Spartan Accommodations: Winning Football Masks San Jose State Troubles
On Thursday, San Jose State University is slated to take on Ball State in the Arizona Bowl, carrying into the game a 7-0 record, a Mountain West Conference title and one of the feel-good turnaround stories of the odd pandemic college football season. A program that has constantly struggled to even meet the NCAA’s minimum home football attendance requirements is finally fielding a team that could have overfilled its 30,000-seat stadium—if only circumstances allowed.
“This is the most San Jose State kind of year you could possibly have,” says James Brent, a political science professor at SJSU who led a faculty campaign, in the early aughts, to rid the university of football. “The one year they are riding high is the one year you can’t go to the games or socialize or energize the students. It’s always going to have asterisks.”
Yet the asterisks surrounding this season are attached to far more numerous—and severe—issues than a lost opportunity for San Jose State to capitalize on a boon to school spirit. The program, having achieved one of its greatest football campaigns ever, at least on paper, is simultaneously caught up in financial distress, workplace tumult, bitter staff departures, athlete complaints, and resurfaced allegations that the athletic department turned a blind eye to repeated acts of sexual misconduct by its top athletics trainer. As Sportico has learned, the Spartans have also drawn the attention of the Department of Justice, whose Civil Rights Division has spent months probing the school’s handling of Title IX complaints.
Centered in the DOJ’s bullseye, according to multiple sources who have spoken with federal investigators, is the university’s response to accusations, first reported by USA Today, that SJSU’s longtime director of sports medicine, Scott Shaw, had inappropriately touched the breasts and genitals of at least 17 swimmers while performing medical evaluations and treatments more than a decade ago.
In declining to comment specifically on an ongoing investigation, Kenneth Mashinchi, a school spokesman, said in an email: “SJSU Athletics continues to create an equitable and safe environment that promotes the health and wellness of all our student-athletes.”
Kirsten Trammel, a former swimmer and a Shaw accuser, told Sportico that she was interviewed by the DOJ in October. A federal prosecutor involved in the probe declined to comment when reached by phone last week and referred questions to DOJ’s press office, which did not respond to an email inquiry.
Meanwhile, the California State University system’s Title IX office is covering similar ground with its own investigation. Trammel said she and other potential witnesses were notified by the CSU system that it had set Thursday as the extended deadline for them to provide any additional information.
Since USA Today published its story about Shaw in April, Trammel says that she and other Shaw accusers have been in conversations with attorneys—including Rachael Denhollander, the witness against Larry Nassar who is now a victim’s rights lawyer—to weigh their legal options, including whether to file suit against the university.
“I think it is fair to say we are all in a place of wanting to create a positive change in the university and make sure what happened years ago doesn’t continue to happen,” Trammel says.
Asked how she reconciles her experiences as a former SJSU athlete with the alumna’s pride over the Spartan football team’s season, Trammel says, “It shows the level of complexity that has been forming in college sports.”
For San Jose State, this complexity wasn’t generated overnight. It’s the result of a struggling college sports program spending decades chasing athletic success and riches but never quite being able to grasp glory—or, on the rare occasions when it has, prevent it from returning to the doldrums.
To San Jose State fans who have grown accustomed to a pattern of fleeting achievement followed by prolonged disillusionment, the current success of Spartans football might suggest a definitive breakthrough. Indeed, instead of immediately bolting for greener Power Five pastures, as many of his predecessors have done, SJSU head coach Brent Brennan last week signed a contract extension through 2023.
The previous Saturday, SJSU defeated Boise State, the beau idéal of mid-major college football success, to claim its first conference championship in 29 years. Because of COVID-related restrictions in California, a game that would have otherwise been played in San Jose was staged in an empty stadium in Las Vegas. But while the tableau may have been lacking, the matchup itself was almost allegorical.
Many programs in the non-power conferences have come to look upon Boise State’s modern feat of upward mobility as reason to keep their own chase going. San Jose State took it a step further in 2012, hiring as its AD Gene Bleymaier, the man who presided over Boise’s mid-2000s Smurf Turf triumph, highlighted by a memorable 2007 Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma. But Bleymaier’s tenure in San Jose proved a steep comedown. After four years, he was removed from the job in 2017—but not before he hired Brennan, who would go on to oversee three losing, albeit improving, seasons until this year. Bleymaier was replaced by Marie Tuite, who had worked as a senior SJSU athletic administrator since 2010. In landing the top job, Tuite became the Spartans first female athletic director in history and one of just a few dozen women leading Division I athletic departments.
