Kris Wingenroth hoped she'd put the worst behind her. The Rice University swimming coach had survived a team revolt in 1996, and even though a couple of the athletes still routinely telegraphed their obvious dislike, they were no longer actively agitating to get her fired. The 1997 season had passed without serious incident, and the swimmers had excelled in both the pool and the classroom -- the women's team finished the year ranked a respectable 31st in the nation, and the combined squad set 19 school records and won academic accolades both individually and as a group.
But old animosities invariably bubble to the surface. Last February 4, in the wake of his dismissal from practice for screwing around, Dave Stigant e-mailed his teammates a scathing assessment of Coach Wingenroth. "I'm sick of Kris," he wrote. "I'm fucking tired of putting up with her bullshit."
Though he acknowledged in his letter that he'd improved over the course of the season (which lasts the entire academic year), Stigant complained of being "listless about random things," which he attributed to the coach's many shortcomings: "I'm sick of her whiny voice, her lame sense of humor, her see-thru shorts, her nasty ass hair, her handwriting ... everything about her bugs me."
The sophomoric attack earned Stigant an indefinite suspension from associate athletic director Steve Moniaci. The next day, Wingenroth met with Stigant, the men's team captains and another athletic department administrator. The suspension was upheld. The battle was engaged.
That afternoon, teammate Dave Henry threw a message of support for his fellow student athlete on the wire. "Maybe something happened [with Stigant], but I'm so sick of putting up with Kris," Henry wrote, urging his fellow swimmers not to let Wingenroth get away with the action. "Sorry people, but something must be done."
Something was done. The students objected to the punishment as unfair. At the request of associate athletic director Cristy McKinney, Wingenroth says, she reluctantly agreed to lift the suspension in exchange for an apology. No action was taken against Henry or other swimmers who joined the fray.
The season proceeded, and though not as successful as the previous campaign, it had its high-water marks: The women's team closed the season ranked 33rd, and Stigant set a school record and qualified for a national event for the first time.
But the tone had been set in February, and at the end of the season a group of swimmers organized to oust the coach. In April, they held a series of team meetings to gather support for her dismissal and eventually penned a litany of grievances about Wingenroth to athletic director Bobby May. A few days later, she was gone.
Other universities occasionally remove coaches after a players' insurrection. Sometimes these make the news, as did Tom Penders's high-profile dismissal as University of Texas basketball coach last year.
But at Rice, the unusual has almost become the ordinary. Wingenroth, who guided the swim teams for 16 years, is but the latest Rice coach to depart after a student mutiny. Head volleyball coach Debbie Sokol, an 11-year Rice veteran, resigned at the end of the 1993 academic year. Her successor, Henry Chen, was pushed out three seasons later. And in December 1996, men's tennis coach Larry Turville quit after 18 years on the job.
In each case, students went to athletic department administrators demanding change, and the change occurred. "The word got around," says Turville, now a teaching pro in Massachusetts. "All you had to do was go in and tell the athletic director you didn't like the coach, and boom."
May says it's a mistake to believe that the students are calling the shots, or even that their complaints precipitated the ax. Rather, he says, student input is but one component of the decision. "These are not isolated little incidents that happened overnight," May says. "You have literally months and years that are involved in making determinations of this sort. It's an ongoing, very involved, intense evaluation that takes place over years."
That may be, but most of the current and ex-coaches contacted by the Press say the evaluation process is fuzzy at best. Some have gotten annual written appraisals from their immediate superiors; others can't remember the last time they had a formal or even informal review. And good luck finding anything on paper that documents a coach's strengths and weaknesses -- when Wingenroth tried to determine how long the administration had viewed her as deficient, she came up empty. "I went to the personnel office and looked at my file," she says. "Zip."
Even if May does have some systematic method of keeping tabs on his staff's performance, the coaches have little or no recourse once the termination die is cast. While faculty members and other university employees have well-defined paths of appeal, due process is not an integral part of the athletics department program. Final approval of any personnel decision, for example, rests with the same person who made it initially. "If you have a grievance with Bobby May," says one coach, "the grievance goes to Bobby May."
May says that any feeling that coaches have received shabby treatment is due to a gap in understanding about the cases involved. "Personnel matters are all confidential," he says. "You don't have everybody involved in the process. So there could be a perception driven by this lack of information."
