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The strange case of the disappearing coach

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SALT LAKE CITY — It has been six months since Gregg Gensel stopped showing up for work, and there’s still no explanation. Gensel was the head coach of Utah State’s track and cross-country teams for 36 years and a highly successful one at that, and just like that he was gone.

Gensel’s assistant coaches and athletes are as puzzled as anyone about what happened. “I wish I knew,” says sprint coach Jeramie Murray. “I have no idea, honestly. They’ve kept us in the dark in the process.”

Matt Ingebritsen, a former assistant (and now the new head track coach), told the student newspaper, The Statesman, “I believe they were deliberately leaving us in the dark like that just so we wouldn’t have to answer questions we weren’t capable of answering.”

According to records obtained by The Statesman, the 59-year-old Gensel's employment at Utah State ended Nov. 8, but the school did not formally announce it until Dec. 22, stating merely that Gensel was “no longer employed by the university.”

Actually, action was taken well before those dates. Members of the coaching staff were called into a meeting at the athletic department in September. The assistants were taken into one room and Gensel into another. The assistants were told that Gensel was being placed on “administrative leave,” and that they were to have no contact with Gensel for three months (the athletes also were told not to talk to Gensel).

“They treated him like a criminal,” says Frank White, Gensel’s former USU teammate and friend, and a former USU booster. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am a former teammate of Gensel’s, as well.)

Coaches and athletes have been told nothing since then, and the school has said nothing more except to repeat that Gensel is no longer employed by USU. Utah State's sports information department did not respond to an email sent early this week, nor did Utah State President Noelle Cockett, also contacted via email.

“Nobody saw it coming,” says one male athlete, who requested anonymity. “It was definitely a surprise. Nobody knows (what’s going on).”

Gensel’s friends say he is baffled by his dismissal, as well. White says Gensel has lost 50 pounds because of the “turmoil” of his dismissal. Gensel did not return phone calls.

Ross Peterson, a popular, long-time USU professor who has been a volunteer for the track team for decades (and a former fundraiser for the athletic department), says he received a visit from Gensel in November. “All he said was he didn’t want to involve anybody; he said this thing is going to be messy,” says Peterson. Gensel, Peterson says, has retained an attorney.

According to Peterson, White and Randy Wilson — a former USU assistant track coach — Gensel has never even been told why he was dismissed.

“They didn’t tell him why,” says Wilson, who met with Gensel shortly after the dismissal. “He said the athletic director (John Hartwell) took him in a room and put a paper in front of him and told him, ‘You need to sign this; we’re retiring you. Sign this and you’ll be done.’ He told him if he signed it he’d get his retirement (pay). Gregg wanted to think about it; the AD told him he had 10 days to sign or the offer would be withdrawn. When Gregg went back within those 10 days, he was going to sign it, but the AD said he wasn’t sure they were going to pay retirement. Gregg has a hearing (with USU officials) to make a decision about it.”

The dismissal certainly couldn’t have been based on the performance of Gensel’s teams. The program has probably never been in better shape. According to the university’s media guide, since taking over for legendary coach Ralph Maughan in 1988, Gensel’s teams have won 36 men’s and women’s conference championships, 264 individual conference championships and 62 individual All-American certificates. His program has developed a number of local athletes as well as out-of-state athletes who were overlooked by other schools.

In last fall’s NCAA Cross Country Championships, the USU women’s team placed 14th in its first appearance ever in that meet; the men’s team was 27th. Dillon Maggard placed sixth individually and Alyssa Snyder 25th. USU also had a strong indoor track season, with Maggard placing fifth in the NCAA Championship's 3,000-meter run.

“We’re having one of our best seasons ever and obviously he (Gensel) had a hand in it,” says one team official.

Gensel must have been taking on a lot of responsibility, because the school named not one but two men to replace him — Ingebritsen (track) and Artie Gulden as head cross-country coach.

If this strange, unexplained dismissal had been handled in this manner in the glamour sports of basketball and football, USU would not have been able to get away with it, especially not for six months. Instead, there has been silence.

“I’ve been in shock,” says White. “Something is not right.”