UAA ousts athletic director Cobb

Beth Bragg
Marc Lester

Steve Cobb is leaving after 13 years as UAA's athletic director, and he is leaving mad.

After several tumultuous weeks that began with the firing of the school's hockey coach, Cobb was ousted Wednesday by UAA Chancellor Tom Case.

Case, who a month ago declared his support of Cobb, said in a press release that persistent criticism of the longtime administrator had become too distracting.

"It has become clear in recent days that despite his efforts, Steve will not be able to bring all elements of the public together in support of UAA, and that criticism of Steve has become a distraction from the great work that UAA does every day," Case said.

The move came one day after a letter from Gov. Sean Parnell to University of Alaska president Patrick Gamble was made public. In the letter, Parnell demanded that Gamble "take a stand" on athletic department issues.

In a blistering statement given to the Daily News, Cobb said Gamble didn't speak to him or anyone in the athletic department before the university's decision to fire him. He also took aim at Ashley Reed, a lobbyist who was among those who encouraged Parnell to get involved.

"Patrick Gamble may be mentally ill," Cobb said in the statement, "when you give away the university to Ashley Reed and a few local scoundrels, you are by definition insane and I intend to prove it in court.

"Gamble made the decision to fire me without speaking to one employee of the UAA Athletic Department, not one staff member, not one coach, not one student-athlete and certainly not me. Apparently Ashley Reed is the final authority.

"I am suffering secondary embarrassment for the university that I loved and devoted almost thirteen years of my life."

Reed said he is one of many people who, frustrated by matters involving Cobb and UAA athletics, took his complaints to Parnell and other lawmakers.

"I was just the first person in a cog of many people to complain," Reed said Wednesday.

Cobb's departure comes after questions were raised over the handling of a 2011 incident in which former hockey coach Dave Shyiak slashed a player with his stick during a practice. The incident was made public in the aftermath of Shyiak's firing in late March.

Cobb said recently that he conducted an investigation in 2011 in which he spoke to several people who were on the ice the day Shyiak slashed Nick Haddad across the thighs. He said he determined the action did not warrant punishment.

In Wednesday's press release, Case said a current police investigation of the Shyiak-Haddad incident is nearing completion.

"I have been assured by police that the investigation found no basis for recommending criminal charges against Coach Shyiak, or anyone else," Case said. "I am particularly pleased that there was no evidence of intimidation of players and that the investigation confirmed that AD Cobb did in fact conduct a good faith review of the allegations at the time."

Initially, Cobb drew the ire of the hockey community for not including any hockey alumni or other members of the hockey community on the search committee for Shyiak's replacement. He was the recipient of votes of "no confidence" from the UAA Hockey Alumni Association and the Alaska State Hockey Association, both of which claimed the athletic director was out of touch with the hockey community.

"He never grasped that this is a hockey town," Reed said. "I'm glad he's gone."

The search committee named four finalists and brought each to town for a round of interviews. But criticism continued to mount, and Case halted the search so that a new committee could be formed, one that includes program founder and former coach Brush Christianson and others from the hockey community.

Bill Spindle, vice chancellor for administrative services, will choose the new hockey coach from a list of finalists expected to be announced next week, a UAA spokeswoman said.

Tim McDiffett, the school's senior associate athletic director, will serve as acting athletic director until an interim athletic director is named.

Cobb was 41 when he came to UAA in August 2000 from Georgia Southwestern State University, an National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) school. He started at $77,000 annually and was earning $113,660 this year to oversee sports at UAA, an National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II school that competes at the NCAA Division I level in hockey, skiing and gymnastics.

Case praised Cobb in Wednesday's press release, citing some of the highlights from Cobb's tenure -- 210 All-America performances, 121 Academic All-Americans, 15 conference championships, nine Division II West Region championships.

"Though it's necessary for us to move ahead under new leadership in Seawolf Athletics, Dr. Cobb's outstanding contributions to our student-athletes, the community and to Seawolf Nation have been unprecedented," Case said in the press release.

Bobbi Olson, who with her husband Jim hosted a reception for Cobb on Wednesday night, is a longtime UAA supporter who says Cobb was the best athletic director the school has had.

"He has certainly made Anchorage more of a college town than it ever had been," she said. "You never saw the Seawolf logo on buildings before or on buses. He's done a lot.

"He was the leader. He took responsibility and tried to make his coaches responsible and best of all he raised the bar academically for the athletes."

Cobb's reign also saw the continuing decline of hockey, whose glory days ended in the early 1990s. It also saw the decline of the Great Alaska Shootout, which lost its luster when the NCAA relaxed the rule that made the Shootout one of just a handful of pre-season tournaments. Now there are dozens and dozens of them, including one sponsored by ESPN, which went from being a Shootout partner to a Shootout competitor.

Cobb pushed for a new sports arena, which is under construction and will open in 2014, but it does not include ice -- meaning the Seawolves will continue to play hockey off-campus at Sullivan Arena, to the ire of at least some of the hockey community. He created the Seawolf Hall of Fame, established a homecoming week and coined the phrase "It's a great day to be a Seawolf," heard frequently at UAA athletic gatherings.

"This is not a good day to be a Seawolf, there's no question about it," said Michael Friess, who coaches track and cross country at UAA. "I think it could have been handled differently with the focus really on helping to develop a struggling (hockey) program.

"If the attempt was to help our athletic department, I don't think this will do the job. I think this will set us back several years."

People not involved with the university or its athletic department played significant roles in Cobb's dismissal, Friess said, and he is worried that "outside influences" could get UAA in trouble with the NCAA.

"When you're talking about the NCAA, if they see boosters and alumni and lobbyists running the show, you're going to get the death penalty," he said, referring to the NCAA's most severe punishment, handed down when it believes a school has lost what is called "institutional control" of its athletic department.

"We have a probability of losing institutional control when you realize the amount of lobbying that was occurring, all the outside influences helping to call the shots here," Friess said. "You've gotta have the feeling, 'Where is that gonna stop? Where is that gonna end?' ''

Countered Reed: "It's nice when publicly funded people listen to the people."


Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.