In fact, May says, the opposite is true. "I know we have fairness and evenhandedness in dealing with our coaches, our administrators and our student athletes at the very highest level," he says.
Some coaches, however, remain unconvinced. "The feeling people have about [the administration] is fear," says one coach. "You fear that you might be gone the next day. In this climate, nobody's safe."
It's not easy being a coach at Rice. Athletics have never occupied an especially revered position there; a small but persistent group of faculty members would just as soon scrap the intercollegiate athletics program altogether. The coaches, rather than having the status and perks they enjoy at other institutions across the country, get little recognition for their work on campus. "Nobody really cares about the coaches," says one long-time faculty member, who counts herself as an exception. "They just come and go. I would guess if you polled this faculty and put the names of 25 coaches [in a hat], the majority wouldn't recognize five of them."
The atmosphere aside, Rice coaches face other, more concrete obstacles their colleagues elsewhere don't. Unlike other NCAA Division I schools, the university doesn't usually cut incoming athletes any slack on its rigorous admissions standards, which makes the endless task of recruiting top performers doubly tough -- ex-tennis coach Larry Turville recalls one prospective recruit with a 1500 SAT score who was rejected because "he didn't have enough extracurriculars."
Nor do the standards relax once the student enrolls, which also contrasts with the competition. When exams butt heads with games, the exams invariably win. Coaches have to keep as close an eye on their graduation rates as their won-lost records.
At the same time, winning remains the most easily measured element of job performance. "The coaches are expected to be able to perform at the same levels as other universities where the academic stresses aren't as significant," says Emily Schaefer, a former assistant women's tennis coach who left the university last summer on good terms.
That's not easy to do with fewer scholarships to hand out, tighter budgets, limited resources for facilities and maintenance and other restrictions the coaches encounter daily.
Add to these hurdles an unspoken mandate that, in the wake of Kris Wingenroth's exit, is felt more strongly than ever in the athletics department -- keeping the student athletes happy. "I think the feeling among coaches is, if the kids are unhappy, then your job is in jeopardy," says one of several coaches who asked not to be identified.
Henry Chen certainly believes this. When Chen accepted control of the Rice volleyball program in 1993, he felt he knew what he needed to do to succeed. He'd been an assistant under Debbie Sokol for two years. Though Sokol had departed under a cloud after several players called for her expulsion, Chen thought his forecast called for sunny skies. "I believed strongly that I could take a program to a high level," he says.
Even when Bobby May put him on informal probation after his second season, Chen thought he knew what was expected of him. The team had not played well, losing every conference match and finishing with a 12-19 record. At the annual budget meeting all coaches have with the athletic director, he says, May gave him a thumbs up on his recruiting and administrative work. But there were problems, and his boss gave him an ultimatum: If Chen was to keep his job, he had to reach two specific goals. First, he needed to prevail in some conference matches, a basic achievement that had eluded the team for five years. Second, he had to win more matches than he lost.
A year later, Chen felt confident about the future. The volleyball team had tied for third in the conference and qualified for the post-season playoff for the first time in school history. With a 21-17 record, he believed he'd met the challenge. "I reached both [goals]," he says.
His confidence, however, was short-lived. About a week after the final match, one of his players tipped Chen to a meeting several members of the team had held with May. The next day he asked associate athletic director Martha Hawthorne, who oversaw the women's athletic programs, what had transpired. "She told me, 'Don't worry about it, business as usual,' " Chen recalls.
When Chen returned from a recruiting trip (he signed three athletes for the following year) and a coaches convention two weeks later, he met with May to discuss whatever the players had said -- and listened in shock as the athletic director asked for his resignation. The reason: "[He said] my players don't like me and it's time to make a change." In addition, says Chen, May told him that his knowledge of the sport was insufficient.
Chen had encountered player discontent during his three years as coach: complaints of too much criticism during practice, not enough playing time, a system that was too complex to manage effectively. He'd addressed interpersonal conflicts between teammates. The first two seasons, he'd had to counter the depressive effects of losing. "The gardenvariety things," he calls them.
