Tom YoungblomI had no idea when I asked that simple question that the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog wrestling program would become a part of my life for the next two years. I was interviewing Tom Youngblom, Mora head wrestling coach, for a story about the Mustang wrestling program that would appear in The Guillotine later that year. We were talking about his days as a wrestler and he mentioned he wrestled for UMD in college. I knew UMD at one time had a wrestling program and innocently asked Youngblom the question that started this crazy journey. 'What ever happened to the UMD wrestling program?' His response was the first of many instances where I knew I had to tell this story. Youngblom simply said, "Now THAT would make a good story."
I spent most of my college life at UMD. I met my wife while we were both living on campus. We try to go to the North Shore at least once a year and take our kids to visit the campus we both love. My wife and I both transferred to Saint Cloud State for our final year of school, but I have always told people 'I graduated from SCSU, but I went to college at UMD.' I love the city and the school. What I learned since I talked to Coach Youngblom broke my heart.
When I was doing some early research for this story, I found plenty of information about what happened at UMD after the wrestling program ended, but very little about the program itself. What got lost in the fallout on the North Shore during the middle to late 1990's was the story of a remarkable program that succeeded despite having nearly every possible obstacle thrown in its way. For thirty years the Bulldog wrestling program conquered nearly every challenge -- until they finally met a foe even they could not defeat. This is the story of the University of Minnesota-Duluth wrestling program and how they changed UMD forever.
The Bulldog wrestling program was founded as a club team in 1966. Some students approached former head football coach and athletic director Lloyd Peterson with the idea of starting a club team. Three years later UMD alumni Neil Ladsten was hired by the school to be the head wrestling coach and assistant football coach under head coach Jim Malosky. The year before Ladsten's arrival, the team managed only one win. In Ladsten's first two years the team went a combined 13-11-1. For such a young program, the Bulldogs were on their way.
Neil LadstenThe rise to Division II prominence might have happened sooner, but Ladsten was drafted to fight in Vietnam. He enlisted and because of his position as a college teacher, he was put into a delayed entry program. From 1972-74 Ladsten was part of the Military Police and was stationed in Fort Carson Colorado. During that time he was able to take classes at the University of Denver and earn his masters degree.
At the same time, the Bulldog wrestling program fell off the map. When Ladsten returned the program was in worse shape than the first time he took over. In two years without Ladsten, the program did not record a dual meet victory. After Ladsten returned, slowly but surely, the program improved.
They improved even though Duluth is a hockey crazed area. Of the high schools in Duluth and the surrounding communities very few even have wrestling programs. UMD had little or no home grown talent. The community didn't know much about the sport and according to Ladsten didn't seem to want to learn. The program had no full-time assistant and had a limited budget.
"Neil Ladsten had a tremendous wrestling program for not having any high school feeder programs," said former baseball coach and the only current UMD employee who agreed to talk to me, Scott Hanna. "Baseball had all kinds of feeder programs. Football, basketball -- everyone had that up here. You didn't have wrestling up here, yet he would have competitive teams every single year."
"We never overspent our budget," said Ladsten. "We would sleep three or four kids to a motel room to save money," said Ladsten.
Because of his football commitment and loyalty to Malosky and the football team Ladsten had a limited time to recruit athletes for wrestling. Spring football started during a peak wrestling recruiting time, and without an assistant Ladsten had to recruit on his own while honoring his football responsibilities. He would start each wrestling season later than other wrestling programs to stay with the football team, even though his contract allowed him to start earlier. Ladsten tried to get help from the administration with recruiting and opportunities to do more fund raising, but when he would go to the athletic department to ask for help he never got it.
Somehow the program not only survived but it began to thrive. Seven years after he came back, Ladsten had built a conference champion.
"We had a close knit group of kids," said Ladsten. "We were in it together."
Over the next twelve years UMD would win five more conference championships, have over twenty Division II All-Americans and crown one national champion, Mike Hirschey, in 1987. For the outside observer, and the Bulldog wrestlers, during that time things appeared to have never been better for wrestling on the shores of Lake Superior. Behind the scenes however, things were starting to fall apart.
Mike HirscheyThe beginning of the end started slowly for wrestling at UMD. Ironically, the first red flag was born out of Ladsten's desire to help UMD -- the school he graduated from, played football for and had worked for almost his entire adult life. UMD needed to upgrade its training facilities and Ladsten was given the opportunity to design a new athletic locker room as well as design and run a new weight room for the athletes. Ladsten took to the idea and even took the time to earn his strength and conditioning degree. In return, Ladsten asked UMD athletic director Ralph Romano if he could hire his wrestlers, through the work-study program, to supervise the room. He knew it would be a great recruiting tool to get athletes to wrestle in his program -- come to UMD and get paid to work and workout in a new weight room. Romano agreed and Ladsten went about helping the school get a new weight room together.