Powers that be
The paradoxical state of the program now finds two competing portrayals of its current leader.
One view depicts an experienced top-level manager who has created an environment for football to thrive. In October, at Tuite’s direction, the cash-strapped Spartans temporarily relocated the football team to Humboldt State, at a reported six-figure cost, in order to circumvent local pandemic-related restrictions on outdoor gatherings.
“She personally willed it,” says former SJSU coach Mike MacIntyre, who had led the Spartans to their last winning season, in 2012, before bolting for the head coaching job at Colorado. “Any other AD might have said, ‘We will sit out this year.’ She deserves so much credit.”
SJSU’s former athletic director Tom Bowen, who before he moved on to Memphis was responsible for hiring both MacIntyre and Tuite to the school, calls her “one of the best football people in the country.”
“She gets it, she knows what to do, and they have a really good thing going right now,” says Bowen, who now works as a California-based college sports consultant.
However, this praise for Tuite and her operation stands in stark contrast to the expressions of a growing number of former players, coaches and administrators, who describe her tenure as marked by dysfunction, mistreatment, retaliation and cover-up—and blame the university’s leadership for abiding by it. (Last May, the school’s president, Mary Papazian, was appointed to the NCAA Division I Board of Directors, a powerful perch she is slated to occupy until August 2023.)
Not only do these critics worry that the school’s Title IX process has failed to protect victims, they say it has instead been used to silence or sully those who speak out about problems in the department.
“I left because I found that the practices at San Jose State didn’t align with what I had been taught about best practices,” says Tracey Tsugawa, who resigned as SJSU’s Title IX coordinator in February, after less than a year-and-a-half on the job.
“I have completely lost faith in the system, which is why I have walked away,” says David Rasmussen, SJSU’s former senior athletic compliance officer, who resigned earlier this month.
“Winning [football] is a great deodorant for all the things that stink behind the scenes, and it simply is that at San Jose State,” says Peter Turner, who was SJSU’s winningest softball coach before he was let go over the summer, after being subjected to two Title IX investigations he claims were trumped up by school administrators.
In October, Turner filed a tort claim notice with the state university system—the precursor for a lawsuit against a governmental entity—alleging that he had been let go for retaliatory reasons. Rasmussen, for his part, submitted an internal complaint with SJSU last month, detailing what he says were repeated acts of retaliation he endured for merely doing his job. In addition to those documents, Sportico obtained a letter sent late last year by Josh Thiel, the former deputy athletics director for athletics advancement, which likewise complained about a “toxic culture” in the department.
Thiel, who resigned from his position after less than two years, wrote in November 2019 to the campus’ interim director of university advancement, saying that he had been subjected to “veiled threats and intimidation tactics” by Tuite over a period of six months leading up to the end of his employment.
“I brought this culture of fear and intimidation perpetuated by Marie to the attention of University Personnel on April 18, 2019,” Thiel wrote. “My concerns are shared by numerous other athletics department employees. And yet, to my knowledge, the University has taken no action to address the toxic culture.”
Tuite declined to respond to a list of questions provided by Sportico. In his statement on behalf of the university, Mashinchi said:
“San Jose State University disputes the assertions made by individuals cited in the questions and will not comment further on personnel and legal matters. There are processes available to employees who have complaints about their work environment, and SJSU cooperates fully in all investigations conducted internally or externally. Those that have been completed found no wrongdoing on the part of the university and athletics department; others are still in progress.”
These latest examples of turmoil follow revelations in April by USA Today about the efforts of Sage Hopkins, SJSU’s head swimming coach, to reignite a decade-old school investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Shaw, the longtime athletic trainer. In late 2018, Hopkins sent a 291-page dossier to the university’s Title IX office, claiming that school officials had failed to properly investigate the original allegations.
Bowen, who was the athletic director at the time, insists that the allegations were “taken very seriously.”
“In this circumstance I immediately followed all University policies and protocols pertaining to this matter,” he says.
