By Doyle Woody
Citing a lack of action on well-publicized issues involving the UAA athletic department, Gov. Sean Parnell in a recent letter encouraged University of Alaska president Patrick Gamble to "take a stand'' and buoy university supporters and the state.
Parnell, in a May 23 letter copied to the UA board of regents and UAA chancellor Tom Case, said media coverage, along with public contacts with his office, prompted his letter. Parnell said those communications "are about much more than the search for a hockey coach'' and involve numerous UA sports teams.
UAA, while in the midst of a prolonged and controversial search to replace head coach Dave Shyiak, who was fired March 29 after eight seasons, has also been in the news for an incident in which Shyiak struck a player with his stick during a 2011 practice.
A pair of groups -- the Alaska State Hockey Association and the UAA Hockey Alumni Association -- issued resolutions of no-confidence in UAA athletic director Steve Cobb after UAA appointed an initial search committee of four UAA employees to find Shyiak's replacement. Monday, local businessmen Steve Nerland and Don Winchester, longtime supporters of UAA athletics, voiced confidence in Cobb and said they had helped form a group called Stand Up For UAA Athletics.
Parnell did not specifically cite which issues he was addressing, but worded his letter strongly.
"I have waited for action from the University's leadership; however, to date no decisions appear to have been made or communicated publicly,'' Parnell wrote. "University supporters and the State of Alaska deserve more. The credibility of the University is at stake, as is the well-being of our students.
"I encourage you to take a leadership role and communicate it on these issues. Stand for accountability, integrity, and professionalism. Please take a stand to restore strength, stability and credibility to the institution on these topics, and one that will be in the long-term best interest of the students.''
Cobb recently said his review of the 2011 incident in which Shyiak struck Nick Haddad with his stick -- all parties agree the incident occurred, but differ on the severity of the slash -- concluded Shyiak did not warrant punishment. Cobb in 2010 issued Shyiak a formal reprimand after Shyiak threw a water bottle across the ice in a Governor's Cup game against UAF in Fairbanks, stepped onto the ice to argue with officials and was ejected.
UAA has said it will not comment on the Shyiak-Haddad incident because the UAF police department is investigating it.
Nerland last Friday emailed Mike Nizich, Parnell's chief of staff, seeking clarification on Parnell's letter. Nerland said he inquired as a private citizen, before helping form Stand Up For UAA Athletics.
Nizich, in an email response Saturday to Nerland, said the governor's concerns are not about "Dr. Cobb or the hockey coach,'' but about extensive attention UAA is receiving and the barrage of calls from the public demanding action. That requires the "university to take the appropriate action, whatever that is, and get this behind the University,'' Nizich wrote.
"What is hard to tell the public is that there is an investigation going on and therefore nothing is going to happen until that is complete,'' Nizich wrote. "People are frustrated because it appears to them that officials at the university are ignoring the issue and not addressing the issues being raised in the media.
"The sooner this is addressed by university leadership in the media the better things should get.
"This is a very unfortunate situation for Dr. Cobb and the university. We are hearing from people clear back east who have been following the situation.''
Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow in an email Tuesday said the governor was surveying flood damage in Galena and unavailable for an interview.
"The governor's letter speaks for itself,'' Leighow wrote. "There has been a communication breakdown. The people of Alaska deserve a more full explanation of how the University is dealing with recent issues regarding University athletic programs.''
UA spokeswoman Kate Wattum said Gamble plans to speak to regents about Parnell's letter.
"He takes his leadership from the board, and this has elevated to a board issue,'' Wattum said.
Cobb declined comment.
A text message to Case, who a month ago publicly supported Cobb, was not returned.
The University of Alaska is the statewide college system headquartered in Fairbanks, with campuses in Anchorage (UAA), Fairbanks (UAF) and three Southeast locations (UAS). UA's board of regents appoint the UA president. The governor appoints the board of regents, who are confirmed by the legislature.
Hockey is UAA's flagship Division I sport in an athletic program that competes at the Division II level in most sports.
Ashley Reed, who is best known as a lobbyist, and said he is a hockey fan and former UAA season ticket-holder, said he welcomed Parnell's letter.
"Sean Parnell has shown more leadership on the issues than anyone else in a leadership position, and I applaud him,'' Reed said. "He's taken a bold stand, and demonstrated leadership and courage.''
Cobb also has his supporters, who champion Seawolves successes on Cobb's watch in most of its Division II programs and in the classroom.
"The reason that we have become more active in trying to get this message out -- in general, we've operated below the radar in our advocacy -- is, if Dr. Cobb is terminated, winning, graduation rates and championships are not important to UA statewide,'' Nerland said.
The group said Cobb "has set an unprecedented standard for academic and athletic performance...that all University Departments and campuses including UAF and UA Southeast would be envious of.''
UAA's prolonged search for Shyiak's replacement also has kept the hockey program in the news. Case halted the initial search, and the school appointed a supplemental search committee and tweaked the job qualifications, before the job was again opened to applicants.
UAA is expected to name a group of finalists this week and has said it hopes to hire a new coach by June 15. The Seawolves job is the only Division I hockey head coaching job vacant among the 59 such jobs across the country.