inferno of the professional Canadian Women's Hockey League, said she got the impression during her one season on the staff that Miller "had a target on her back" and that "UMD wasn't always in her corner" when she advocated for the women's program.

"It certainly felt unfair," Kingsbury testified. "Our expectations to perform were equal, or to even do more than the men. It was a bit frustrating. Shannon fought hard to have this things evened out."

Hickel, who is now playing in the CWHL for China's Kunlun Red Star, said she turned down an offer from Harvard to go to UMD because she "wanted to play for the best coach in the world at the pinnacle for women's hockey."

She testified that the team was performing well — winning 11 of its last 12 games and being ranked sixth in the country after struggling against rivals Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota — when Miller's contract decision was made.

Hickel said the team was forced to play through that distraction for the remainder of the year, but still nearly made it into the eight-team NCAA tournament.

"I'm thankful she told us when she did," Hickel said. "We were all going to hear about it eventually. I felt respected as a member of the team. We were on an upswing, the way the momentum was going. It was — I'm just speechless."

The trial resumes Friday morning, with Berlo back on the stand for a third day of testimony.

The jury, which consists of eight women and four men, is likely to get the case next Wednesday, and must reach a unanimous decision.

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