The arrangement was working well for Ladsten and his wrestlers, but that would soon change. While talking to Ladsten and others who were involved in the wrestling program, everyone knew wrestling wasn't important to the athletic administration, but like Coach Youngblom said, "we (the wrestlers) didn't care because we were good."
What was important were the two highest revenue and two highest profile programs -- football and at the time UMD's only Division I program, men's hockey.
When Romano passed away in 1983 the university hired former UMD hockey player and product of the Iron Range, Bruce McLeod, to take over the athletic director job. McLeod's office was contacted a number of times for comment on this story, but McLeod never replied back.
Ladsten and the wrestling program started to get pinched. The locker room Ladsten helped design was originally going to be for the wrestlers and the baseball team, but before long the football team had moved in and relegated the minor sports back to the old locker room. Then Ladsten was starting to get pressure from other coaches to get their kids in the weight room work study program. Soon Ladsten had lost control of who was working in the weight room and lost a great perk for his wrestlers.
Even though the wrestlers were getting pushed further and further back by the athletic department, the real trouble -- for all parties involved -- was yet to come. The eventual divorce of UMD from wrestling was ultimately started between two long time co-workers and friends -- Ladsten and Malosky.
Malosky's success and longevity -- he became the head coach in 1958 -- had made him sort of the Godfather in the UMD athletic department. Many people I talked to when doing research for this story claimed Malosky often times had more power over decisions than the athletic director -- especially after McLeod was hired. Ladsten played on both the offensive and defensive lines for Malosky's Bulldog football teams and was an All-Conference first team selection in 1967 and 1968. As a senior he served as one of the team captains. He had worked under Malosky as an assistant coach the entire time he was at UMD.
Hanna was a freshman offensive lineman Ladsten's senior year.
"Neil was a very good football player," said Hanna. "He was a real leader and a good player."
In the early 1980's the Bulldogs had a great quarterback who started for three seasons. He was good enough to get a brief look in training camp with the National Football League's Dallas Cowboys. His name was Jim Malosky Jr. -- Head Coach Jim Malosky's son.
After his NFL dreams died, Malosky Jr. came to work for his dad as a quarterback coach. Instead of earning the respect of the players, like the rest of the staff, Ladsten felt Malosky Jr. was getting respect by unsavory means. Basically Ladsten (and other coaches on the staff) felt Jim Jr. was getting his respect by making sure the players knew he had the undivided attention of the head coach. Feeling the younger Malosky had more power because of his dad, players felt forced to respect the coach because of an unnatural fear of playing time.
Ladsten also felt Malosky Jr. was difficult to work with, was arrogant and was held up above other more experienced coaches by his father. None of this sat well with Ladsten, but to the outside world everyone was still able to get along.
With Malosky senior nearing retirement, his son was being groomed to take over the head coaching duties. Ladsten, who had no desire to get the head job, felt more deserving coaches were going to be passed over and he felt there was little he could do about it. Ladsten knew he had no future -- and didn't want a future -- in football. His relationship with Malosky senior had deteriorated, and he could see where the program was headed. He wanted to get out of football to do away with what was becoming an increasingly difficult working environment. He wanted to concentrate on teaching, his responsibilities with the weight room and the wrestling team.
Ladsten went to McLeod and explained what he wanted to do. McLeod said no -- Malosky wouldn't allow it. Ladsten then told McLeod about his assistant coach concerns regarding Jim Jr., but McLeod refused to do anything about it.
Bruce McLeodNot able to get any help from McLeod, Ladsten went up the chain of command to McLeod's boss -- Greg Fox. He again asked to have a strength and conditioning coach to replace his football duties. Just like before, Fox and the UMD administration did nothing.
Not able to get any help from his superiors, Ladsten asked to see the universities nepotism policy. The nepotism policy stated that no one could be hired to work directly under a family member, making the situation with the Maloskys against university policy. Fox heard about Ladsten's sudden interest in university policy and called McLeod, but one year later still nothing changed for Ladsten.
Still without any help from his immediate superiors, Ladsten again went up the chain of command to the head of the school, university chancellor Dr. Lawrence Ianni. Ianni told Ladsten he was not the first coach to approach him about the football program and that he would find a way to get him out of football. Ianni also assured him that he need not worry about his future employment at UMD. They would find plenty of things for him to do after he left football. Ianni's promise could never be put into action because he was fired shortly after for incidences not involving the athletic programs.
