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Fired SFSU wrestling coach alleges discrimination by university

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Former San Francisco State University wrestling coach Lars Jensen was told in June that his contract would not be renewed. Jensen’s attorney filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing in September alleging the university discriminated against the former coach. (Eric Chan/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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In July, Lars Jensen was told that his contract would not be renewed. The legendary San Francisco State University wrestling coach was stunned.

After the news broke, director of athletics Charles Guthrie and vice president of university advancement Robert Nava defended the decision by saying they were working to “bring [the program] back to the national prominence it had years ago.” The prominence Nava referred to was built by Jensen over the span of 34 years at the wrestling program’s helm.

At the time, Jensen said he was seeking legal help. SFSU, which told Jensen he could reapply for his position, eventually filled the vacancy with 27-year-old Jason Welch.

On Sept. 28, attorney Rob Jaret of San Rafael filed a discrimination complaint on Jensen’s behalf with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. He alleged age and racial discrimination by the SFSU athletic department.

Jaret alleged Guthrie told Jensen he “couldn’t have the job forever” and that the coach didn’t recruit enough black wrestlers.

“We deny discrimination played any role in the process,” a San Francisco State spokesperson said in a written statement. “All coaches at San Francisco State serve one-year terms. As a part of an overall evaluation of the wrestling program, we opened the position for national search. The University chose the best possible candidate for the coaching position based on the qualifications of all applicants.”

When reached by phone on Friday, Guthrie said he was unaware of the claims against him. After Guthrie was told the university confirmed the knowledge of the complaint, he declined to comment further on the matter.

Jaret said Guthrie has a history of moving on from winning coaches. Before taking over at SFSU, he served in the same position at Clark College in Vancouver, Wash. In 2012, seven months into his stint at the school, Guthrie opted not to renew the contract of men’s basketball coach Mike Arnold. Arnold led Clark to a 25-4 record and won Coach of the Year honors for the 2011-12 season shortly before being let go.

The firing prompted the local newspaper opinion editor — Greg Jayne of The Columbian — to write, “You dig and you dig and you try to find the source of the stench, knowing that the situation doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Arnold, now head coach of the men’s basketball team at Portland Bible College, holds no ill will. Guthrie said the pair remain friends to this day.

Jaret paints a different picture of the athletic director. He said the California State University system “knew what it was getting” when it decided to hire Guthrie, and that Guthrie wrongly moved on from Jensen “with the support of the university.”

Guthrie said he and the university jointly agreed not to renew Jensen’s contract but maintained that SFSU not retaining the coach was simply another step in rebuilding an athletic program that was “dormant for 23 years” before his arrival in July 2014.

Guthrie has been an agent of change at the university since he arrived in July 2014. Under his watch, SFSU saw its basketball program log its best record in the modern era with 25 wins in the 2016-17 season, earning a trip to the Division-II tournament. The women’s track and field team also produced the university’s first female national champions in an individual sport last year when the 4×400 relay team took top honors. This fall, the men’s soccer team got off to its best start since 1968.

Guthrie also has a solid record when it comes to one of his stated top priorities: academics. In March 2017, the university announced more athletes finished the previous semester with a 3.0 GPA or higher than ever before. Student-athletes also earned the highest collective marks in school history, beating the record set the year before.

Also, fundraising is up across most teams in the department — which is essential to providing a positive experience for athletes, Guthrie said.

Yet, Guthrie made enemies at the school.

Former baseball coach Mike Cummins’ personal belongings were disposed of while he waited to hear if he would be retained for another season. Cummins lost materials from more than 30 years of coaching, including notes from his father that held sentimental value.

Cummins has a pending grievance against the university.

Guthrie acknowledged that he didn’t expect everyone to agree with his leadership style.

“I think the only challenge that people have with me maybe — and I don’t know this to be true — is I have a competitive drive,” Guthrie said.

Guthrie then cited Al Davis and a version of one of the former Oakland Raiders’ owner’s famous quotes: “The fuel that burns the fire is the will to win.”

“I hate to tell you, sometimes you run into individuals who don’t have the fire and the will to compete at this level,” Guthrie said.

Jensen led the Gators to their first NCAA Division II national title, is responsible for 125 national qualifiers (three at the D-I level, 10 individual champions) and 63 Academic All-NWCA selections.

Guthrie said he took the job when the university had a $750,000 deficit and he’s leaving it with a six-figure surplus thanks to his fundraising expertise. He takes credit for improvements to the baseball and softball fields, increasing the amount of scholarship money that can be doled out and striking a deal with Nike to make recruiting easier.

“If you talk to my brother, he’ll tell you that I was an athletic director long before I got into higher education because I was the guy who organized the local leagues in our neighborhood. I put names on the backs of jerseys with magic markers,” Guthrie said. “I’ve been passionate about athletics my entire life. And being a leader.”

Last week, SFSU President Les Wong announced Guthrie had accepted a new job as the athletic director at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, a Division-I program. His last day as the leader of the Gators will be Thursday.

In the meantime, the DFEH will investigate Jensen’s complaint. Jaret expects the department to complete its case on the matter and from there he’s confident he’ll be granted the right to sue. The attorney predicted a suit to be filed against the university in San Francisco Superior Court in early 2018.

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