Hopkins’ dossier went on to allege that school officials then retaliated against him after he repeatedly raised concerns about Shaw’s presence in the department. Hopkins’ actions—which later included bringing the matter to the NCAA’s attention—prompted SJSU to reopen its investigation into Shaw last year. The California State University’s systemwide Title IX coordinator eventually took over the review at the request of Papazian, the SJSU president.
This past summer, Hopkins filed a tort claim notice against the university. His lawyer, Paul Smoot, said that litigation will likely follow in early 2020 if the dispute can’t be resolved beforehand.
Shaw resigned from his position at SJSU in August. His lawyer, Lori Costanzo, did not respond to a request for comment from Sportico, but has previously told media outlets that her client denies the entirety of the allegations against him. “Virtually no new allegations have surfaced since 2009 other than Sage Hopkins’ self-serving compilation of hearsay and rants against the University’s Athletic Department,” Costanzo said in a statement to the San Jose Mercury News in April.
In September, USA Today reported on a tort claim notice filed by Steve O’Brien, the school’s former deputy athletic director, alleging that he had been terminated in March for refusing to discipline Hopkins and other department whistleblowers. In the notice, O’Brien, who now works in administration at Santa Clara University’s School of Law—and is himself a trained lawyer with active standing in the California Bar for nearly two decades—alleges Tuite, Papazian and two other administrators caused him “injury, damage or loss.” O’Brien’s attorney, Christopher Boscia, says that O’Brien last week filed a California Whistleblower Protection Act claim, as well as a request for right to sue from the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing. (O’Brien declined to comment for this article.)
A program on the periphery
The Spartans have existed for the last three decades on the knife’s edge of college football’s top division. That existence has been in many ways typical of lower-profile Division I programs struggling to survive as more and more money and power has flowed to Power Five programs like Alabama and Ohio State. In addition to long spells of on-field mediocrity and paltry attendance, SJSU athletics has endured shaky conference realignments, historic state budget cuts, a faculty insurrection, a revolving door of administrators and coaches and various forms of pressure to give up its gridiron dreams.
In the summer of 1990, a former Loyola University Maryland AD named Tom Brennan took the SJSU athletic director job with the mandate—made explicit in his contract—that he would guide the Spartans out of the sinking Big West Conference and lead them to higher ground in the Western Athletic Conference.
At the time, SJSU had just fired another football coach, Brennan’s predecessor as AD had effectively been chased out and the school’s president was serving in an interim capacity. “In retrospect, I must be a glutton for something,” Brennan half-jokes.
Just as his tenure at SJSU commenced, California’s governor announced a massive budget deficit that hit every corner of the state’s higher education system. Brennan recalls having to cut over a dozen staffers from his department. The financial strain would eventually see two of SJSU’s other Cal State peers, Long Beach State and Fullerton, drop football in 1991 and 1992.
With the WAC looking to replenish its pilfered roster of members amid a national conference reshuffling, Brennan went on a barnstorming tour of the conference’s existing members, bringing along a wealthy SJSU donor to attest that if the Spartans were granted admission, the Bay Area was prepared to pony up in a major way.
“I remember thinking that if somebody was going to look really closely at the numbers to get into the WAC… they wouldn’t probably hold up,” says Sharon Wills, a longtime SJSU booster and past president of the Spartan Foundation Board. “There was a bit of smoke and mirrors.”
Indeed, Karl Benson, the WAC’s commissioner from 1994 to 2012, says he was less than enthralled with the prospect of drafting San Jose State into his league. Although history has blamed Benson for the conference’s much-maligned ballooning to 16 teams, Benson says he wanted the conference to max out at 12 teams—14 at the most—and that he had lobbied for Nevada’s entrance over SJSU.
But the WAC presidents’ pressing pursuit of major television markets ultimately solidified the Spartans’ invitation. Upon its arrival in 1996, SJSU quickly assumed its position as conference doormat, posting losing records in nine of its first 10 WAC football seasons.
“SJSU came in and people were shaking their heads,” says Benson. “There is a difference between having population versus delivering population.” While other WAC members such as Fresno State and Nevada delivered solid squads and respectable crowd sizes, Benson says, San Jose State was “the small school in the huge market that couldn’t average 15,000 [fans].”