At the time, Ladsten was allowed to officially start his job as wrestling coach around October 15th, but with the football season still going he would stay with football for an extra week before he started his active wrestling duties. Feeling he was running out of options, Ladsten decided it was time to give his full attention to the wrestling team instead of putting it on the back burner until football wrapped up. When the first day of wrestling season came around that season, Ladsten left his football position -- when he was contractually allowed to -- and started in on the wrestling season. When Malosky found out, Ladsten said the head coach was irate. The tension between the two old friends finally had reached a boiling point. Ladsten and Malosky had a good old nose to nose no holds barred argument centered on Ladsten's commitment to the football team. Malosky questioned Ladsten's loyalty to the school and his program and told his assistant that Ladsten owed him because he hired him -- which wasn't true.
After again stating his intention to get out of the football program, Ladsten said Malosky finished the argument by saying, "Okay, it's over for you. If that is the way you feel about it, it's over for you".
"They maybe had a disagreement about the amount of time put in," said Hanna who in addition to being an assistant football coach, was also UMD's head baseball coach for years. "Ladsten would quit football to go with wrestling before football was over. I don't think Malosky liked that. He wanted him to finish it out. He thought that (Ladsten) didn't have his heart in it. He probably didn't -- his heart was in wrestling. Everybody knew that. It was unfortunate that we had to combine coaches like that. It just doesn't work that well. You've got your own sport and in your heart you want to make that go. I totally understand Neil's position on it."
The argument did allow Ladsten to set up a meeting with Fox, who was temporally given the responsibilities of the chancellor until a permanent person was hired, McLeod, Malosky Sr. and himself to discuss getting his job description changed. After everyone laid out their case, Fox sided with Ladsten and told McLeod to change Ladsten's job description and not to touch his salary. Starting the next fall he would be teaching his classes, coaching wrestling and running the training facilities as the school's strength and conditioning coach. Finally Ladsten had been given his leave from football -- or so he thought.
The following fall, Ladsten reported to campus ready to resume his duties as strength coach and wrestling coach. On the first day of fall football practice in 1994, while he was attending to his weight room duties, McLeod called him into his office. McLeod told Ladsten he was needed on the football field. Ladsten, obviously caught off-guard, went over the meeting they had had the previous year regarding his responsibilities for this season. McLeod wouldn't budge and told Ladsten that if he didn't report to the football field it would be grounds for dismissal.
Ron McClureLadsten tried to call Fox to plead his case, but Fox was out of town and could not be reached. Close to retirement and all the benefits he had earned over his twenty plus years on staff at the school, Ladsten made yet another attempt to buy time and hope the administration would help him out. He went to the business manager at the school and immediately applied for and got a twenty percent leave of absence, with a twenty percent pay cut to cover the portion of his football coaching duties. Ladsten knew the leave of absence was only a one year fix. If he took another year, he would not be able to get his full-time status back.
Temporally free from his football duties, Ladsten and the wrestling program had one of their best years. They had three national place winners including Ron McClure who placed second. By coincidence, the football team, who had designs on a conference championship, had its first losing season in many years. After the season wrapped up, Ladsten still had hopes that he would be allowed to stay at the school full-time, free of his football duties.
Little did Ladsten know, behind the scenes, the stage was being set to axe the entire wrestling program. While Ladsten was away at a wrestling tournament that year, an off the record, off campus meeting took place at McLeod's home. At the meeting were McLeod, Malosky, men's basketball coach Dale Race and hockey coach Mike Sertich. The purpose of the meeting, which was against university policy because it was off campus, was to deal with the wrestling program. The four men knew Ladsten would have to leave if his pay was cut any more and decided the best way to get rid of him, was to cut one of the campuses most successful programs -- wrestling. The reason they came up with was budgetary problems. The official reason was that "wrestling was a burden on the budget".
Over the years and previous to cutting wrestling, UMD has had to cut a number of programs.
"They dropped swimming just before I came (to UMD)," said Hanna who now helps with fundraising for the school and is the head equipment manager. "They dropped skiing, they dropped men's tennis, and they dropped men's and women's golf."
It was in fact true that UMD, like many collegiate athletic programs, could have used some financial help at the time. The costs with running athletic programs had increased dramatically since the 1970's. Wrestling was not a revenue producing sport and the hockey team -- the biggest revenue generator on campus -- had been struggling in recent years. The state government funds were not able to close the monetary gap. The money coming into the program -- on the books at least -- was not keeping up with the costs associated with a $3 million a year athletic budget.
So the wheels were in motion to get rid of Ladsten and his wrestling program because the $65,000 a year budget -- less than three percent of the school's total -- was too much of a burden for the athletic department to shoulder.
Tom LamphereAs the news came out that the program was being cut, UMD's athletic department thought it was in the clear and could finally rid itself of Ladsten. The one thing they did not see coming was the one thing they could not stop. They could not stop the UMD wrestling alumni and specifically Jim Paddock and Tom Lamphere.
Paddock wrestled for Harding High School and was a walk-on at UMD. He became the Bulldogs first All-American wrestler in 1980. Lamphere wrestled at Robbinsdale-Cooper before enrolling at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and joined the wrestling team. For two years Lamphere was behind an All-American so after his sophomore year, he transferred to UMD. Lamphere was an All-Conference selection his senior year.
