CollegiateGeneralNewsSeveral RMISA Schools Currently Without an Active Nordic Coach

Gavin Kentch Gavin KentchSeptember 10, 2020
Matthew Perry Johnson, shown here in an earlier position with Alaska Winter Stars, began working as the new head coach for the Montana State University Ski Team in August 2015. (Photo: Montana State University)

Multiple schools in the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association are experiencing flux with their nordic coaching staff going into the 2020/2021 ski season, according to representatives from each school. The schools in question are the University of Alaska Anchorage, University of Utah, and Montana State University, all of which have well-established nordic programs that placed highly at last year’s NCAA Championships. Neither Anchorage nor Montana State currently has anyone filling this position. Utah has two nordic coaches on staff, but they are both subject to furloughs of unknown length due to budget shortfalls.

University of Alaska Anchorage, or UAA, has multiple problems for the future: The Board of Regents is meeting today and tomorrow to vote on a proposal from the chancellor and athletic director to cut both the men’s and women’s ski teams after this academic year. But it appears to have a more immediate problem for the present: The school does not officially have anyone currently coaching the nordic team.

The current roster page for the UAA ski team lists Marine Dusser Bjornsen as the assistant nordic coach, and Adam Verrier as the volunteer assistant coach. But Verrier is just that – while an enthusiastic volunteer assistant, he is not employed by UAA directly. And Dusser Bjornsen is no longer listed in the online directory for UAA employees, which does list both Head Ski Coach Sparky Anderson and Assistant Alpine Ski Coach Anna Berecz.

Marine Dusser was named RMISA Nordic Coach of the Year in her first year leading the UAA Seawolves. (Photo: Adam Verrier)

Trond Flagstad was announced as the new UAA head nordic coach in May 2019, and was set to “begin his duties on August 18th,” 2019. What appears to be his official UAA bio page is still available online (albeit at a site not hosted by UAA). Nonetheless, Flagstad does not seem to have publicly coached at UAA during the 2019/2020 ski season or academic year. He is not listed as a current UAA employee in the online directory.

“Our nordic ski position is currently vacant and we are working through the hiring process,” a UAA media relations representative wrote to FasterSkier on Thursday.

There is no ski coaching position currently listed on the UAA jobs site.

At the University of Utah, meanwhile, Athletic Director Mark Harlan announced last week that the school would furlough every employee in its athletic department, for periods ranging from 1 to 8 weeks. The news was widely reported by, among others, the Deseret News, Sports Illustrated, and local TV station KUTV.

In a September 5 tweet, Harlan wrote, “All staff and coaches will furlough a minimum of 1 week to a maximum of 8 weeks.Head coaches, myself and cabinet will furlough for 2 weeks. We are fully operational as we stagger the schedule through Jan 1.  Sharing this sacrifice as a team allows us to emerge stronger than ever.”

Following the decision of the Pac-12 conference to postpone all fall sports – in particular, the main revenue sport of football – Harlan told the Deseret News in August that the decision could lead to the school losing $50 to $60 million in income against an annual budget of $91 million.

Everyone in the athletic department is furloughed anywhere from 1-8 weeks,” wrote Utah media relations representative Joseph Feldman to FasterSkier on Thursday. “The priority on when those furloughs are happening is to make sure the student-athletes are still operating as normally as they can and still have all of the resources they need. The rest of the department will be fully functional as the furloughs are staggered until January 1.”

Utah media relations representative Paul Kirk did not directly answer specific questions about when Director of Skiing Fredrik Landstedt and Head Nordic Coach Miles Havlick will be or have been furloughed, or for how long the two men will be or have been furloughed. Kirk wrote to FasterSkier on Saturday, “We are unable to share specifics about when any staff member or coach is on furlough, but when an individual is on furlough his or her email out of office reply may reflect that.”

It appears from Harlan’s tweet and Feldman’s statement that both Landstedt and Havlick have been or will be furloughed for some period of between 1 to 8 weeks, at some point between last week and January 1, 2021. If either or both of them is treated as a “head coach” under Harlan’s standards, then his furlough is or will be for 2 weeks.

On Sunday, through a spokesman, Landstedt stated, “The ski coaches are staggering their furloughs during the fall, and one or more coaches will be working at all times during this period. The University of Utah Ski team has been practicing with coaches present since the second week of school.”

Counting alpine coaches and student assistant coaches, Utah has a healthy six coaches currently listed on its roster. 400 miles to the north, however, Montana State University only has two people listed as ski coaching staff: Kevin Francis, the head alpine coach, and Emily Danza, assistant alpine coach. (The “staff” section for the women’s skiing roster looks the same.)

Screenshot of MSU coaching staff page as of Sept. 9, 2020.

But earlier this summer (on June 22, the last date the ski roster page was archived by the Wayback Machine), the staff section looked like this:

Screenshot of MSU coaching staff page, as archived at the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine on June 22, 2020.

That’s Matthew Johnson and Sawyer Kesselheim, both recently associated with the MSU nordic team but no longer there.

The Montana State athletic department confirmed in a Thursday email to FasterSkier that both men had moved on: “We received a letter of resignation from Matt Johnson last week. Montana State is currently working with its HR Department to search for a new head coach. Sawyer Kesselheim was not planning on returning this season.”

There is no ski coaching position currently listed on the MSU jobs site.

As of Thursday morning, Johnson was still listed as the head nordic coach in the MSU online directory:

Screenshot of MSU faculty and staff directory on Sept. 10, 2020.

He also still lists his current job as MSU head nordic coach on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Attempts to contact Johnson on Wednesday and Thursday for comment were not immediately successful.

Montana State placed seventh at this year’s NCAA Championships. UAA was sixth, and Utah was first. Of the six RMISA schools that scored points in the nordic race at this year’s NCAA Championships – UAA, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Colorado, Denver, MSU, and Utah – fully half of them are without an active nordic ski coach at this point in the season. It further appears that Denver (second at this year’s NCAAs), which last season employed Rogan Brown as an assistant nordic coach, only has head nordic coach Toni Roponen at present, with no assistant coach for the nordic team.

This story has been updated with additional information about the timing and nature of furloughs at the University of Utah.

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch is a lifelong Alaskan. He skis with the Alaska Pacific University Masters team in Anchorage, plays with his two adorable daughters, and occasionally works as a solo attorney. He has a cat named Marit. He was probably on snow this year before you were.

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