If they weren't gardenvariety to his team or superiors, Chen claims he never knew about it. Until his session with May, he says, "I had no indication there was any problem with the players."
Moreover, Chen says, he was never given an opportunity to address the issues, though he asked for a meeting with the team to hash it out. Instead, May ordered him not to have any further interaction with the athletes.
But Chen refused to go quietly. He challenged the verdict, noting that he'd met the required objectives and asking why he'd never heard any criticism of his handling of the players from the administration until then. He notified May by letter that he would not resign, which prompted another meeting, taped by the coach, at which May voiced his displeasure. "You have to provide leadership, you have to provide direction, you have to have the confidence, you have to be an individual that's respected, and you're not," he shouted. "Period. End of story. End of conversation."
Asked by Chen why none of the criticisms had been documented, May replied testily, "I don't have to put anything in writing."
Chen was then contacted by the university's attorney, followed by the personnel department. They asked him to sign a release absolving them of liability. He said no. He demanded either reinstatement or compensation for three years. They said no. Since Chen had five months left on his one-year contract, May "reassigned" him to a new post, as a fundraiser for the department. He had no job description, no training, no work to do. "They let the contract run out," says Chen.
Though May couldn't comment on Chen specifically, he says that winning, student satisfaction and academic accomplishment weigh equally in determining whether a coach is making the grade. The best test of success, however, is how the program is doing year-to-year. "Direction is important. Depending on where you take over a program, if it continues to improve and get better in all the areas that are important, at least some of them, then that's what we're looking for," May says. "I think we're very reasonable in our expectations."
But as Chen's tale illustrates, those expectations aren't conveyed in any consistent or formal way, which has left some confusion among the ranks. "What constitutes doing a good job?" asks one member of the athletic department rhetorically. "A lot of coaches aren't sure. There's certainly nothing in writing about that."
Chen no longer worries that he'll be blindsided out of a job. The head coach at California State-Dominguez Hills, he is evaluated by his players and athletic director -- "all in writing, all disclosed" -- and is subject to a thorough, twice-annual review. "It's a lot of paperwork, but we know exactly what the concerns are," he says. "If they have a problem with me, I'll know."
Though she argues her case with the dogged determination of a distance runner, Kris Wingenroth acknowledges that perhaps her time had come. Sixteen years is a lengthy stint in any job, and though funding for her sport had improved marginally over the years, Rice would never have the resources to compete with such established powers as the University of Texas or SMU. Her salary of $45,000, though adequate, still placed her at the low end of the coaching scale despite the added burden of coaching both men's and women's swimming. "You've got double the work," she says. "Anything I had to do, I did two of."
Wingenroth faced other chronic headaches. A dearth of allocated pool time meant the swimmers had to train in different shifts, a barrier to team cohesion. The pool, an older facility that needed constant maintenance, had heating and cooling problems that never seemed to be resolved. "I wrote a memo every week," she says.
Under the circumstances, she fared remarkably well. A five-time conference Coach of the Year (most recently in 1995), she tutored a number of athletic and academic All-Americans and seemed to get the most out of her athletes, who regularly set school records or swam personal bests.
By the time the 1998 season ended, though, Wingenroth had reached an impasse she could not resolve: Her swimmers wanted her gone. At the urging of an administrator, they wrote a letter to Bobby May outlining their charges. "We drafted the letter because we realized it was time for a coaching change," says team member Robin Davidson.
Wingenroth had heard the criticism before -- not outgoing enough, can't motivate the athletes, doesn't command respect. Much of the feedback centered on her personality, which she admits is low-key. "I'm not the bubbly, exuding-enthusiasm sort," she says quietly. "If they come from that kind of coach, then that's what they think a coach should be."
Four years ago, when Davidson was recruited, she was aware of Wingenroth's style, but Davidson says athletes who need a more demonstrative coach mistakenly believe they can overcome that need. "Being a naive senior in high school, you think you can handle it or motivate yourself," she says.
The swimmer had other problems with the coach. In one-on-one meetings, she says, "I felt like she would sit there and nod her head, but that she wasn't really listening to me."
Some of the interpersonal problems, Wingenroth says, were beyond her control. With only one full-time and one part-time assistant to help manage more than 30 swimmers, Wingenroth didn't have the resources to interact with the team at the level she would have preferred. "A lot of the complaints were, 'I don't get enough attention,' " she says. "They didn't get enough attention. That's true."
