By Louie St. George on Feb 10, 2015 at 11:15 p.m.
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Hours before they embarked on an eight-game road trip to Arkansas, Minnesota Duluth softball players and head coach Jen Banford were discussing contracts Tuesday at Ward Wells Field House.
On Monday, Banford rejected the university’s offer of a new contract, which would have kept her in charge of a softball program she has guided to 273 victories. Thus, this season, which commences Thursday, will be Banford’s 10th and final one with the Bulldogs.
The latest revelation is part of a saga that began in December when Banford, who also serves as director of operations for women’s hockey, was caught up in UMD’s decision to part ways with coach Shannon Miller after the current campaign. Banford, like Miller’s assistant coaches, Laura Schuler and Gina Kingsbury, was told she would not return to the hockey program.
A letter she received from the university dated Dec. 11 and obtained by the News Tribune led her to believe she also was being ousted as softball coach. In part, the letter read, “Your appointment as the Director of Hockey Operations/Head Softball Coach … will end on June 14, 2015.” UMD has indicated that it was eliminating that specific dual-role position, but that it wanted Banford to return as softball coach.
Banford believes otherwise.
“I had it confirmed by a UMD administrator and also UMD’s (human resources) department, that I had, indeed, been 100 percent terminated from my position,” she said Tuesday. “The letter speaks for itself — ‘Thank you for your services and good luck in your future.’ If they planned on retaining me, the University of Minnesota policy would have been to put that in the letter. So it’s pretty clear to me.”
According to a news release Monday from the school’s athletic department, “UMD had always intended that Banford continue as head softball coach.”
Banford’s removal from the hockey team is standard university practice, according to the release, allowing the incoming coach to select his or her staff.
“We are sorry coach Banford has not accepted an appointment to continue coaching UMD softball,” athletic director Josh Berlo said in the release. “She leaves UMD softball with a strong foundation. We appreciate coach Banford’s contributions to UMD athletics over the past nine years.”
In her role as softball coach and director of hockey operations, Banford’s salary was about $53,000 — $38,154 for softball and $15,000 for hockey. Asked the terms of the contract she rejected Monday, Banford said she first wanted to consult with her lawyer before discussing that.
Because it’s for softball only, the contract does represent a pay cut. But Banford said that wasn’t the primary reason she elected to turn it down.
“With the direction that UMD has taken since December, there was no way that I felt … I thought it was impossible for me to take the offer that they gave,” she said.
In nine seasons in the dugout, Banford is 273-174 for a .611 winning percentage. The Bulldogs have made four NCAA Division II Central Regional appearances under her tutelage and, in 2013, they won the second-most games in program history (41) en route to an NSIC regular-season championship. Banford was the league’s coach of the year that spring.
Her players Tuesday admitted shock at everything that has transpired.
“When I heard about the whole hockey thing, that was surprising as well, but to be honest I thought the whole time that she would remain as softball coach, that there was no tie between the two,” said Sami Schnyder, a junior infielder from Waconia, Minn. “But once we found out that there was a tie between the two, that was really shocking.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Schnyder’s teammate, Ashley Lewis, said she came to UMD because of Banford. She will play her senior season for a new coach.
“I think, if I was a freshman, I would be looking to transfer because I came here for the coach, and I’m not really happy with how the athletic department has handled women’s hockey and softball,” Lewis, a catcher from Minnetrista, Minn., said.
Both players said they were itching to get out of town and return their focus to softball. The Bulldogs left Tuesday for Arkansas, where they will play all eight games against Central Regional foes, meaning this season-opening trek could have big implications come postseason time.
Banford, too, is excited to see how her team responds to the early test. Her de facto last hurrah at UMD starts with a doubleheader Thursday against Arkansas-Monticello.
“This team has high expectations, and the first weekend is always fun to get the nerves out,” she said. “These are huge games for us, eight regional games. If we’re successful in these, we put ourselves in a great situation heading into the rest of our season and conference play.”