Track team hurdles inquiries

News of two ongoing investigations of rules and welfareviolations in the Portland State track program did not come as asurprise to many members of last year’s track team after a”rollercoaster” season of inner turmoil. In interviews conducted inthe wake of the June 23 Oregonian article detailing the scope ofthe investigations, student athletes painted a picture of a teamwhose success was undermined by communications failures andindecisive leadership.

As reported in the Oregonian, the Internal Audit Division of theOregon University System is investigating possiblemisappropriations of school funds, while a separate probe led byBob Lockwood, a professor of administration of justice and the PSUNCAA faculty athletic representative, investigates possible NCAAviolations. Among the possible violations are allegations thatuniversity funds were used to pay the entry fees for PSU track headcoach Kebba Tolbert’s wife, Althea Johnson, an athlete herself andan unpaid assistant coach, and to pay for the lodging costs for anon-PSU athlete coached by Tolbert. The alleged inappropriate usesof funds are more galling in light of budget-tightening measurestaken over the course of the season.

An example of questionable allocations repeatedly cited byathletes occurred at the Drake Relays. For the entirety of afour-day meet in Iowa, students were allocated $13 to cover mealswhile Tolbert, his wife, and assistant distance coach Mike Hickeyreceived $88 each. Coach Tolbert was unavailable for comment forthis article, but told the Oregonian that the discrepancy was dueto fundraising the coaches had done. Athletes interviewed said the$13 allocation was substantially below normal.

The allegations shocked senior Evan Garich, an AcademicAll-District distance runner and also a member of the PSU StudentFee Committee. “I knew that there was drama and negativity goingon…but having been a huge proponent of athletics, to haveallegations of that sort come out when I’m fighting for the trackdepartment is infuriating.”

Echoing the sentiments of other athletes, senior Lisa Gunderson,a four-time Big Sky All-Conference performer in the high jump, saidthat financially the 2004 season was “completely different from anyother year I’ve had at PSU,” noting that many student athletes weremore worried about their ability to afford the costs associatedwith traveling than in previous years.

Shaun Straka, a junior thrower, alleges that Tolbert dismissedhim after he told Tolbert he could not afford to attend the DrakeRelays if his meals were not covered. PSU athletic director TomBurman claims Straka’s dismissal resulted from various”disciplinary reasons.” Straka later returned to the team.Gunderson also claimed to have been dismissed from the team byTolbert under unclear circumstances one week and then brought backsoon after. Both athletes cited communication problems with Tolbertregarding their status on the team as a significant source offrustration and confusion.

Last season was Tolbert’s first as a head coach after coming toPSU from Syracuse where he was an assistant head coach focusing onrecruiting, jumps and multi-events according to a PSU pressrelease. As the PSU head coach, Tolbert’s responsibilitiesexpanded. In addition to coaching jumps and multi-events, Tolbertwas responsible for managing the financial and logistic aspects ofthe track team.

Burman seemed aware that Tolbert might have been over his headin his new responsibilities. When asked what the athleticdepartment planned to do in the future he was quick to respond, “Weare restructuring [Tolbert’s] world and the track and field programfor the coming year. He definitely made some mistakes and we areworking to correct them.”

Burman expects the results of the two investigations to come anyday and was optimistic that any potential penalties wouldn’t be toosevere.

Gunderson and Garich both expressed optimism that the team wouldovercome any potential obstacles in the coming year. Gundersonnoted, “the team really bound together with all the adversity andgot to know [each other] better. In the end it was kind of a goodthing.”

Whether or not the adversity brings the team together, freshmanthrower Jordan Senn, summed up the situation revolving around theallegations, saying, “It’s sad because the competitors are what[college athletics] is for and they end up getting the bad end ofthe deal.”