But the rift between the coach and some of her swimmers went far beyond basic poolside issues. "It started with them not liking her coaching abilities or style, and it snowballed into more than that," Davidson says.
With a weariness borne of years rather than days, she sifts through a mound of paper chronicling her perpetual wrangling with certain malcontents. This one told her to her face that he hated her. That one had an outburst in the weight room about the training regimen. About Carrie Covington, with whom she had constant battles, Wingenroth says tensions between them existed before she even enrolled. "She didn't like me when she visited," she says, "and I didn't like her."
When several team members tried to orchestrate a coup two years ago, sports psychologist Larry Alford was brought in at the administration's suggestion to mediate the dispute and recommend steps for improvement. His report, issued in September 1996, noted the coach's weaknesses but gave them a positive spin: "Coach Wingenroth's introverted personality interacts with the physical and mental exhaustion she feels in such a way that she gives the appearance of being detached and emotionally unavailable to swimmers," Alford wrote. "Kris is unhappy with this situation; it is my perception that she is genuine in her empathy and caring for her athletes."
Alford reserved his most critical observations for a handful of the swimmers he labeled "higher-maintenance": "Athletes who have been pampered in their [previous] settings ... no longer have that option. They must conform, and the effect of placing such demands on this egocentric minority may be resistance, complaining, obstinacy and defiance."
"There are a small number who are generally unhappy (for a variety of reasons, including their own poor performance) who are likely to remain unhappy regardless of what changes may be made," Alford continued. "Unfortunately, some of this group have tended to be rather outspoken."
His words proved prophetic. A group of swimmers, one of whom later wrote that she'd put three years of "heart and soul" into having Wingenroth fired, engaged in an effort to sabotage her authority and poison the air. Letters and other documents from both her supporters and detractors show a pattern of backstabbing that reads like a bad romance novel -- negative remarks to recruits, letters to alumni urging them to withhold contributions, dogging it during practice. "This effort on the part of a few people was a conspiratorial, organized plan that as much as anything reflected personal vendettas against Coach Wingenroth," wrote former swimmer Jim Bridenstine in a May 6 letter to a top administrator.
By the time Wingenroth took the fall, the dissension on the team had escalated to the detonation point. At team meetings, those who dissented from the prevailing view that the coach needed to go were belittled and screamed at. Seniors harassed freshmen with late-night phone calls. Any semblance of team unity dissolved in the friction.
The resignation of assistant coach Brian Smith on May 22 triggered the final assault against Wingenroth. More outgoing and popular with the swimmers, Smith had not concealed his occasional differences with his boss from the team, and the tension led him in part to seek his swimming fortunes elsewhere. "Brian's leaving caused the team to realize that we wouldn't be able to function with just Kris," Robin Davidson told the Rice student newspaper in August.
Eventually, even those who were on the fence about the coach or objected to the strategy believed she'd lost control of the team, and that for the good of all, Wingenroth had to go. "We realized it was time for a coaching change," Davidson says.
And though she'd hoped that the graduation of her most vocal detractors would give her a fresh start the following year, she realized that such optimism was misplaced. "At the point where it started looking like there were a lot of people against me, then you're like, 'Well, clearly this is not a good situation.' "
Wingenroth, a Rice graduate who has been directly connected with the school almost half her life, feels bitterness toward her antagonists. Unemployed, she's taking time to get past the hurt before seeking another coaching job. "It was very difficult to see your team turn against you when you worked so very hard for them," she says, her voice cracking. "They turn around and kick you in the butt."
But she directs her harshest criticism at Bobby May, who she feels never gave her the support she needed. "No effort was ever made to help me," she says.
In particular, Wingenroth points to Alford's report, which offered several tips to the administration to help make her job easier and free her to be more involved with the athletes. Alford urged a reduction in her administrative burden and more interaction between the athletic director and team. "As far as I'm concerned, Mr. May didn't follow through on very much of that," Wingenroth says.
