BOZEMAN — A confrontation at halftime of the Lodge Grass-Fairview football game this past Friday resulted in the Lodge Grass superintendent suspending and recommending the termination of athletic director Dee Pretty On Top and head football coach Jerry Harris, leading to the potential of a lawsuit and the subsequent reinstatement of Harris on Wednesday morning.
Big Horn County Attorney Jay Harris — Jerry’s son and a Lodge Grass assistant football coach — was set to file suit in Big Horn County district court requesting a temporary restraining order allowing Pretty On Top and Jerry Harris to return to their jobs when he learned from his father Wednesday morning that Superintendent Trivian Rides The Bear had reversed course on his suspension.
Pretty On Top said he remains suspended and will face the board at its regular Tuesday meeting. Jay Harris said in an email Wednesday afternoon "a lawsuit has been prepared and may be filed to ensure the Superintendent's compliance with State law and District policies."
Jerry Harris will be coaching when Lodge Grass plays Thursday night at Circle.
"I'm tickled to be back in the locker room with my boys," he said.
The controversy stems from Friday night's game in Lodge Grass, when Rides The Bear directed Jerry Harris to remove a star student-athlete from the game at halftime due to contact tracing for COVID-19.
Also a member of the Lodge Grass cross country program, the student-athlete had on Sept. 11 ridden a team bus on which a female cross country athlete later tested positive for the coronavirus. Three other football players who didn't ride the bus but also ran in Red Lodge that day also were subject to quarantine.
In what Pretty On Top and Harris say is the primary issue, Lodge Grass Schools do not have a written policy for COVID-19, instead following CDC guidelines, seeking advice from Indian Health Services and borrowing from nearby Hardin's playbook. On the advice of Health Services, the student-athlete, who has been vaccinated, and others were sent home. Pretty On Top said he learned of the issue on Tuesday, Sept. 14, and canceled Lodge Grass cross country meets scheduled for that afternoon and Thursday.
Pretty On Top said he initially believed the four football players wouldn’t be suiting up for the Fairview game either.
On Friday, however, Jerry Harris told Pretty On Top that in addition to being vaccinated the student-athlete had tested negative five times during the week, including that morning. Absent a school district policy saying otherwise, Harris added, there was no reason for the student-athlete not to play.
While the student-athlete was competing in the first half, Pretty On Top says he received a call from Rides The Bear requesting the player's removal. Pretty On Top informed the player's grandparents of the potential conflict, and the grandparents confronted Rides The Bear and board members.
Pretty On Top said he found the conversations so stressful he briefly escaped to his car to catch his breath.
"Take some time off to figure it out and relax for a few minutes," he told 406mtsports.com, adding that he also received guidance via cell phone from Montana High School Association executive director Mark Beckman, who told him COVID-19 protocols are a school-by-school decision per the governor's directive.
"It was an ugly scene. I couldn't stand and watch the game."
At halftime, Rides The Bear — who did not respond to messages left on her school phone requesting comment — and high school principal Corey Barron approached Jerry and Jay Harris on the sideline, and told them to remove the player. Jerry Harris told 406mtsports.com that he declined on several counts, notably the school’s lack of a written policy. He said he also pointed out the player had already played half the game and Lodge Grass could be punished harshly by the MHSA for halting the game (Beckman told 406mtsports.com any game called for COVID reasons would be ruled a "no contest" and not a forfeit).
"I said, 'This is not the place or time to try to adjudicate this concern of yours'," Jerry Harris says he told Rides The Bear. " 'The student you’re worried about has five negative papers. Why are you so adamant about removing one athlete?' "
Jerry Harris said he also asked what authority Rides The Bear had without a written policy. He said she showed him letters from Indian Health Services and the Crow Tribe's chairman.
"I informed her those do not apply to Lodge Grass High School," Harris continued.
Rides The Bear told Harris and Pretty On Top that if the player wasn’t benched she would walk across the field and forfeit to Fairview.
"The players were visibly upset, telling her, 'Don’t cancel the game,'" Pretty On Top said.
Jerry Harris added: "You realize we can be fined (by the MHSA) if we walk off the field right now? That's a whole can of worms, and I don't think you want to go that route. If you shut everything down, you're going to have 30 sets of parents knocking on your door.”
At that point, Pretty On Top volunteered to ask Fairview coach Derek Gackle, whose team led 48-12, if the Warriors had any objection to continuing.
“We’ve already played a half of football, and if he’s tested five times, I’m good with it,” Pretty On Top says Gackle told him. “Let’s complete the game. We’ve come a long ways down here.”
Pretty On Top relayed Gackle's message to Rides The Bear and Barron, who then left. Finishing the game, a 62-20 defeat, were the student-athlete and one other uniformed player who was contact-traced to the female cross country runner (his removal was not sought).
“We finished the game, which was my goal," Pretty On Top said. "But Trivian was very upset, saying I neglected my duties.”
Pretty On Top and Jerry Harris both said they hoped cooler heads would prevail over the weekend. Pretty On Top said he heard from the game’s lead official and an MHSA official Monday, both supporting him.
On Tuesday, however, Pretty On Top was summoned to the school’s board room to a meeting with Rides The Bear, Barron and a human resources representative. Near the end, Rides The Bear said she was suspending him, recommending his termination and handed him a letter he says cites “gross insubordination.”
Pretty On Top was told to hand over his building keys and credit card used to pay for team meals.
The same morning, Jerry Harris received a call at his home in Colstrip and was on speaker phone with the same three administrators. He was read the complaint and informed he also was suspended and his termination would be recommended Tuesday.
Harris said Rides The Bear told the team she would find a replacement coach and asked them to practice with the junior high team in the meantime. In a show of solidarity with Harris, 24 of the 32 players opted not to practice Tuesday and said they wouldn't travel to Circle without their coach.
On Wednesday, Rides The Bear called Jerry Harris to reinstate him. Jay Harris said he was confident a judge would have issued a temporary restraining order.
“The allegations are pretty strong and speak for themselves,” he said.
Pretty On Top says he will have legal representation Tuesday to "protect my rights." Barron is traveling with the team to cover meals.
In the meantime, Jerry Harris was back Wednesday afternoon preparing his rebuilding 1-3 team for Circle and at a team meal with all the players Wednesday night. He said he hopes the district learns from the incident.
"This could’ve all been avoided if the board had stepped up and got ahold of Trivian and said 'Slow down,'" he said. "Even the board isn’t understanding their duties. They're just as much at fault. You'd think they'd have enacted something after (2020, when Lodge Grass shut down fall sports due to the pandemic) and prepare for this if it happens again. Instead they sat on their laurels and didn't do anything. It's like back to square one.
"We're not out to hang anybody or throw anybody under the bus. We want to bring to Lodge Grass administration and board, hey there's a proper way to conduct business. Let's do it."