Coeur d’Alene has a long history of hate groups. Why was Utah put there for the NCAA Tournament?

Gonzaga had to receive an NCAA waiver to put the Utes and UC Irvine basketball teams in Idaho, outside of the suggested radius for a host site.

(Young Kwak | AP) Players and staff on the Utah bench react toward the end of a second-round college basketball game against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash., Monday, March 25, 2024.

In the back of a white Ford pickup truck — adorned with two racist flags and a sign that read “The Dixie Devil” taped to the door — Richard Butler made his way down Sherman Avenue in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

It was 2004. The founder of the Aryan Nations was being driven along a parade route as part of his “annual world conference,” a full-throated white supremacist gathering that attracted neo-Nazis and Klansmen to the area.

As The Spokesman-Review in nearby Spokane recounted, Butler “offered a few Nazi stiff-arm salutes” and dragged the flag of Israel from the back of the truck. On this downtown Coeur d’Alene street, Butler was clear: “The Aryan Nations hasn’t left North Idaho,” the Spokesman-Review wrote.

Twenty years later, the Utah women’s basketball team was walking down the very same Sherman Avenue this week when two pickup trucks “revved their engines and sped past them,” according to a Coeur d’Alene police report. Those inside the trucks, the report continued, yelled the “N-word” at them.

The day before Utah played in the NCAA Tournament, head coach Lynne Roberts said, it shook her group to its core.

“No one knew how to handle it,” the coach said. “It was really upsetting. For our players and staff to not feel safe in an NCAA tournament environment, it’s messed up.”

The team moved hotels, leaving Idaho and crossing the border into Washington.

But how did Utah end up in Coeur d’Alene, a city with a well-documented racist history, in the first place?

The mechanics

The way hotel accommodations work for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament is different for men and women.

The men play at designated host sites chosen five years in advance. Hotel accommodations are meticulously planned.

The women’s tournament is more chaotic.

(Young Kwak | AP) Utah head coach Lynne Roberts speaks during a press conference after a second-round college basketball game against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash., Monday, March 25, 2024.

The first two rounds happen on campus sites, with the 16 top teams in the country hosting the first weekend of the event. Schools don’t know they’re going to host until the Sunday before the tournament begins.

The NCAA tries to ease some of the planning burden by working with likely top-four seeds earlier in the season, a source who is familiar with the process said.

A school will submit a bid, outlining which hotels could be secured for visiting teams, and the NCAA will either approve or deny it. The hotels are suggested to be within 30 minutes of the competition venue, per NCAA guidelines. Utah, for example, was not allowed to put teams in Provo or Park City when it made plans for potentially hosting games this year.

Still, schools are left scrambling to finalize their plans with only a few days between the Sunday announcement and the start of the tournament.

That was the case at Gonzaga last week.

Spokane, a city of fewer than 300,000 people on the border of Washington and Idaho, was hosting several events last week.

It was a designated site for the men’s basketball tournament, bringing in eight teams. It was also hosting a youth volleyball event. This meant when Gonzaga’s women’s team earned a four-seed, there was not enough hotel space for every women’s team to stay in Spokane.

The school decided to place the Utah and UC Irvine basketball teams in Coeur d’Alene. It received a waiver for the hotel to be outside the 30-minute radius.

“That was a little strange,” Roberts said.

Utah’s athletic director Mark Harlan and associate athletic director Charmelle Green added the distance away contributed to what happened.

“We remain very disappointed in the decision to assign our team to hotels such a great distance from the competition site, in another state,” they said in a statement. “We will work with NCAA leadership to make it clear that being so far removed from the site was unacceptable and a contributing factor to the impact of this incident.”

Utah was moved to Spokane the day after the incident, once hotel space opened up.

Gonzaga has since apologized.

“We have worked closely with the NCAA and program participants to support the security and safety of everyone involved,” it said in a statement. “We are frustrated and deeply saddened to know that what should always be an amazing visitor and championship experience was in any way compromised by this situation, for it in no way reflects the values, standards, and beliefs to which we at Gonzaga University hold ourselves accountable.”

