The University of Idaho has reinstated diving coach Jim Southerland after he was placed on leave and investigated for allegations of sexual misconduct with one of his former athletes several years ago.
The U.S. Center for SafeSport and USA Diving also have lifted an interim suspension of Southerland but declined comment about it.
His suspension in February came a few days before he was named co-diving coach of the year by the Western Athletic Conference.
In an e-mail to USA TODAY Sports, Southerland said the allegations against him were false.
The investigation had been triggered by Southerland’s ex-wife, Patti McEuen, who alleged Southerland had “groomed” the former female diver for sex and had an inappropriate relationship with the diver near Seattle when she was 17 to 20 and he was 52 to 55. That was around 2010 and before, prior to his hiring at Idaho in 2015.
“All investigations of my conduct were concluded with no evidence found to support the allegations,” Southerland wrote. “Just being accused of misconduct is often assumed to be a guilty verdict. Simply an unfounded accusation can cost a career. In fact, the legal fees to defend against an unfounded accusation can be career ending. While I wholeheartedly support all the watchdog groups who safeguard our youth, I believe there also needs to be safeguards for those accused. While national governing bodies do have procedures in place to insure some validity to complaints, these procedures are not always followed. This leaves coaches vulnerable to people with personal vendettas who know how to use the system.”
McEuen said the alleged victim informed her of the alleged improper relationship and called her crying and seeking help in 2010. The woman could not be reached for comment.
McEuen said the alleged relationship led to her divorce from Southerland in 2014.
“I don’t think they have enough proof,” McEuen told USA TODAY Sports this week of the SafeSport investigation. “Basically, Jim and the girl admitted it to me, and I didn’t catch them in the act.”
After the suspension by the Center for SafeSport, Southerland was placed on leave by Idaho in April, adding to the controversy this year with the Vandals, whose athletic director, Rob Spear, was fired last month after a separate investigation into complaints that Spear didn’t properly handle sexual misconduct allegations against a former Idaho football player. The complaints in that case originally came from a former Idaho diver and distance runner, though there is no apparent connection to that case and the allegation involving Southerland.
Amid a wave of sexual misconduct allegations roiling Olympic sports, the U.S. Center for SafeSport opened last year to help protect athletes from abuse. The center investigates misconduct allegations, hands out discipline and has jurisdiction over national governing bodies in Olympic sports but doesn’t have jurisdiction over NCAA-member schools.
Idaho athletics spokesperson Mike Walsh said Idaho still decided placed him leave shortly after learning about the SafeSport suspension. Idaho reinstated him this month after the Center for SafeSport lifted his temporary suspension last month.
In a statement, the university said it found no complaints or concerns regarding Southerland’s conduct toward student-athletes at Idaho.
“The specific allegations made against Southerland were not disclosed to the university, but in the interim the institution commenced an independent investigation to explore any potential misconduct by Southerland in his role as U of I women’s diving coach,” the university’s statement said. “University investigators sought information from current and former student-athletes and found no evidence of violations of law or university policy.”
USA Diving, the sport’s national governing body, referred questions about the case to the Center for SafeSport, which has a policy of not commenting on specific cases.
If found true, the allegation against Southerland could have violated SafeSport rules prohibiting sexual harassment and “intimate relationships involving a person in a position of power where a power imbalance exists.”
The sheriff’s department in King County, Wash., also looked into the allegation in 2015 but didn’t file charges.
Southerland joined Idaho in 2015 after 26 years as the head coach and owner of Pacific Northwest Diving and 24 years as the Auburn (Wash.) District High School Diving coach, according to his online bio.
Follow sports reporter Brent Schrotenboer on Twitter @Schrotenboer