When word got around that the program was going to be cut, Paddock, Lamphere and about twenty other former Bulldog wrestlers and parents traveled up to the school to meet with the athletic department to see if they could help save the program.
Paddock recalled the initial meeting with McLeod to discuss saving the program.
"McLeod shook his finger at a room full of teachers, doctors, and other professionals and told us 'I'm going to do what I'm going to do. I'm not afraid of any of you in here,'" Paddock said of McLeod. "'Go ahead, bring it on. I don't care what you do, I don't care who you call. You can call anyone you want -- bring it on.'"
Paddock's first reaction was to wonder why McLeod was angry. Paddock and McLeod had always been on good terms, so after the meeting, walking down the hall, Paddock asked McLeod if he could see the budget. Paddock said McLeod told him, "You know what? You can't have the budget."
Lamphere mentioned another incident with McLeod.
"We were in Bruce's (McLeod) office and I said 'If you have any skeletons in your closet they are going to get jerked out. I remember the expression on his face was very nervous and his knees started tapping on the desk underneath. I had no idea what was going to come out. I thought just some minor stuff."
The athletic department's early stonewall of the alumni's attempts to save the program raised enough red flags for Paddock and Lamphere to feel the need to dive into the issue more deeply -- much more deeply. Although they didn't get the answers they were looking for from the administration, their concerns bought the program one more year. UMD told the alumni they will keep the program running one more season to give the alumni the chance to raise enough money to cover the entire wrestling program. It also gave Paddock and Lamphere a year to look into UMD's finances to find a way to permanently save the program.
The wrestlers knew raising that much money was going to be impossible, but felt if they were able to look at the athletic department's budget, maybe they could find ways to cut corners and keep the program running.
Because of UMD's unwillingness to help, Paddock went on his own to the state archives and to the telephone to attempt to piece together a wrestling budget. Early on in the search it became apparent that it was not just a budget issue. Paddock would find the information and Lamphere would crunch the numbers. Paddock pulled payroll statements, expense accounts, you name it, and Paddock and Lamphere looked at it. Paddock called around to UMD employees and soon found out that the people he talked to knew about a number of under the table deals that were going on. Gifts to coaches, missing tickets, questionable mileage reports, exorbitant cell phone bills, improper hiring practices and even coaches' salaries -- including Malosky Jr.'s -- that were off the university's books, were just the start. The employees were scared to tell their superiors about what they saw because they knew it would mean they would risk being fired. They were able to talk to Paddock because they knew their identity would remain secret.
Once Paddock and Lamphere got going and started to get tipped off by anonymous employees, they started to find violations in seemingly every form.
"All of the sudden," said Lamphere, "this didn't just become a wrestling thing; it became a whole bunch of stuff."
At the center of much of the improper hiring practices was Malosky Jr. Not only was he one of the coaches being paid with money that was off the books, he didn't meet the minimum educational requirements (to coach for the University of Minnesota you need to have a college degree), and of course his hiring was against the school's nepotism policy. Football was not the only program with hiring issues. The women's basketball program had a brother working as an assistant to his sister.
They found a pull tab operation called the Cloquet Connection that was supposed to be giving money to UMD that was being run illegally. They found donations that were meant to go to the wrestling program not being accounted for and not getting anywhere near the wrestling program. An assistant coach was given a $12,000 bonus from a fund raiser that was supposed to go to purchasing supplies for the department. Despite all those findings, the worst was yet to come.
Jim PaddockWhen Lamphere and Paddock went to the UMD general counsel with their findings, they hoped the school would do what was necessary to clean up the problems. When the UMD administration weighed what the alumni had claimed to have found and what McLeod was claiming -- they took McLeod's side. Lamphere and Paddock told them if the administration didn't take their findings seriously, they would have to go to the press.
"We really tried," said Lamphere, "we really tried in meetings with McLeod, with Fox and then with the main U to say there is a problem here, let's address it in house. They would not do it."
"They got angry at us," said Paddock. "They got angry at Tom (Lamphere), they got angry at us for bringing these issues forward. They said we were renegades. We were rouges, because we were out to hurt the university and we didn't bring it to anybody (outside of the school). Then after they absolutely thumbed us and told us to get out of here, that's when we went to the press."
"They were ready to play hard ball," said Lamphere. "Greg Fox said you better have a lot of money and a lot of time, because the University has deep pockets and they will stretch this thing out. The only thing that Jimmy (Paddock) and I had on our side was the truth."
Eventually Star Tribune reporter Larry Oakes was contacted and spoke with the alumni. Oakes left that first meeting and told his editors that "if one third of what these guys are saying is true, we've got a story."