The Mountain West lifeboat
By 2004, Spartan football was in deep trouble. Not only did the program finish 2-9 that year, but the Silicon Valley Football Classic, the bowl game SJSU began hosting four years earlier, had come to an ignominious end.
The contest, which had tie-ins to the WAC and Pac-10, ended up featuring Northern Illinois and Troy slogging through a monsoon that caused repeated electrical interruptions. Benson says the Classic was ill-fated from the start, recalling a meeting with the San Jose city fathers where it was debated whether or not they should accept a bid from Waste Management, Inc., to be the bowl game’s title sponsor.
“It is not something I put on my resumé,” says Benson.
The Spartans, who hadn’t been to any bowl game—garbage-themed or otherwise—in 14 years, were once again looking for a new athletic director and football coach. This time, the AD search effectively consisted of Bill Walsh, the legendary former San Francisco 49ers coach and influential SJSU alum, pitching the post to Tom Bowen, a former Cal athletic administrator who was then serving as executive director of the 49ers Foundation. SJSU, in turn, hired Dick Tomey, who had previously been an assistant under Walsh at Stanford and had a successful run as head coach at the University of Arizona, to lead the football team.
With another brutal round of state budget cuts, a group of SJSU professors campaigned, under the banner of Spartans 4 Sanity, for the school to cancel football. When the non-binding resolution was put to a vote before the entire school faculty, it passed by a nearly 3-to-1 margin. In response, the school agreed to reduce the share of its athletic department expenditures from 3.2% of the campus budget to 2%.
Despite the bleak evidence before him, the university’s president at the time, Don Kassing, still saw endless possibilities for the Spartans.
“We carried the city’s name,” says Kassing. “The only other franchise in San Jose was the [NHL’s] Sharks, so, in a sense, we were the other franchise. … I felt we had some real affiliation that, if we could be good and successful, people will be drawn to us—alumni, students, legislators, even people who aren’t graduates.”
In 2006, Tomey’s second season, SJSU compiled a 9-4 record and won the New Mexico Bowl, but that would be his only winning season in five years. By the time he resigned, in 2009, the program was back in the conference cellar and under major scholarship penalties for its academic performance. Eschewing the familiar Walsh pipeline this time, Bowen tapped MacIntyre, then an up-and-coming defensive coordinator at Duke.
MacIntyre’s resuscitation of the program—going from 1-12 in his first year in 2010 to 11-2 his third—came at a particularly auspicious time, when a national convulsion of conference realignment suddenly imperiled the WAC and its members. With former conference foes Boise State, Nevada and Fresno State having recently jumped to the Mountain West Conference, San Jose State was able to slip in just before the doors shut.
“We knew if we didn’t get into the Mountain West, football would have eventually gone away,” says Bowen.
“There is no way we could have survived as an independent,” says MacIntyre, who went on to coach six seasons at Colorado and is currently defensive coordinator at Memphis.
Chasing the Broncos
While Bowen says he hoped that Tuite, then his deputy AD, would succeed him when he left for the Memphis AD job in 2012, the school instead hired Gene Bleymaier, the longtime Boise State athletic director.
After presiding over the Broncos for 29 years, Bleymaier had been fired in 2011 after Boise State was put on NCAA probation for a series of secondary violations involving benefits to athletes and recruits.
In a way, Bleymaier’s hiring by San Jose State was the closest thing to testing the hypothesis uttered by many of college football’s striving have-nots: “If Boise State can do it, so can we.”
Bleymaier suggested the magic was replicable, telling reporters upon his hiring, “I see the same great potential in San Jose State that I saw in Boise State when I first arrived there.”
Sources say the management structure wasn’t what it seemed. While Bleymaier was the putative leader of SJSU athletics, a former senior compliance staffer recalls that Tuite “was really in control of everything. Bleymaier was just the face of the department and raising funds.”
After MacIntyre decamped for Boulder in late 2012, Bleymaier was given the chance to do what he had done so successfully the previous three decades: pick a head football coach. But his choice this time, Ron Caragher, failed to notch a winning season in four tries before being fired in 2016. While the product on the field limped along, so did the infrastructure around it: A planned $40 million new athletic complex for the north end of the football stadium, named for Bill Walsh and fellow SJSU alum Dick Vermeil—and which SJSU had touted as a key part of its Mountain West entry pitch—continued to be delayed.
