By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A former Montana congressman has lost his job as a state university regent after saying that the University of Montana had recruited "thugs" for a football program whose team captain and other players were accused of rape.
The ouster of former Democratic U.S. Representative Pat Williams from the Montana Board of Regents came as the state Senate on Thursday voted to deny the confirmation needed to cement his appointment last February by then-Governor Brian Schweitzer.
Williams had served as a regent for less than a year when he came under fire for remarks he made about the University of Montana's Grizzlies as the rape trial of one of its players was about to get under way.
The New York Times in February quoted Williams as saying: "We've had sexual assaults, vandalism, beatings by football players. ... The university has recruited thugs for its football team, and this thuggery has got to stop."
In the ensuing uproar, supporters of the school's powerhouse team launched a campaign seeking Williams' removal for remarks they saw as unfairly impugning a university system he was privileged to represent.
Petitions signed by thousands calling for his ouster were submitted to Republican leaders of the Montana Senate, which ultimately denied Williams' confirmation in a 26-23 vote, mostly along party lines.
Many of the Republicans voting against Williams condemned his comments about the football team. Some also cited what they characterized as his congressional record as a big-spending Democrat.
Williams could not immediately be reached for comment.
His removal is the latest twist in a saga that came to a head last May when the U.S. Justice Department announced an investigation into the handling of rape reports at the university and in Missoula, the western Montana city where the campus is based.
That investigation and a parallel probe by the U.S. Education Department are examining whether the university responded appropriately to at least 11 reported sexual assaults involving students since 2010.
Three of those cases stemmed from rape accusations against football players, including former running back Beau Donaldson and quarterback Jordan Johnson, who had been the team captain.
Donaldson was sentenced to 10 years in prison last year after pleading guilty to raping a woman at his residence in 2010. A jury last month acquitted Johnson of a rape charge in a trial that drew national attention and transfixed Missoula, a city of 86,000 whose identity and economy are tied to the state's flagship university and its storied Grizzlies.
Chris Coyle, the father of a player and a leader of the drive to oust Williams, said a new Board of Regents nominee - yet to be named by the governor - and the acquittal of Johnson suggest the clouds of scandal that have enveloped the university are beginning to clear.
He said a record of achievement by the school and the hugely popular team has been overshadowed in an ongoing debate about the conduct of individual athletes and the ousted Williams.
"At the end of the day, you have a community of athletics and a university with a proud tradition," he said.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)