After looking into the findings, he found out that everything Paddock and Lamphere claimed was true. This launched an investigation that uncovered more than anyone could have expected.
The results of the investigation revealed money from every direction was getting funneled to hockey, football, basketball and McLeod's bank account. The most glaring misuse of funds was UMD's handling of tax payer money that was supposed to go to women's athletics. The State of Minnesota gave UMD over $5 million dollars of tax payer money over fifteen years to improve women's athletics. Paddock and Lamphere found out and the Star Tribune confirmed that most of it ended up supporting the hockey, football and men's basketball programs. According to the Star Tribune, in 1994 the state gave UMD over $600,000 to improve women's athletics. UMD's total women's athletic budget for the 1994-95 school year was just over $322,000.
"(McLeod) had completely gutted it," said Paddock. "He paid hockey coaches out of it; he paid tutors out of it. He had paid for gifts and stuff out of it."
Although the amount of money might not have been that much, two different sources of money, if handled the way they were intended would have made sure the wrestling program was not so much of a "burden on the budget" as originally claimed.
Shortly after the conclusion of what would be the second to last (and what UMD had hoped would be the last) season of Bulldog wrestling, Ladsten and a couple of his senior wrestlers were invited to a banquet put on by a Duluth charity group called The Duluth Optimist Club. At the time the Optimists donated to many different groups around the Duluth area. Towards the end of the banquet, the Optimists were going over the minutes of the meeting and mentioned the monthly contribution of $800 dollars that was to go to the UMD wrestling program. Ladsten was shocked and embarrassed. He had never been told by the athletic department about the charitable contribution and never received the funds. Ladsten was in the uncomfortable position of trying to thank them for years of donations that he never received and therefore never bothered to thank the Optimists for.
When word got around that the wrestling team was being cut and the alumni went to the administration to attempt to save the wrestling program, emotions were running high. New chancellor Kathryn Martin, who was also contacted more than once to comment on the story, but didn't respond, especially took offense to some of the comments that were thrown her way by the people supporting the wrestlers. Because of those comments, Martin said to the press, "I don't know why anyone would want to support a sport that has fans like that."
As a lifelong wrestling fan, my first reaction -- after anger towards the Chancellor -- was to wonder who and to what she was referring to. When I found out who she was referring to, I was furious.
Bob Labat was born in Marshal Minnesota and was a 1959 graduate of Saint John's University in Collegeville. While in college, one of his roommates wrestled for the Jonnies and sparked an interest in the sport for Labat. After moving to Wayzata with his wife to start a family, the Labat's raised four boys: Paul, Tim, David and Patrick.
Labat and his boys got interested in wrestling and never let up. The Labat boys got involved in the Minnesota Wrestling Federation, and competed in freestyle competitions. The boys and their father also got involved in AAU wrestling programs when the boys were young. Bob was so involved he helped merge the AAU and MWF and became involved in U.S. Olympic wrestling and what would become the predecessor to the Minnesota Storm. Labat's real passion was watching his sons wrestle. Paul and Tim both would go on to make it to State and then went on to wrestle in college. Paul wrestled at his father's alma mater -- Saint John's. After a high school career that saw him make two state tournaments, Tim wrestled at Willmar Community College for two years before enrolling at UMD in 1984.
In 1985 while Tim was at UMD Paul was killed in a hunting accident. Bob wanted to do something to honor his son so he raised money in his son's name to help the SJU wrestling program. He set up a fund in his son's name to continually contribute to the program. The original principle was not going to be touched and the interest earned would be split -- some would go to the wrestling program and some would go back into the principle to continue to grow the fund. Each year SJU would provide the Labat's with mailings thanking them for their contribution and updating them on the funds status and where the money was being spent. They would ask for Labat's input on how to handle the money. To this day, the fund is alive and well and helping to support, among other things, the wrestling program.
Tim Labat"Tim ended up not going back (to UMD) at the start of his senior year because of Paul's death," said Labat. "Patrick, my youngest son, and Tim were really close. (Patrick) was having a really hard time with Paul's death, so Tim stayed home that fall to be close to Patrick. Unfortunately, in late October of 1986, Tim got on his motorcycle to ride up to Saint John's to see his brother David who was a freshman up there."
On his way to campus, Tim was hit by a semi truck and was killed instantly -- ten months after Paul passed away.
By his own admission, at this time Bob was a basket case. Who could blame him? He had lost two sons in less than a year. Despite that, he wanted to honor Tim the same way he honored Paul -- with a donation to help his son's wrestling program. Through fundraisers and donations the Labat family was able to donate nearly $10,000 dollars to start the fund. The money was given over to UMD.
"In order for people to get a tax write-off as a charitable contribution this was being handled through the athletic department at UMD and from a financial standpoint McLeod was handling the fund."
