Friday, October 25, 2013
YAKIMA — As Jack Bishop prepared for his retirement as Central Washington University’s athletic director last May, he wrote a letter to all the Wildcats’ coaches thanking them for their hard work. He was heard by a department member to wonder aloud if there would be room in football coach Blaine Bennett’s personnel file for his document.
Another person asked Bishop if he was looking forward to retirement. Bishop said he was, but shook his head and added, “Right now my football coach is driving me nuts.”
Meaning Bennett’s problems at CWU existed before Dennis Francois succeeded Bishop last June and fired Bennett less than two months later for purchasing alcohol with public funds.
While Francois and other university officials have declined to explain the termination of their coach five days before the start of preseason camp, copies of emails and other documents secured by the Yakima Herald-Republic through a state Public Records Act request indicated that Bennett, a Walla Walla native, had broken CWU rules and violated university procedure, among other issues, during his five-year tenure.
Prior to the alcohol issue, which took place at a function for high school coaches attending one of Central’s summer camps, Bennett had been cited by Bishop for what the athletic director described as “questionable behavior and misuse of your position at this institution.”
Four years earlier, Bennett also had requested that university policy be changed to allow him to fire longtime Central assistant John Picha, who was named interim head coach on Bennett’s dismissal. Bishop made clear that head coaches could recommend changes regarding their staffs, but that responsibility for hiring and firing remained that of the athletic director.
Bishop refused to dismiss Picha, who is generally regarded as among the department’s most respected and admired figures.
Last summer, Bennett was informed by Francois that his prior conduct had been reviewed and that further negative incidents could result in his termination. Later documents obtained by the Herald-Republic indicate that Bennett was found by the university to have used public funds in violation of state policy at the football camp event.
A July 25 letter from Francois informed Bennett that he had been “in violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Article 12, Section 12.1, which states: ‘Faculty recognize their obligation to follow general principles of professional ethics.’”
A July 30 letter notified Bennett that Francois was considering disciplinary action “up to and including dismissal from your position as head football coach in the department of athletics.”
An Aug. 7 letter, also from Francois, notified Bennett of his termination. The move, including Picha’s promotion to interim head coach, was announced two days later.
Bennett, whose teams won four GNAC championships and went 41-16 overall, has issued a statement (see Page 3B) in response to impending stories by the Herald-Republic, Ellensburg Daily Record and the CWU campus newspaper, The Observer, and requested an opportunity to respond after the articles were published.
The coach was hired in January of 2008 to replace Beau Baldwin, a former Central player and assistant coach, who had taken the head job at Eastern Washington. Bennett’s first team went 10-2 with an NCAA Division II playoff berth, and his second was 12-1 and advanced to the postseason quarterfinals.
During the 2010 season, in which the Wildcats finished 8-3 and did not qualify for the playoffs, Bennett received a letter from Bishop in which he was criticized for multiple missteps.
They included what Bishop described as circumventing state rules on bidding for uniforms; securing a scholarship for Bennett’s oldest son “that exceeded those being provided to other students with similar skills,” and sending an email to “a large number of people that appeared to imply that you were wanting the administration to allow you to hire your father (Blaine “Shorty” Bennett, a former high school and college coach) during this summer’s football camp even though you had been told by me that this was not allowed.”
Bishop concluded his letter by stating that further behavior of such nature would result in disciplinary action “up to and including dismissal from your position.”
In March of 2012, Bishop submitted a letter of expectations for Bennett that stated, among other things:
• That transfer recruits should perform better academically.
• That family members should neither be hired nor awarded scholarships or other waivers.
• Acceptance that the athletic director would remain the ultimate authority on hiring and firing staff members.
• Oversee an increase in the football program’s graduation rate.
• Responsibly manage the football program’s budget.
Finally, the matter of alcohol and how it was paid for at social events for the prep coaches attending CWU’s camps last summer, was Bennett’s undoing.
It came after Francois met with Bret Stray, a former Central football player and owner of Spurs Bar and Grill where such functions had been held. Stray confirmed, according to a letter from Francois to Bennett, that some of the alcohol costs had been shifted to CWU through a renegotiated agreement with Bennett that raised the price for coaches at the Sevent from $10 each to $12.
The coach’s salary cap for the camp, Francois indicated, had been increased from $50,000 to $54,000 to cover such costs.
“Therefore,” Francois wrote, “state funds were knowingly being used to assist in paying for alcohol costs, thus reducing your personal financial liability for an expense that your cap was purposefully lifted to cover.”
On his dismissal, Bennett was paid $119.425.82 which Central stated was the remainder owed under his contract, plus COBRA health insurance coverage.
Picha, meanwhile, has helped lead the Wildcats to a 5-2 season record and a share of first place with Azusa Pacific, which Central hosts Saturday. He recently told the Herald-Republic that he has not decided whether to pursue the head coaching job on a permanent basis.
Francois had earlier said a national search would be executed with the hope of having a permanent coach hired by December.