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A few questions: What is going on at Oregon State University?


The best response to Sunday's article in the Oregonian about the "culture of fear" that recently departed women's basketball coach LaVonda Wagner created at Oregon State came from Sue at the blog They're Playing basketball:

They're Playing Basketball: More on Oregon State
I'm not sure why this is still being brought up, unless Oregonlive has a secret wish to get Oregon State Coach LaVonda Wagner fired, but here's another piece on the embattled head of the program.

My initial reaction to the article was to ignore it for the same reason. Then I realized it was a front page story and was just confused. Of course, Wagner was then dismissed two days later making the article almost seem like a deliberate smear campaign prior to the announcement, as Sue alluded to.

After poking around a bit and reading the articles that have come out in the wake of Wagner's departure, I am left with a number of questions. This is not at all to defend Wagner or even suggest she was unjustly fired -- she clearly made some mistakes and her 2009-10 record was certainly not stellar. It's the situation in its entirety that just looks bizarre.

1. Why was another story about Wagner put out two days before her firing?

After I first learned about guard Talisa Rhea transferring to Seattle University -- whose team I watched quite a bit this past season -- I've had a Google alert set up for "Lavonda Wagner". Since that time, there has been a unique story per week specifically about Lavonda Wagner and far more than that for the broader search term "Oregon State women's basketball". 15 days after the initial report of Rhea leaving and the additional report of Kate Lanz leaving, there was already a commentary by Steve Gress of the Gazzette Times suggesting Wagner should be let go. Lanz claimed it "wasn't a positive environment". After seven players and an assistant coach left, Kevin Hampton of the Gazzette Times wrote an article detailing how "players critical of way coach LaVonda Wagner treated them". No he didn't write the same details as the Oregonian piece, but he described "relentless and daily" verbal abuse and excessively long practices that were potentially a violation of NCAA rules.

What the Oregonian article essentially did was rehash the details of that situation that had been developing for weeks with a few new details but not necessarily worse details -- it doesn't get worse than a potential violation of NCAA rules and "relentless and daily" abuse. It's hard to imagine what then made that story front page news on May 30 when there was already plenty written -- in depth -- making the case for the coach to be fired.

The issue here is not whether the Oregonian piece was well written -- I'd say it was -- or even whether it was true -- given all the other reports, yes, it's hard to question its validity (although there seem to be a few of accounts expressing surprise about Wagner's behavior, including the Guru himself). The issue is this: first, let's not fool ourselves - Oregon State basketball is not exactly in the national spotlight. If public opinion among those who cared about the program had not already been swayed against Wagner, one more article certainly wasn't going to. Second, aside from longer elaborations, it was a restatement of the "relentless and daily" abuse that made it "not a positive environment". The administration had already stated that they were looking into it and afterwards, De Carolis said in a video that he knew he was going to make the decision on Friday afternoon but couldn't because Wagner was out of town and just needed a face to face.

The theory that the article exposed something that was not previously known -- something the Oregonian has patted themselves on the back for -- is thus suspect.

The question is exactly what Sue posed: why was this brought up again in the way it was? And whose interests did it serve?

2. Why hadn't Wagner been fired sooner?

Given the investigation, there's an obvious reason why Wagner wasn't fired sooner -- as we've known for some time, they brought in "an investigator" for the purpose of seeing if they could find a way to fire her "with cause", thus avoiding having to make the $1.17 million dollar pay out for a program that is already saddled with a deficit. However, athletic director Bob De Carolis gave a strange response recently in light of all the reporting done above.

Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis addresses LaVonda Wagner's firing, the coaching search, Al Reser's passing and more |
"Sure, there’s a sentiment out there that this should have been done a long time ago. It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback now that we know all of this stuff and why didn’t we know it before."

That's a fair response, except for all of the reporting done about complaints, as described in the Gazette Times article on May 8th.

Former Oregon State women's basketball players critical of way coach LaVonda Wagner treated them
"I called LaVonda and I would not get a return phone call," Erica Sadler said. "I sent e-mails to the AD and Marianne Vydra," an assistant athletic director. "Nobody responded to anything I was saying."

Bear in mind, Sadler made the decision to transfer in May 2009. That means there was a complaint to both the AD and assistant AD long before this season even started. If we add Sadler's complaint to all the other complaints that supposedly came afterward, then we not only have to question Wagner, but De Carolis.

3. Why was there no response to all the complaints and then a sudden need to fire her "without cause"?

So now we have a dilemma -- De Carolis says he didn't know ("why we didn't know it before), but we have a pile of articles that says that he knew something or at least heard complaints as early as 2009. Either the complaints were not made forcefully or De Carolis did know and deliberately ignored those complaints. If so, was he just being defensive about a coach he had previously extended? Or perhaps he thought she was doing the right thing? But why the sudden change of heart? Transfers?

Pat Griffin's LGBT Sport Blog: When Coaches Are Bullies…And Administrators Look the Other Way

The athletic director and the university president were aware of the players’ and parents’ allegations. They chose not to respond or even investigate, it seems. Their silence and inaction, even if they did not actively support her (which it seems they did), was all that was needed to, if the allegations are true to ruin or damage the basketball dreams of at least 15 young women. What could they have possibly been thinking? How is that leadership by anyone’s standards?