"When Timmy died," said his father, "I just thought it would work the same way (as the Saint John's fund). I really didn't do any double checking."
"I was a basket case. I had two sons die ten months apart. When Timmy's death occurred it was a devastating blow. I really could have cared less if someone did something or not. I left it up to the school. It was a tough, tough time for me."
"I don't think I ever got a single acknowledgment from UMD on that fund. I never had any official acknowledgment or a statement on how much it was or how it was used, but I never doubted that any school would not handle the funds given to them in a less than proper fashion."
One group that did handle Tim Labat's death in the proper fashion was his teammates. Teammates from UMD and Willmar dedicated the season to him. Tim's former roommate and UMD wrestler Mike Hirschey honored his deceased friend.
"Mike was a real good high school wrestler," said Labat. "He didn't do well up there (at UMD) his junior year at all. He just never got going. With Tim's death," Labat continued, "Mike dedicated his senior year to be a champ for UMD and by God he was. I will never forget it. He called me at home the night before he wrestled in the National finals and told me 'I just want to let you know I am wearing Timmy's shorts out to the championship match that I am going to win for him. He called me again ten or fifteen minutes after the championship match to tell me he won the National championship."
When word of the wrestling program's demise surfaced, one of the people involved early was Bob Labat. He thought the memorial fund he had set up was active and earning interest each year.
"When I found out the program was going to be canceled," said Labat, "that's when I started to get concerned. I wanted those funds to be used to prevent the program from being canceled, but there was not a proper accounting of the fund. I thought the $6000 or so dollars (initially) would have been earning 5% for about 300 bucks, what's that going to do? So I thought use whatever is there and keep the program going. We can always start a (new) memorial fund for Tim; we don't need a fund for him. We need (the money) to keep the program going."
The school claimed the fund had $13,000 dollars in it. In reality, the fund should have had $25,000 dollars in it. Labat's continued questioning of the administration finally helped the true amount of the fund come to light. When UMD could not come up with a way to document where the money had gone, Labat was upset. In a meeting that did not involve Martin, Lamphere said Labat made his point very clear that if his son's funds were not looked into, Labat would "be very angry." Lamphere said Labat basically said he was coming after Martin's job.
"Everyone in that room knew what an emotional father was saying about his dead son" said Lamphere. "Could have Bob used better words? Sure, but with an emotional father I am not going to start scrambling over words when you are dealing with such a deep issue. For Kathryn Martin to turn around and start telling people that the wrestlers are physically threatening her was just not correct. Jimmy Paddock had to get an attorney; I had to send a letter saying this didn't happen."
When word got back to Martin, she went to the press and used Labat's comments to feed the notion that the wrestlers were just a bunch of disgruntled people.
If anyone had a reason to be disgruntled, it was Ladsten. UMD had been trying to get him to resign and after the final season of wrestling, Ladsten was expecting to be let go, but if Ladsten was able to finish the year, he would qualify for something called the Rule of 75. It is a benchmark for teachers at public universities to qualify for retirement benefits. The basic rule then was, once a teacher's age and time served at his or her place of employment equal 75 they qualify for retirement benefits.
Lamphere was told by Fox that they were going to fire Ladsten.
"I don't think I would do it right now," Lamphere told Fox. "You are going to have a big lawsuit on your hands, cutting him loose a year before he reaches the Rule of 75. So they kept Neil on for an extra year, but it was a brutal year for him."
According to Ladsten they didn't let him go because they wanted to be able to fire him for cause.
"They were trying to peg things -- like illegal use of the copy machines on me," said Ladsten. "They were trying to schedule meetings and not tell me so I purposely wouldn't show up and be derelict of my duty. So then when I terminate I won't get my severance benefits."
Ladsten had hired an attorney to oversee his final days and to make sure when he was told something by the administration they would have to follow through. His attorney sent a letter to the administration telling them to give his client an answer on his employment status one way or another.
Even though the wrestling team was gone, the school offered to take Ladsten back full-time. Ladsten had stayed through everything because he didn't want to abandon his wrestlers. After being repeatedly "stabbed in the back" by the administration, once he saw there was no hope for his wrestlers anymore he walked into McLeod's office and asked that the severance package he was offered originally be put back on the table. Two days later, the papers had been signed and after twenty-seven years as an employee and four more as a student, Ladsten walked off of the UMD campus and has never returned.
Even with Ladstan and wrestling gone, the story for McLeod and UMD was far from over. Most damning for McLeod was not that the money from Minnesota taxpayers and from private donors to the school was getting funneled into the coffers of football, boy's basketball and hockey instead of women's programs. It was also revealed that McLeod was diverting funds from the athletic budget into his own bank account. The investigation revealed he had stolen at least $18,000 over a period of years and used it for his own benefit. He signed a statement for the county admitting he took the funds. He was forced to pay back the money and was placed into a diversion program that stated if he kept his nose clean for a period of time, he would not have to receive any additional punishment.
