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UMD chancellor: Decision to not renew Miller's contract was not entirely about money

The University of Minnesota Duluth's decision to not renew the contract of women's hockey coach Shannon Miller was not entirely driven by money, Chancellor Lendley Black said Thursday night.

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Shannon Miller, head coach of the Minnesota Duluth women's hockey team (left) and UMD Chancellor Lendley Black (right) (News Tribune file photos)

The University of Minnesota Duluth’s decision to not renew the contract of women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller was not entirely driven by money, Chancellor Lendley Black said Thursday night.
“Finances were a big part of this, but there were other considerations as well,” Black told the News Tribune in his first public comments since news of the decision on Miller’s contract broke last month. He declined to say what other factors played into the decision, saying it was “inappropriate” to discuss them because Miller is a current employee.
Communicating the decision could have been done in a better, less narrow way, Black said. He acknowledged the situation has turned into an “unfortunate” “he said/she said” scenario, “but we did what we thought was best at the time.”
When UMD first announced that the contracts of Miller and her assistant coaches would not be renewed after the conclusion of her 16th season, its athletic director Josh Berlo was quoted in the official news release saying the move was a “financially driven decision.” UMD is facing a $6 million budget shortfall. In the same statement, Berlo praised Miller for establishing a winning program and sustaining a national championship tradition; Miller has led the Bulldogs to five national titles. Berlo echoed those statements in subsequent interviews with the News Tribune.
With personnel issues, Black said, the university aims to keep public announcements as simple as possible, and the decision to focus on finances was out of respect for Miller and the program.
“Given the way this has been framed now, we just wanted you to know we thought about this very carefully,” said Black, who has led the university since 2010. “We … are confident that it was the right thing to do and (it’s) a decision we are sticking to.”
Earlier Thursday, Miller responded to a quote from a University of Minnesota official that was included in an article posted online Wednesday. It also suggested money was not the only issue at play in the decision to not renew her contract.
Chuck Tombarge, the University of Minnesota’s chief public relations officer and deputy chief of staff to the president, told Inside Higher Ed that Miller’s salary of $207,000 this season was a key consideration in the contract decision, but that there were other factors. Tombarge was quoted saying “the direction of the program” was a factor and that “a pay cut alone would not have addressed all of the considerations.” He confirmed those statements to the News Tribune, saying “it was a broad decision.”
Miller began her weekly press conference at Amsoil Arena addressing the comments made by Tombarge in the story, saying they “disturbed” her.
“I want to be clear and I want to be honest, in all the meetings I had with Josh (Berlo), and we talked about it five different times, the only reason I was given is financial. Strictly financial,” Miller said. “Those were his words over and over again. It’s disappointing for me to read somebody from the institution, or a spokesperson, saying … we weren’t happy with the direction of the program. That’s disturbing to say the least that a spokesperson would say something like that and Josh wouldn’t have the courage to have that conversation with me if it is a concern.
“What’s even more disturbing is if you don’t like the direction the program was going… It’s back on its way up to being a dynasty,” Miller said. “So when I read that, I thought, ‘What does that mean?’ We don’t have resources that other schools have. We have slipped a little bit because of resources, not coaching. We arguably have one of the greatest coaching staffs in the country and people know that. I thought to myself, ‘You don’t like the direction the program is going?’ Well we are back on our way up. When we got fired, we had won 12 of our last 13 games and were ranked No. 6 in the country.”
Miller said she has hired two attorneys to represent her. She said a team of attorneys and others is being created, but she wouldn’t elaborate further.
Black wouldn’t comment on whether UMD was preparing for a potential lawsuit from Miller.
“Obviously we have different perspectives on what occurred, and what the situation is,” he said.
As for Miller, she’s leaving plans to her attorneys.
“(They) are the ones who are talking to other people. It’s not me,” Miller said. “They are creating a team of people and we are getting ready to do whatever it is we need to do. For me, I have to focus on keeping my staff together, keeping our team together, blocking out distractions and being focused.”

PLAYERS MET WITH CHANCELLOR

Black met with the entire Bulldogs women’s hockey team before Christmas. Senior captain Zoe Hickel said Thursday it was a positive meeting.
“Our team just wanted him to know from us - not through the media, not through rumors, but from us - that we love our coaching staff and it did have a huge impact on all of us, just so he knows how much we care about each other and our staff,” Hickel said.
Senior alternate captain Jenna McParland said a lot was left unanswered and some team members didn’t get the answers they were looking for.
“It was very disappointing that the whole truth isn’t coming out,” McParland said. “We asked why and they said it was financial problems. We asked why can’t you just give that same salary of what you’re going to give the new coach to Shannon Miller and he said that option is not on the table.”
Black said the students were assured support through the transition, but acknowledged there were some questions he couldn’t answer. As to whether the cutting of the women’s hockey program was under consideration, he said “absolutely not.”
Miller’s Bulldog teams have not made the NCAA tournament since 2011, but UMD did win 12 of its final 13 games in 2014 - with one win coming via a shootout - and is ranked No. 7 in the latest USCHO.com poll. The Bulldogs (12-5-3 overall, 7-5-2 in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association) sit third in the WCHA behind Minnesota and first-place Wisconsin. The Bulldogs begin the second half of their schedule this weekend against Bemidji State at 3:07 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at Amsoil Arena.

The full article by Inside Higher Ed can be read here .

Matt Wellens can be reached at mwellens@duluthnews.com . Jana Hollingsworth can be reached at jhollingsworth@duluthnews.com .

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