“I think Bleymaier did a great job for us at San Jose State, but I do think it was a little more eye-opening, a little harder to get money,” says MacIntyre.
“He thought he could do the same thing at Boise, push the same buttons, and get the same result,” says Wills, the SJSU booster. “And Gene is not the kind of glad-hander and marketer that Tom Bowen was. Tom Bowen did a great job bullshitting with all the big-money people and moving in those circles. Bleymeier, not so much.”
Former Boise State president Bob Kustra said that SJSU might have failed to understand the unique character of Idaho’s capital.
“I doubt very seriously in San Jose, California—no offense to San Jose’s donors and boosters—that you could replicate what kind of booster community we have,” says Kustra, who fired Bleymaier but still speaks highly of his abilities.
Despite the resource limitations, the department frequently acted as if it were on the verge of a windfall. The university’s track program, once among the best in the nation and still a source of pride for its notable alumni, including Olympic legends Tommie Smith and John Carlos, served as another pie in the Spartan sky with no money to back it up.
At a ceremony in 2016, the school announced its plans to reinstate men’s track and field (which had been cut 28 years before) beginning in 2018. In addition, the school said it would begin raising private funds for a brand-new track facility.
By San Jose State standards, the press conference was quite a spectacle: Confetti rained down on a sizable crowd that gathered in a courtyard next to giant statues of Smith and Carlos that depict their raised-fist human-rights protest at the 1968 Mexico City Games. The real-life Smith and Carlos were also in attendance, as was Harry Edwards, the famed sociologist and fellow SJSU alum, who addressed the crowd by waxing emotional about the indomitable “Spartan Spirit.”
But aside from the pageantry, it wasn’t immediately apparent how the school planned to incorporate its 22nd sports program into a department stretched so thin. After few signs of progress, the heralded plans to build a track stadium were officially scuttled in the spring of 2019, when the university announced that it would instead build a parking garage on the site of the existing Bud Winter Field. Meanwhile, the men’s track team has essentially operated without a budget since being reinstated, according to multiple sources.
In the end, Bleymaier, who did not respond to text messages seeking comment for this story, couldn’t replicate his Boise success in San Jose. With a little less than a year left on his contract, he was reassigned in early 2017 to the position of “special advisor to the president.”
Promoting Tuite as Bleymaier’s replacement seemed like a logical move, given her experience and established role within the department. But Tuite had also been a source of long-simmering tension with some key athletic employees, who questioned her priorities and took issue with her response to complaints. As San Jose State faced a host of new challenges, including its latest football turnaround project, old problems continued to bubble beneath the surface.
Last May, a group of more than 35 current and former SJSU athletes signed onto a letter to Papazian, which complained about the state of the department under Tuite. One common theme of their grievances was the contention that Tuite prioritized football at the expense of other sports and, at times, the well-being of their participants. Although this is not an unfamiliar lament by Olympic sports programs, the SJSU athletes wrote that Tuite took it to an extreme, conveying to the athletes how expendable she regarded their sports.
After receiving the athlete letter, Papazian said in a statement that the university planned to give it a “careful review” and “take appropriate action to address the issues raised.” However, there has been no further public word as to the status of the review.
The mother of Sarahvaughn King, an SJSU sprinter who later transferred to Arizona, told the Spartan Daily, SJSU’s student newspaper, that the school’s dilapidated track facility was an injury hazard for athletes, and said when she raised the concern to Tuite, the athletic director responded by threatening to cancel the program.
Within the department, former staffers describe an inscrutable financial system that has seemed overly reliant on Tuite going to her superiors for on-the-fly purchase requests.
“We didn’t think anything through,” says Ryan Jordan, who worked as assistant athletics director for compliance until earlier this year, when he left to take a job at Stanford. “Everything felt like it was an emotional, rash, in-the-moment decision and then, afterwards, we dealt with whatever the consequences are.”
Another former compliance official, Ryan Merz, said that he was unilaterally tasked with delivering monthly scholarship stipends to SJSU athletes, without any direct oversight from the school’s main campus. Merz said that the school continued this practice, even after outside audits of the athletic department had dissuaded it.
