MSSU coach helps Arlington Hambright on road to NFL

Globe file: Missouri Southern head coach Jeff Sims stands with his players before the start of the Lions' 2019 season finale against Pittsburg State at Carnie Smith Stadium.

Missouri Southern State University is searching for a head football coach for the third time in five years.

Second-year Head Coach Jeff Sims was "relieved of his duties," the university said in a statement Wednesday.

No reason was given.

"I don't think there was a reason," Sims said later. "There's new leadership. I was brought in by Dr. (Alan) Marble, and Dr. (Dean) Van Galen and Jared Bruggeman have the right to choose the people that lead their departments.

"I had a contract, and they exercised their options in the contract. We shook hands and went opposite directions. I'm not privy to what they're wanting to do. But it's like anything. I get to pick the players, I get to pick the offense and I get to pick who's our quarterback. They get to pick who their coach is," Sims said. 

Attempts to contact Athletic Director Bruggeman and University President Van Galen were unsuccessful.

"I'm sure Dr. Van Galen has a vision for the university, and football fits in that vision and has a role in it in some fashion," Sims said. "I don't know that he felt I was the person to exercise that vision. And again, he has that right. ... I'm going to miss the players and the coaches, and I'm extremely proud of what we did at Missouri Southern and believed we were going in a great direction. There's good coaches and good players there, and as long as those guys are still involved, good things will continue to happen."

Linebacker Coach Joe Bettasso, a former MSSU player, will serve as interim head coach through the upcoming spring football season, which begins in February. Bettasso held the interim role in the final eight weeks of the Lions' 2018 season, prior to hiring Sims.

"We have every confidence in Coach Bettasso that he will be committed to growing a successful program, leading with integrity and putting our student-athletes first," Bruggeman stated in the MSSU announcement. "Bettasso has served as interim head coach before and we feel he is the right person to step in as we search for a new leader for Southern football."

MSSU Search

A national search for a new head football coach will begin soon.

“We will be looking for someone who has built a winning program, is high-energy and has strong organizational skills," Bruggeman said in the statement. “A healthy athletics program is vital to the college experience and we are looking forward to the upward momentum of the program for all of our Lion community.”

MSSU went 2-9 in its lone season under Sims in 2019, marking the program's sixth consecutive losing season. However, the team experienced improvements on the offensive side of the ball, scoring nearly 30 points per game and ranking second in the MIAA with 344.5 passing yards per game.

There was no season this fall because of COVID-19.

In the four seasons prior to Sims' hire, Southern won a combined four games. 

A former head coach at Garden City (Kansas) Community College, Sims brought an accolade-filled resume with him to MSSU that included a National Junior College Athletic Association national title in 2016, as well as a runner-up finish in 2018. Overall, Sims was 77-31 as a junior college football coach, leading four teams to undefeated regular seasons and three to national title games.

Sims also was the focal point of investigations following the death of football player Braeden Bradforth in 2018, and one of those investigations, an external review, cited "a striking lack of leadership” by representatives of the junior college, including Sims.

Bradforth, 19, of Neptune, New Jersey, collapsed on the Garden City campus less than an hour after a conditioning session on Aug. 1, 2018 — one day after he arrived at the college to continue his football career. Bradforth was pronounced dead after being transported to a Garden City hospital later in the night. In late November, an autopsy report concluded Bradforth, a 300-pound lineman, died of exertional heatstroke.

An external review of the circumstances leading up to Bradforth's death found "there was little to no oversight of the preparation for and execution of the August 1, 2018, conditioning test designed and run by Coach Sims. This lack of oversight set off a series of events that ended with the death of Braeden Bradforth.”

The external review also reported "there was a failure to properly assess student-athletes prior to the August 1 conditioning test described by one witness as an intense cardio workout.”

The findings from the external review were released to the public in November 2019, almost a year after Sims had made his transition to MSSU.

Just six days after Sims officially took the helm at Southern, the school issued a statement saying university officials were aware of Bradforth's death while Sims was being interviewed for the head coach position at MSSU.

The statement read in part. "MSSU was aware of Bradforth’s death when then-GCCC head football coach, Jeff Sims, interviewed at Missouri Southern in October 2018. Coach Sims shared with MSSU his recollection of the circumstances surrounding Bradforth’s death, including the timeline and comments made by the attending physician. We believe this is a matter for Garden City Community College and the Bradforth family to resolve. Our hearts go out to the family and the Garden City community.”

Prior to the release of the findings from the external investigation into Bradforth's death, Sims said: "Nothing we did at football practice was the cause."

KCUR, a public radio station in Kansas City, also reported that Sims told them Bradforth's death was not his fault and that Sims added: "It's unfortunate what happened, but God has a plan."

Bradforth's family and its attorney, Jill Greene, have maintained that Bradforth's death was preventable and questioned why Sims was hired by MSSU.

"Sims leaving must be an act of God, which was his (Sims) initial response to the media when Braeden died," Joanne Atkins-Ingram, Braeden's mother, said Wednesday after learning that Sims had been dismissed.

"The question that comes to mind for me and Joanne is why he (Sims) was hired in the first place," Greene said. "Why was he ever considered as a potential hire for that position after what happened at Garden City?"

"We can only hope that Braeden didn't pass in vain and that there will be changes in how things are handled at the high school and college level, and even professionally," Greene said.

The death of Bradforth drew national attention and led to a call by members of Congress to review and prevent exertional heat stroke deaths among athletes.

In November 2019, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., called Bradforth's death "utterly heartbreaking in that it confirms that Braeden's death was 100% preventable." Earlier in the year, Smith introduced the resolution calling for bipartisan legislation to establish a federal commission to look into exertional heat stroke.

A settlement was reached between Garden City and Bradforth's family in August. Details of the settlement were not released.

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