Miller addresses non-renewal as UMD trial resumes
An emotional Shannon Miller returned to the witness stand on Monday, telling jurors in her federal discrimination lawsuit about the December 2014 decision that ended her tenure as women's hockey coach at the University of Minnesota Duluth after 16 seasons.
Miller spent all morning and part of the afternoon testifying about complaints she had made at UMD, the non-renewal of her contract and her unsuccessful efforts to find employment in the years since.
The 54-year-old Miller, who now lives in Las Vegas and operates a pedal-pub business, had a difficult time maintaining her composure at various points in her testimony.
"I'm trying to be strong, trying to recover and move on," she said through tears. "But I feel like it's ruined me. I loved what I did so much. It was my life. I feel ruined. My heart's broken. I have a broken spirit. It's a horrible way to live."
Miller is suing the university in U.S. District Court in Duluth for sex discrimination and retaliation — claims that UMD denies. The trial has now seen five days of testimony, with a jury of eight women and four men expected to begin deliberating later this week.
Under questioning from one of her attorneys, Dan Siegel, Miller testified that she felt that her team was off to a good start — ranked sixth in the country — and had excellent recruits lined up when Chancellor Lendley Black and athletic director Josh Berlo informed her of their decision.
"At first I went into shock because I thought I was going in to get a new contract, because we were doing so well," Miller testified. "Then I felt flattened, crushed, sick to my stomach. I felt lied to, deceived and really badly betrayed. Really badly betrayed."
On cross-examination, university attorney Tim Pramas sought to dispute Miller's characterization of the season to that point.
Pramas noted that the team struggled early in the year in six games against its main competitors of Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota — winning just one match in regulation, losing four and picking up a shootout victory in the other.
While the team won 11 of its next 12 games, Pramas said the six opponents in those series ended up finishing the season with a combined record of just 78-125-11. He asked if UMD could expect to make the NCAA tournament while struggling to beat top teams.
"I don't know the stats," Miller responded. "I just know we were ranked sixth in the country and were doing extremely well."
Miller also expressed great confidence about her incoming recruiting classes, with Maddie Rooney at goaltender — a position the team had struggled to fill in recent years.
Asked about her comments to Berlo and Black about wanting only a two-year contract extension, Miller called it a strategy developed in response to months of "getting jerked around" and feeling humiliated as the university cited budgetary concerns in delaying contract discussions.
"I wanted to make it simple and ask for a two-year extension," she testified. "By then, we would be winning, but also the university finances would be better, and naturally they would give me a long-term contract."
Pramas also sought to show jurors that it is not unprecedented for a college or professional sports team to let go of a coach who has had a successful career.
He cited Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden being non-renewed after 34 seasons, as well as longtime University of Denver men's hockey coach George Gwozdecky, who made the NCAA tournament at each of his final six seasons.
"My knowledge and experience is that male coaches tend to coach for as long as they want, and much later in life than I was when I was fired at the age of 51," Miller testified in response. "I wasn't involved in those circumstances, so I don't know their records or the personal things that were going on behind closed doors."
Miller told jurors that she was particularly disappointed in UMD's decision because she had turned down head coaching positions at five other colleges during her tenure, rejecting a higher salary to stay with the program she had built.
She testified that she has been unable to find work since being let go and filing suit. She said she has applied for about 50 openings for men's and women's college hockey coaches, national team coaches and athletic directors.
She said she was seriously considered to head the Chinese national team and has sent her resume to every National Hockey League team, having discussions with four and earning an invitation to apply for a position with the Calgary Flames after this season.
Miller in December 2015 established her small business, Sunny Cycle, in Palm Springs, Calif., with partner Jen Banford. Both testified Monday that the business to this point has operated as a loss, but expressed optimism about its growth prospects.
Banford, who was the head softball coach and part-time director of women's hockey operations until 2015, was called to testify about Miller's complaints to Berlo and other athletic department officials.
Banford, whose counterpart with the men's hockey team worked full-time, cited issues with the women's program having a combined equipment manager and strength-and-conditioning coach, as well as inexperienced athletic trainers, a poor recruiting budget and other issues she said did not affect the men's team.
She testified that once during a softball meeting, Berlo told her UMD would be testing out a new Division I perk that allowed the school to offer additional meals to student-athletes. The benefit was limited to the men's program, she said.
"I need you to control Shannon on this one," Berlo allegedly told Banford. "Focus on what she has, not on what the men have."
The university has argued that the men's and women's teams did not receive unequal treatment. They contend that more wear-and-tear on equipment, higher game attendance and more frequent air travel requirements are among the factors that account for additional staff and resources.
Banford will resume cross-examination from defense attorneys on Tuesday morning.
U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz told jurors that testimony should wrap up Wednesday, and that they should expect to receive the case after hearing closing arguments and final instructions Thursday morning.