“It would have been very easy for me to send money to whomever I wanted,” says Merz, who left SJSU last summer to take a job at Santa Clara. “It was really about convenience and cutting corners and what is easy to get [done] timely, as opposed to what is right. This is state and taxpayer money.”
But the agitation in the department has extended well beyond resource allocation and disbursement.
In recent years, Spartan athletics has left a trail of disgruntled employees, including several who have filed formal complaints to university officials regarding the department’s management, and set the stage for potential court fights in the near future.
Peter Turner, the former softball coach, filed a tort claim notice in October alleging that two Title IX investigations of him were unfairly handled, in part, because of Tuite’s personal animus toward him and his program. After O’Brien and Hopkins, Turner’s tort claim notice made him the third SJSU athletic department employee to formally claim retaliation since summer.
Turner, who says that he intends to sue the school he had coached at since 2007, was informed on July 10 his contract would not be renewed. At the time, his team was 21-5 during the shortened season after being named the preseason favorite to win the MWC title.
“Mr. Turner’s record speaks for itself as does Ms. Tuite’s… vindictive behavior against Mr. Turner,” reads his tort claim notice, which Sportico obtained.
Turner’s son Chase, who served as assistant on the team, was suspended in June 2018 after an anonymous letter sent by some softball players to the Title IX department accused him of sexual impropriety. The letter also accused Peter Turner of discriminating against certain non-white athletes on the team.
The school commenced a nine-month investigation, which several players would later publicly characterize as biased and compromised, saying they were asked leading questions and that their answers were taken out of context. In the end, both coaches were cleared. Then, a year later, a second Title IX complaint was filed against Peter Turner from a former softball player who claimed that her being cut from the team, six months prior, was an act of retaliation. In the tort claim, Turner says he believes the player was among the original group that had sent the anonymous letter.
This time, the school sided with the accuser. Three weeks after his appeal was denied, Turner was told his contract would not be renewed.
Turner’s tort claim traces the acrimony between him and Tuite to almost the very beginning of her time as AD, in the spring of 2017, when he says parents and players challenged Tuite about her commitment to softball during their appearance at the NCAA regionals. According to Turner, Tuite took such umbrage at this criticism that, for the next three years, she “continued to badger [him] about this alleged bad treatment.”
Failure to comply
Although he hasn’t filed a tort claim notice, David Rasmussen, SJSU’s senior associate athletic director for compliance until this month, has also formally objected to his treatment by Tuite’s administration. In a complaint filed last month with the California State University system, Rasmussen wrote that Tuite used the department’s human resources against him once he had shown himself to be insufficiently loyal to her interests.
Prior to taking the job at SJSU in December 2018, Rasmussen had worked in compliance posts at Penn State and BYU. He was the third top compliance staffer at SJSU within four years, a rate of turnover that is telling about Tuite, according to the former senior compliance official, who had previously occupied Rasmussen’s post.
“She likes to say she is the most compliant athletic director in the world, but I never felt I had the power I should… to make final calls of reporting violations,” the former senior compliance official told Sportico. “Everything had to go through her.”
According to his complaint, Rasmussen said he found himself in Tuite’s crosshairs over an episode in which he discovered that a Spartan baseball player had made 170 sports wagers, a violation of NCAA rules. After Rasmussen reported the violation, the NCAA ruled the athlete ineligible. Steve O’Brien, the former deputy AD, also referenced the incident in his tort claim notice, recalling that the baseball player’s parents angrily confronted Tuite over the incident, threatening to take the matter to the school president. In response, the former employees claim, Tuite confronted Rasmussen, admonishing him for causing the headache by going to the NCAA.
That wasn’t the only incident in which Tuite allegedly tried to interfere with the compliance process. In late January, O’Brien’s complaint states, Rasmussen was messaged by Sage Hopkins with a request for a random drug test to be administered to some of his swimmers, as well as to a football player who dated and lived with one of them. Rasmussen, in turn, forwarded the request to Shaw, who, as the director of sports medicine, oversaw the department’s drug screening.
Rasmussen says he subsequently received an angry phone call from Brennan, the football coach, demanding to know why the test was being requested and who had initially raised suspicions that his player was using drugs. Rasmussen declined to identify Hopkins and was subsequently challenged about it by Tuite.
