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Wayne Nelson / Forum News Service, Published November 18 2013

'I felt like we needed to make a change,' AD says after firing UND coach Mussman

GRAND FORKS – Late Saturday night at Aggie Stadium in Davis, Calif., it was clear a difficult season had taken its toll on University of North Dakota football coach Chris Mussman. After a 34-18 loss against UC Davis, UND ended the season 3-8 – a year that saw North Dakota dominated by the powerhouses of the Big Sky Conference.

On Monday, UND athletic director Brian Faison relieved Mussman of his football duties, saying the program needs to become more competitive in the Big Sky Conference – one of the top FCS leagues in the country.

Mussman, who joined the UND staff as an assistant in 1999, served six seasons as the North Dakota coach, finishing with a 31-34 overall record. But UND’s inability to compete in the Big Sky prompted Faison to make the change. In UND’s two Big Sky seasons under Mussman, North Dakota finished 5-11.

But this season, UND lost by an average of 31 points per game to Big Sky powers Montana, Montana State, Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona. UND also had a favorable home schedule, but many fans left the Alerus Center at halftime of most of North Dakota home games this season.

“At the end of the day, we expect to compete in the Big Sky,” said Faison. “That’s the level of competition we’re going to have to compete at year in and year out in the Big Sky. I felt like we needed to make a change in the program at this point in time to continue that process and build to that level.”

Mussman said he understood Faison’s decision, adding he has no bitter feelings at all toward UND.

“I’m disappointed, obviously,” said Mussman. “But I understand the decision. I have no hard feelings for Brian or President (Robert) Kelley.

“It’s part of this profession. I’m more upset with myself for not getting it done. I will always be a fan of UND. That will never change.”

Mussman has two years remaining on his contract. He will receive his full salary in 2014 and 50 percent of his salary in 2015, providing he does not take another coaching position. The full buyout will cost UND approximately $175,000, although Faison said no student fees or state-appropriated money will be used to cover those costs.

Faison said the decision to relieve Mussman was difficult.

“We’re sitting in here crying; that’s how much Chris means to me,” said Faison, referring to the Monday morning meeting. “Chris gets it. It’s not easy. But it’s the business we’re in.”

UND’s assistant coaches also appear to be out of a job. Their contracts run through January, and Faison said it will be up to the new coach whether to retain any of UND’s nine assistant coaches.

In effect, the coaching change means football operations have ceased for the time being at Memorial Stadium, meaning there are no year-end meetings with players and no recruiting.

Strength coach Nate Baukol will be the point person at Memorial Stadium until a new coach is hired.

Faison said UND would like to hire a coach as soon as possible, but the athletic department has to follow university procedure in the hiring process.

The best guess is that a new coach won’t be named until sometime in December.

“Some candidates may be involved with playoffs or bowl games,” Faison said. “You don’t know if that is going to be a factor or not and whether they can entertain an interview or offer because they’re still competing at another institution. We’ll have to see how that plays out.”

Mussman’s tenure at UND had its share of challenges.

He took over for Dale Lennon, who left for the Southern Illinois job prior to the 2008 season. Mussman led the program through the transition from Division II to Division I football and he also had to deal with the controversial Fighting Sioux nickname issue, which did have negative effects on recruiting.

Also, scheduling was difficult during the transition. UND struggled to find quality home games and eventually landed in the Great West Conference, a five-team league that did not have an automatic qualifier for the FCS playoffs.

In 2012, however, UND joined the Big Sky Conference – a league that gave most of UND’s athletic teams a permanent and competitive home.

UND’s first season in the Big Sky was a mixed bag. North Dakota beat league power Montana at home in a record-setting game. But it struggled with other league powers. UND struggled from the start of this season, losing five of its seven home games.

UND lost only seven home games in Mussman’s first five seasons. Attendance also waned throughout the 2013 season. In UND’s final home game against Northern Colorado, the attendance was listed at 5,984, but there were no more than 2,500 fans at the Alerus.

“Attendance was a factor,” said Faison.

Faison said the search for a new coach will be nationwide.

“We want someone that has NCAA coaching experience and Division I experience, whether it’s a coordinator, position coach or a head coach,” said Faison, adding the new coach also will have to be a strong recruiter.

After coaching his last game at UND on Saturday, Mussman said he wouldn’t dwell on his future. But it was clear that the season had been a draining one for him.

“I probably could have taken better care of myself,” he said. “But I’m more concerned with my players and coaches.”

On Monday, Mussman admitted the stress of the job has taken a toll.

“My family has seen it wear on me,” he said. “I’ve aged. I don’t sleep. It’s been difficult. But how can I be disappointed with my time at UND? The good times outweigh the bad, absolutely.”

Faison said the decision to make a change did not result from any classroom concerns or off-the-field issues.

“Those (coaches) wanted to be successful,” Faison said. “They didn’t do anything halfway. It just didn’t work out at the level we needed.”


Nelson writes for the Grand Forks Herald