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Chancellors take witness stand as former Minnesota Duluth coach's trial opens

Shannon Miller (left), accompanied by attorney Jane Brunner, walks to the Federal Courthouse Monday morning for a pre-trial conference. Bob King / Forum News Service

DULUTH, Minn.—University of Minnesota Duluth Chancellor Lendley Black sat in the front row of a courtroom Tuesday, surrounded by fellow school officials and supporters.

On the opposite side sat his predecessor, Kathryn Martin, accompanied by past players and supporters of former women's hockey coach Shannon Miller.

If the seating arrangement didn't provide a clear juxtaposition, their trips to the witness stand would.

The chancellors were the first two witnesses called to testify in Miller's sex discrimination and retaliation trial against the university in U.S. District Court in Duluth.

Earlier in the day, a jury of eight women and four men were selected and heard opening statements in the trial, which is expected to continue into next week.

Miller is alleging that university administrators discriminated against her by holding her to different standards than male coaches and retaliated against her for her complaints about disparities in men's and women's athletics.

The university maintains that the December 2014 decision to let her go came as a result of her declining performance and an analysis that showed a cost-per-win well in excess of rival head coaches as UMD faced a budget shortfall.

Martin, who led the university from 1995 to 2010 and was known as an ardent advocate for Miller and the women's hockey team, pulled few punches in her testimony before the crowded courtroom.

"One of the hardest things about being here is that I am, in a sense, testifying about an institution that I hold in the highest regard," she said. "But it is also my responsibility to testify in support of equity in women's athletics."

Martin, the first witness called by Miller's attorneys, told jurors about the efforts she and other university officials made to establish the women's hockey program in the late 1990s in wake of a Title IX complaint at UMD.

Martin recalled recruiting Miller to build the program after watching her lead Canada to a silver medal at the 1998 Olympics. Miller enjoyed considerable success early in her career, winning five national championships by the end of Martin's tenure.

"She had accomplished a great deal with limited resources and support, and she'd beat the best teams out there with twice the budget," Martin testified.

Martin acknowledged that she was protective of the women's hockey program, and that she asked Black to continue those efforts. She said Miller had the support of former athletic director Bob Corran, but his successor, Bob Nielson, was "hesitant about pushing too hard for equity in the women's hockey program."

On cross-examination, university attorney Tim Pramas drew comparisons between the handling of Miller's non-renewal and that of longtime men's hockey coach Mike Sertich in 2000.

Pramas noted that Sertich also had success early in his career but later saw declining performance, with the university making a similar mid-season announcement that his contract would not be renewed.

Asked to explain the Sertich decision, Martin said she did not recall many details, but cited performance issues and the advice of Corran.

In an apparent rebuttal to financial considerations cited by the university in letting Miller go, Martin said that when it comes to coaching decisions, "a lot more goes into it than a numerical evaluation."

"Instead of trying to calculate the cost of victory, what was important to me was making sure we were treating women equitably," Martin testified. "That was always my goal."

Black took the witness stand immediately after Martin, but his testimony was cut short and he figures to face significant additional questioning Wednesday.

Black confirmed that he fielded complaints from Miller about hostile treatment and funding and resources available to her team beginning shortly after he arrived at UMD.

Donald Chance Mark Jr., an attorney for Miller, pressed the chancellor on benefits other women's hockey programs had that UMD did not, such as fifth-year eligibility, summer school funding and a full-time director of operations.

"Despite all these impediments, she was still able to achieve greater success than all those other programs, wasn't she?" Mark asked.

"In terms of national championships, yes," Black replied.

"That's kind of the point, isn't it," the attorney retorted.

"Yes," Black responded, "but so is consistency over time."

Earlier Tuesday, jurors heard opening statements outlining the case each side will attempt to prove.

Dan Siegel, an attorney for Miller, started his comments by saying that the recent Olympics were "almost a tribute to Shannon Miller's contributions to hockey" — citing the contributions of 13 of her former assistant coaches, players and recruits.

Siegel said that while Miller was among the most successful hockey coaches in the world, she fell victim to a "purge of women" led by Berlo, who arrived at UMD in 2013.

Siegel said Miller was subjected to different standards than Scott Sandelin, her counterpart in the men's hockey program, who was paid more and earned an extension while maintaining a substantially lower career winning percentage and winning only one national championship.

Despite missing the NCAA tournament in three consecutive years, Siegel told jurors that Miller's team was ranked sixth in the country and had won 11 of its last 12 games when Black and Berlo informed her on Dec. 9, 2014, that her contract would not be renewed.

"This was national news," he told the jury. "It was unheard of for a university to fire a coach as successful as Shannon Miller mid-season in a year when her team is doing so well."

Jeanette Bazis, an attorney representing UMD, said the university had no dispute that Miller was one of the world's most successful coaches up until 2010, warranting a number of contract extensions and pay raises over the years.

"She was paid like the coach of the winningest hockey team in the country," Bazis told jurors. "But the evidence will show that there was a sharp decline in her performance of the team after she received (her last) contract."

She noted that Miller's team failed to make the NCAA tournament in each of her last four seasons and cited an abysmal record against conference rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin over that time period.

Bazis told jurors that it was reasonable for UMD to decide against a new contract after a financial analysis revealed that she was paid approximately three times as much per win as her rival women's hockey head coaches during that span.

"It was apparent to Mr. Black and Mr. Berlo that they needed to bring in new leadership," she said. "UMD stands by its decision."

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