“When informed that one of his athletes would be tested, the head football coach responded in an irate manner, citing the possible negative repercussions for the student-athlete if he were to test positive for a banned substance,” Rasmussen later wrote to the school’s faculty athletics representative and chair of the University Athletics Board. “This is simply the latest in a troubling series of events related to concerns of institutional control.”
Over the next two months, emails attached to Rasmussen’s complaint show, Tuite continued to challenge both him and O’Brien about the drug test.
“I was subjected to repeated interrogations over an issue in which I had only tangential involvement,” Rasmussen alleged in his complaint.
On March 2, O’Brien was fired, with Tuite announcing in a terse staff email that his duties had been reassigned.
With O’Brien gone, emails show Tuite continuing to pressure Rasmussen. According to his complaint, Rasmussen was told by Tuite during a Zoom meeting in late April that she no longer trusted him enough for him to be part of the department’s senior staff. Rasmussen describes being further ostracized and isolated in the ensuing months, leading up to the publication of USA Today’s Sept. 17 article that broke the news about O’Brien’s tort claim notice. That same day, according to Rasmussen’s complaint, he was accused by another employee of a workplace misconduct complaint. “I believe that this complaint is retaliatory against me, and the complainant has been coached” by Tuite, Rasmussen wrote in the filing.
For a time, it looked unlikely that San Jose State’s football squad would play a single down this season. In July, it was announced that the Spartans’ Sept. 19 payday game at Penn State, which would have netted the program $1.5 million, would not take place, after the Big Ten declared its members would only play each other this year. Then in August, the Mountain West announced it would indefinitely suspend the upcoming fall sports season on account of COVID-19.
The prospect of a fall without football was potentially ruinous for the department, as it jeopardized the $5 million annual television disbursement the school would normally receive from the Mountain West.
On Sept. 25, the Mountain West announced that it would host an eight-game, in-conference season. To conduct a shortened training camp, the Spartan football team left Santa Clara County, where gathering restrictions were in place, and bused 300 miles to the campus of Humboldt State, in the far northern part of California. When pressed by reporters, the school later estimated that it spent between $100,000 and $150,000 in lodging and dining expenses for the 12 days the team was out of town.
The school unveiled its new annual budget in mid-October, projecting $27.8 million in revenue for athletics—of which $20.4 million would come from institutional sources—down from the previous year’s sum of $32.8 million. In the budget, SJSU allocated $600,000 for COVID-19 related expenses.
“The football season was needed,” says Jordan, the former compliance staffer. “You need that revenue. It didn’t affect them that they couldn’t have fans there. Frankly, it lowered the operating cost.”
Jordan, who also handled athlete housing, described a “haphazard” and costly process of moving the football players into campus dorms during the start of this school year. Initially, the department put the athletes into single rooms, which cost $2,000 more. However, two months later, he received email instructions that any student in a single should be moved to a double.
Jordan says this scattershot approach was not unique to the pandemic.
“There was no operating within a budget,” he says, analogizing the athletic department to an absent-minded college student. “It is easy to point and say [there’s not enough] money, but we spent more money in the last few months to make s–t happen. When campus keeps giving you the credit card, you keep spending. I don’t know if plans were thought through, or if it was, ‘Let’s just run.’ Everything constantly felt like it was on fire.”
Last week, the Mercury News reported that by heading to Tucson for the Arizona Bowl, SJSU would be breaching Santa Clara County’s current 10-day quarantine requirements for traveling parties. Nonetheless, the school said the football team would stick to its itinerary, and the county’s chief executive effectively acknowledged he had no power to intervene.
With that out of the way, the Spartans are prepared to seize the spotlight as college football’s 2020 Cinderella.
Craig Thompson, the Mountain West Conference commissioner, says it is difficult to project how the program can capitalize on this success, given the unpredictability of mid-major athletics in the wake of the pandemic.
“They have got a plan,” Thompson says of San Jose State. “Now, they have some momentum and though it is a brutal, fiscally tough market to live in, they have reason to believe.”
But for others, an undefeated season seems not just an outlier, but very much besides the point.
Says Turner, the former softball coach: “It is fool’s gold.”
(This story has been corrected to show that Josh Thiel, the former deputy athletics director for athletics advancement, resigned from his position and was not let go.)