When the indictment came down, the University was finally forced to fire McLeod. Unbelievably, two things occurred. At the press conference when he stepped down, most of the UMD athletic department still stood behind McLeod. More amazingly, over the previous couple of years, in addition to his duties at UMD, McLeod was the head of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the conference that UMD, is associated with. When word of the guilty plea came down, the board kept him on as the leader and face of the WCHA.
"(McLeod) had a lot of friends at UMD," said Hanna. "He had a lot of friends in academia at UMD."
"The Board looked the other way," said Oakes. "I remember them telling me 'we never saw any evidence that he would do that to the WCHA.' Board members reacted like the charges were dropped -- they were going away. They were not dropped. He was given the diversion option."
Oakes continued, "They (the Board) believed Bruce. They chose not to internalize it. They basically sent the message that (the WCHA) doesn't mind being led by a man who admitted taking $18,000. That's okay with us. What's eighteen grand between friends? If I took my hand and shaped it like a gun and I walked into Super America, put it in my coat and said, 'give me everything in the till -- let's say there is $600 -- and I walked out with it. I would go to prison if they caught me. Stealing $18,000 -- that's okay? Instead of a gun (McLeod) did it with a pen. He took it not from a private business -- he took it from a bunch of sports fans, tax payers and kids."
In McLeod's case, it pays to have powerful friends -- that is what this whole thing seemed to come down to. Almost to a man, everyone I interviewed -- Martin and McLeod never returned any of the numerous emails I sent them asking for help on this story -- said that the Duluth area was very protective of their sports programs. They take pride in what they have accomplished and they take pride in those who have become successful from the area. McLeod was an Iron Range kid who played for UMD and was well liked in the community.
"I knew," said Labat, "if we try to prosecute this in Saint Louis county, we are not even going to get to first base. The Saint Louis county people are going to protect their own. UMD is their crown jewel up there. They are not going to do anything to cause a negative outlook on the university."
Malosky was one of the most successful Division II football coaches in history. When Malosky and McLeod spoke, people wanted to believe them. Even when it was proven that they had made mistakes and in McLeod's case, criminal mistakes (more than what is mentioned here), they looked the other way and continued to protect, as Oakes put it, "the sacred cow" that was UMD athletics.
This also was a story of fear. Many people knew about the illegalities that were occurring in the athletic department, but until Ladsten started to ask questions, it was kept hidden.
"Neil Ladsten, I believe," said Lamphere, "lost his job because he started to stand up and say there is something wrong here. When he went to Greg Fox and said 'I need to show you the truth', Greg did not want to look at it. Well what happened to Neil? He was fired. What happens is when people see that happening, somebody standing up for the truth, and they are fired, they say, I'm not going to do that. I can't lose my job. Where else am I going to get a job in Duluth? And so everyone was quiet. That was the thing -- Jimmy and I had nothing to lose. They had never dealt with that before."
Even today, there is a fear of McLeod by people in athletics. I spoke to a former UMD coach who will remain nameless, about McLeod.
The former UMD coach said to me, "I do have to be careful. I am in athletics right now. Mr. McLeod is the commissioner of the WCHA. I just have to be really careful because my whole life and career is still in athletics."
It would be foolish of me to conclude that the demise of the wrestling program was because of any one person. The mismanagement of the funds UMD did have, played a big role in dropping wrestling, but rising costs and shrinking revenue were no doubt part of the reason wrestling was dropped at UMD. Even without the problems Ladsten had with the administration ,wrestling might have been doomed. Hanna and the other former UMD coach both told me eventually a decision had to be made. Did the school want to keep more programs and have them all struggle financially or did they want a smaller number of teams who financially would be able to thrive? I am not going to argue with that logic. I can see both sides to that argument. What everyone at UMD is still unwilling to admit -- something Ladsten, Paddock and Lamphere all told me would happen -- was the investigation and the work the wrestlers did to expose the illegalities was brushed aside by UMD. They claim these changes were coming anyway. As hard as I find that to believe, the change -- if made -- would have been superficial. They were not about to change the culture of the athletic department unless someone made them.
I have been asked more than once if I thought UMD would ever get wrestling back. I have to laugh when I am asked that question. I believe as long as Chancellor Martin is in charge, wrestling will never be a part of UMD athletics. She was thrown into this hornets nest early in her time as Chancellor and decided to believe what ended up being the wrong side. Her first reaction to the aggressive tactics used by Paddock and Lamphere was to try to marginalize them and paint them as disgruntled renegades.
Jerry HoyI believe things got personal on both sides and enough bad blood remains that the scar will never heal. Lamphere's daughter, after this whole episode ended, was a college student at UMD. Lamphere has been trying to get on the UMD alumni mailing list to get updates on the school, and despite repeated attempts, has never been sent one piece of mail.