A town’s history

When Roberts told the world what happened in Coeur d’Alene, former Oregon football player George Wrighster III immediately took to the social media platform X to share his experience of traveling to the northern Idaho area for a game.

When Oregon stayed in Moscow, Idaho, about 90 minutes south of Coeur d’Alene, Wrighster said his coach “told us DO NOT leave the hotel. It’s not safe for Black folks out here. It’s the only place that was ever said and we went to Juarez, MX during Sun Bowl as a team in 1999.”

Coeur d’Alene’s history with white nationalist groups dates back to the 1970s, when Butler founded the Aryan Nations group just north of the city at Hayden Lake.

(Matthew Hamon | The New York Times) Downtown Couer D'Alene, Idaho, on Nov. 1, 2019.

By 1981, the town established a Human Rights Council to combat the racial hate being spewed. As the council’s founder said, Butler threatened to take over the town.

“He wanted to make this a white enclave,” said Tony Stewart, a member of the Coeur d’Alene Human Rights Council.

Two years later, the council brought court cases against Butler and his followers. Their first case was against Keith Gilbert, one of the leaders of the Aryan Nations.

Gilbert followed a high schooler around the county because he was biracial. He threatened to kill him, Stewart said. They got a conviction on a verbal assault law.

It went on like this for decades, until Stewart and the Southern Poverty Law Center won a lawsuit that bankrupted the group and stripped it of its land in 2000. Butler died in 2004. Since then, several other hate groups have arisen in the area — including remnants of the Aryan Nations.

There are currently 21 hate groups and anti-government groups in Idaho, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Several are stationed in Coeur d’Alene, including the Constitution Party (anti-government) and the Independent History and Research group (antisemitic). Stewart said there are monthly Zoom calls with representatives from Idaho, Colorado and other neighboring states to monitor these groups.

Still, those in the community said Coeur d’Alene has become much safer in the years since Butler’s death.

A man who works at the Baymont hotel on Sherman Street said, “this is the best place. … I’ve been over here for five years, nothing.” Another woman who worked at Bardenay, a downtown pub, said she “hadn’t had to deal with anything like that” with people threatening customers with racial slurs.

But others, like Stewart, know the work is not finished. While he fought for civil rights legislation, with some success, he’s seen other issues pop up.

“We have that challenge,” Stewart said. “It’s all over Idaho, same challenge.”

Known white nationalist Dave Reilly moved to the area in recent years. He was one of the leaders of the Charlottesville rally in Virginia. When the city called a news conference to apologize to Utah this week, Reilly interrupted Stewart’s remarks in protest.

Another woman who works at the North Idaho Inn, also on Sherman Avenue, said there have been improvements but you will still see Confederate flags carried around downtown. Aryan Nations members will occasionally infiltrate a parade, she said, and the town will turn its back.

She maintained, “We’ve never ... had any incidents of any type of harassment. ... You wouldn’t even know that [Aryan Nations] even had a presence here.”

Where do you go from here?

As the women’s basketball tournament gains popularity, some have called for the first two rounds to be put at designated sites like the men’s.

There are plenty of reasons. But one of them is safety and the infrastructure of the tournament.

“This should be a positive for everybody involved,” Roberts said of the NCAA Tournament. “This should be a joyous time for our program. To have kind of a black eye on this experience is unfortunate.”

(Young Kwak | AP) Utah head coach Lynne Roberts watches during the first half of a second-round college basketball game against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash., Monday, March 25, 2024.

Utah is asking the NCAA to review its practices of where it stations teams in the future.

Meanwhile, Coeur d’Alene is still fighting to rid its city of its past.

“There’s been a real struggle here for a long time,” Stewart said. “... Anyone that says racism is gone, is simply wrong.”

In some ways, it’s the same issue facing the city 20 years ago at that parade.

“It sure degrades the town,” resident Paul Bentz told The Spokesman-Review in 2004. “This puts a bad light on a great town with great people.”