It is way past time for athletic administrators and university leaders to take some responsibility for bully coaches, whether they are bullying on a specific issue, like having lesbian players on their teams, or just general all around bullies, like LaVonda Wagner is accused of being. The AD and upper administration at Oregon State is as much to blame as the coach is for the trauma in that program. Yet over and over, I hear the same story: The coach is a bully and no one with any power to investigate the charges will do anything about it, at least until the player hires a lawyer.

It is the administration’s responsibility to make sure their coaches know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior. Obviously, they cannot assume that the coaches know the difference when stories like Oregon State and Penn State and many others that do not become public keep happening.

There was a multi-tiered failure here and the key question that Griffin poses is how is that leadership?

4. If he didn't know about what was going on, then why all the releases?

Just because a player asks for a release, doesn't mean an athletic director/coach has to grant them a release. There are plenty of examples of players not granted releases in college sports and women's college basketball in particular. As described in the Gazette article, Taylor Champion sat down with Wagner and talked about her concerns for 15 minutes. Somewhere along the way in the process of transferring, it would have been reasonable for an AD who had already received complaints about a coach to look into what was going on.

But again, no Monday morning quarterbacking -- let's assume he didn't know. Then why keep granting releases from your program and decimating the roster instead of reassuring one of your best players -- Talisa Rhea -- that you'd fix the problem. Why not convince a player who had three family members attend Oregon State to stick with the program until the problem was diagnosed? Why continually facilitate the transfer of an entire roster to the point where there are two players left, even announcing further transfers on the day you announce the coach was fired? If the implicit statement is that the problem was the coach that you were searching for cause to fire, then why is the program continuing to grant releases?

5. What does this mean for the program?

Helen of the Women's Hoops Blog made an excellent point on the day of Wagner's firing, regarding the disastrous state of the program.

Women's Hoops Blog
It seems to me that, though the coach is gone, a problem still exists -- and that would be an athletic administration that let this mess escalate to the (alleged) levels reported. That smacks of institutional deafness at best or, at worst, a almost pathological disinterest in the health women's basketball program.

OSU now has a women's basketball team that cannot even field a starting five, they're paying a coach who's been blamed for the mess over a million dollars, and have a broader financial mess in the athletic program that will be very difficult to fix (as described yesterday by Cliff Kirkpatrick of the Gazette Times)...especially while paying two women's basketball coaches. It's a sad story.

Oregon State mess a sad study in power dynamics « Mechelle Voepel
But even those more reasonable people who know that the program itself is worthwhile have to cringe at what’s happened. Athletic departments in many places are strapped for cash, and Oregon State is no different. The idea of having to pay a million-plus dollars to someone who is no longer involved with the program puts Oregon State even deeper into the hole it’s been unsuccessfully trying to climb out of for a long, long time. Oregon State’s women’s hoops program hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1996. The school has no relevance in the sport. Just trying to win there would have been hard enough for Wagner without all the other problems that arose, apparently, from her style of coaching and treatment of players.

And what about beyond women's basketball?

There has been a rash of athlete misbehavior -- and as previously described by the Oregonian, indecision from the adults involved -- at Oregon State. The Oregonian reported on May 27th that seven football players had made headlines for wrongdoing since April. De Carolis' response:

Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis addresses LaVonda Wagner's firing, the coaching search, Al Reser's passing and more |
“You know, as we say all the time, you’ve got 500 young adults running around out there and sooner or later the odds are something’s going to happen. … people make mistakes. Things happen. You hate to say it this way, that it’s just your turn for bad stuff to happen. You can go however long, and nothing happens and all of a sudden a rash of things happen. I’m not trying to pooh-pooh what went on but thank God it was not (more) serious than what transpired.’’

I completely agree that "people make mistakes". I make mistakes. Often. But when the mistakes are consistent, it starts to sound odd when the person at the top of a mountain of mistakes says "it's just your turn for bad stuff to happen." For women's basketball in particular, if there had not been a consistent flow of complaints for at least a year -- possibly more -- it would be easier to understand the position he's taking with regard to the past problems across the athletic program. However, as Helen wrote, taken together there does appear to be a problem of "institutional deafness".

6. So is it time for a change at the top?

The Gazette Times (again) makes the point that De Carolis needs to get this decision right.

Commentary: Oregon State needs to get women's basketball hire 'right'
It's a big hire, one De Carolis and search committee chair Marianne Vydra must get right. The remaining fans must and will be patient with the new coach, if they see the program being run correctly and making progress. But one thing's for sure: women's basketball can't handle another train wreck like last season if it's ever to be relevant again at OSU.

The fact is no matter who is hired, he/she will be in a very tough position, as described by SBN's Building the Dam. No matter how good a recruiter this next coach is, they won't have any time to recruit talent for the coming season. Which is why it may strike some people as odd that former USC coach Mark Trakh is being considered for the position given that he has not been able to find a job since USC and there are rumors that he was harsh on players as well.

Given all that's transpired, it seems like a change in leadership at the level of AD would make some sense -- sometimes in situations of crisis of this magnitude, it's better to have fresh eyes on the situation. I do not know De Carolis nor do I have a rooting interest in the program, but it seems that there's more wrong here than Wagner.

And as much as we can cry foul about all the athletes who have left and their claims of psychological abuse, what about those who decided to stay and were maybe even on Wagner's side? No matter what angle you look at this from, the biggest losers here are the student athletes who are supposed to be in the middle of the best four years of their lives.