Despite all the success on the mat Ladsten and his wrestlers had, only two wrestlers are in the UMD Hall of Fame. The first, Jerry Hoy, was inducted just as the scandal was coming about and the second, McClure, was elected into the Hall last year. The timing was too much of a coincidence for Ladsten. The former coach and the administration had not contacted each other once since Ladsten's departure almost fifteen years ago. Shortly after I sent my first email to UMD asking about the wrestling program, Ladsten received a call asking about McClure and his records. Ladsten thinks UMD needed to act fast and get another wrestler into the Hall in advance of this story and because they destroyed virtually everything associated with the wrestling program they needed McClure's information and records.
With all the history behind Ladsten and UMD the chances of Coach Ladsten getting into UMD's Hall of Fame are about as good as mine, but that has not stopped others from recognizing his contribution to the sport. In a unanimous vote, the Minnesota wing of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame has voted him in for the Class of 2009. He will be inducted this spring.
For UMD this story is sad in many ways, but I kept coming back to two points I still cannot understand. The first was how easily the school could have avoided all the scandals, but like Paddock said to me the first time I talked to him, "stupidity and ignorance go hand in hand".
At so many points, all anyone in the UMD athletic department had to do was realize the easiest course of action would have been to keep the wrestling program and allow Ladsten to get out of the football program. At the very least it would have made for a more peaceful coaching staff, and it would have prevented the alumni investigation. Even though Malosky Jr.'s imperfect resume might have been exposed to the people inside UMD, without the investigation Malosky Jr. would likely have been the head football coach following in his father's publicaly untarnished footsteps. McLeod would still have been the athletic director (and would still have the $18,000) to go with his duties with the WCHA. Instead, the belief that they could ride it out gave the school its biggest black eye.
How Bruce McLeod survived this scandal is the second point I just don't understand. Despite admitting to stealing taxpayer money -- money that was supposed to help kids -- he still leads one of the most powerful conferences in NCAA hockey. The WCHA as an organization has decided repeatedly that they are okay having an admitted felon lead their organization. The members of the WCHA are okay having someone who admitted to stealing -- essentially from them -- at least $18,000. They are fine with a leader who oversaw a program that was out of control and did nothing to slow it down and in fact contributed to the corruption.
On the other hand, as Lamphere said, they were not able to save the wrestling program, but they were able to force UMD to make positive changes. They were changes that UMD might have been forced to make eventually anyway, but the wrestlers accelerated the process.
Kathryn MartinOne of the positive aspects to this story is the money that was supposed to go to women's athletics eventually got there. Funding for women's programs across the board at UMD have improved and have given the women in those programs, more opportunities to pursue their dreams. One of the things Paddock and Lamphere went after was the need to get an equivalent Division I women's program started to balance out the men's hockey team under Title IX. Paddock filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights stating that UMD needed an equivalent Division I women's program to off-set the men's team. Originally Martin, who has decided to retire at the end of the 2009-10 school year, went on record saying that UMD will never have a women's DI hockey team. The complaint forced the administration to start the formation of the team. UMD's women's hockey team has won multiple national championships and is consistently one of the best in the country.
I wish the Bulldog wrestling program still existed so that there would be that many more spots for kids to continue with their wrestling careers. I wish it still existed for kids like Tim Labat.
"Timmy would have never gone to college if it hadn't been for wrestling," said his father. "He had dyslexia; he had other learning disability problems. If it hadn't been for wrestling, he never would have gone to three years of college. It was a classic example of a sport that had a great impact on a young man. He loved the sport and the people that he met in the sport."
I wish it still existed for Coach Ladsten and his wrestlers who, against all odds, built a program that competed year in and year out at or near the top of Division II wrestling. In the end it became something bigger than it ever could have been had it stayed in existence. Although the school will not admit it, the program they tried so hard to kill lives on. It lives on every time young kids play on the soccer fields that were built with the money recovered from the Optimists and the Labat fund. It lives on every time a young woman is given a scholarship to get an education and compete on a team for the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldog wrestling program lives on with every women's hockey championship that UMD wins.
"Somewhere there is a little girl," said Lamphere, "strapping up her skates that is going to have a chance to play DI hockey at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. If it wasn't for Jimmy Paddock, doing what he did, this wouldn't have happened."
By the way, Paddock and Lamphere, those disgruntled renegades UMD has cast as the bad guys in all of this -- are an assistant principal, and a sports chaplin for the Athletes in Action organization.
What ever happened to the UMD wrestling program? Regardless of how hard Minnesota-Duluth tries to erase it from memory, they cannot. Because of what it has helped create, the UMD wrestling program will live on -- forever.
This story also appears in the October 16 issue of The Guillotine.