Utah State University football players said Monday they would’ve understood if school officials passed on interim coach Frank Maile for the head coaching job if the decision was purely on his merit.
But they believe there was something else.
They were so convinced, 80 players agreed to skip their last game in protest.
Concerns originated with a Zoom call the team had with President Noelle Cockett.
Players lobbied her to keep Maile on as the head coach, noting his popularity, and the need for continuity after a period of considerable coaching turnover.
Linebackers Kevin Meitzenheimer and Nick Heninger say Cockett asked players about Maile’s LDS faith.
“What do we say to people who have concerns — or outside concerns — about hiring an LDS Mormon from Utah,” Meitzenheimer said, summarizing Cockett’s comments.
Heninger offered a similar version of what Cockett said.
“How he’s a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and how that looks outwardly for like, recruiting,” he said. “She mentioned the Polynesian culture as well.”
Cockett issued a statement over the weekend, saying she was “devastated that my comments were interpreted as bias against anyone’s religious background.”
The two linebackers say players on the call defended Maile, noting the team has a diverse range of players from a variety of backgrounds, and Maile wouldn’t struggle at all in recruiting players from all over the country.
Upset players met shortly after in the locker room at the stadium.
“You have 80 guys who heard the same thing,” Meitzenheimer said. “Eighty guys all on board, willing to not play a football game.”
Meitzenheimer and Heninger each have a year left of eligibility. Why rock the boat now?
“It’s something we can all fix, and I think we should,” Heninger said.
Meitzenheimer said he has no ill will toward the new coach, Blake Anderson. He’d just like to make sure the school reforms its hiring process.
“We actually care about this place,” he said.
School officials on Monday denied requests for interviews, saying only that the university has hired an outside investigator to look into what happened.