Not surprising, she says, since a lack of support has been the theme song of the program since she arrived in 1982. At her annual budget meeting, she says, May would downplay her achievements while arguing against pay raises (eventually she says she had to force a salary increase by complaining to the affirmative action office). And while May insists that he attends as many Rice sporting events as he can and personally meets with potential recruits, Wingenroth says that with the exception of a single appearance at a swimming match last year, he must be talking about some other sport.
What disturbs her most, however, is that when problems with students erupted, May was never there to back her up. If anything, she believes, he undermined her authority by refusing to let her discipline swimmers or take away their scholarships (a flaw also addressed by psychologist Alford), which in turn fueled the zeal of her foes. "When push comes to shove, he's not gonna back you up," says former tennis coach Larry Turville, who had a similar experience.
Even Wingenroth's swimmers saw this as potentially damaging. When the administration buckled on Dave Stigant's suspension for his hate mail, the students saw it as a green light to trash the coach at will. "I think the students did have too much power in that situation," says Robin Davidson. "There was already a lack of respect for Kris, and that just made it worse."
While this view could be chalked up to people with axes to grind, doubt has seeped throughout the athletics department. "You don't know until it happens to you," says a coach who has as yet not run afoul of the student athletes. "You don't know if someone's gonna back you or not."
Bobby May worked his way up through the ranks in storybook fashion. A star athlete who won the NCAA hurdles title in 1964 and was later inducted into the Rice Athletic Hall of Fame, May joined the university as assistant track coach just two years after graduation. He took over the head coaching position and was also named an assistant athletic director in 1976. After serving under several football coach/athletic directors, he was elevated to the top job in 1988.
May rarely discusses his policies with the media, but he's at least willing to convey an all's-well message about his department. "My job is to be as diligent as I can be to give us the best chance to have a successful intercollegiate athletic program," he says glossily. "Successful in every sense, with student athletes who get bona fide degrees and graduate at the highest rate possible, and a program that's able to be competitive and win games."
A hint of defensiveness invades his confident tone, however, when asked about the lack of a formal evaluation for coaches. "Well, there is [one]," he says. "I'm evaluating their programs as we speak, always."
Pressed on why nothing is documented, May explains that the department used to have a written evaluation for the coaches but abandoned the practice several years back. "It wasn't getting the job done," May says, employing a favored sports cliche.
The problem, he explains, was that the evaluation attempted to measure a coach's standing in a variety of categories on a scale of one to ten. "It was problematic," May says. "I felt it would be better to get away from a chart or a scale and [having] to determine where the arrows should be if there was a range of performance -- should it be an inch to the right or an inch to the left? It seemed better to look at the overall performance."
May doesn't have the same compunction about using student evaluations to help him assess his coaches. Those evaluations, which the athletes fill out anonymously at the end of their seasons, use a five-point scale ranging from very poor to excellent. At the end of the form, students can editorialize in essay form as they see fit. The comments are often used as spurs at each coach's annual budget meeting, which can also serve as a performance review at the director's whim. "Many times what they suggest is good information to share," he says, "because sometimes the coach doesn't understand how a particular student might view the program."
That may have been the original intent, but the practice has evolved over time into something else entirely. Knowing that criticism is read with great interest, the athletes avail themselves of the chance to lob grenades with impunity. "It turned into a rip session," says Larry Turville. "Anybody who didn't like you would do a total job on you."
May sees no pitfalls in getting such feedback. Such input is important, just as teaching evaluations have a role in helping assess faculty performance. And any impression that the evaluations are somehow definitive is wrong. "It's simply informational," May says.
Besides, he says, the students have the same opportunity to critique the administration. "It's not just coaches," he says. "They have an opportunity to evaluate every aspect of the athletic program -- sports medicine, strength and conditioning, academic counseling, even me."
While coaches usually hear the worst the students have to offer, it's not clear what happens to the comments directed at the upper echelons. Sports psychologist Larry Alford noted in his report, "Although swimmers vary considerably in their perceptions of coach Wingenroth and the swim program in general, they are unanimous in not feeling valued by the administration." And a review of Wingenroth's internal team evaluations turns up such comments as "Swimmers get the shaft," and "Where has Bobby May been? It is hard to motivate ourselves if the AD could care less about us, and there is no advancement in our program."
May offers a clue. "If I'm not doing what the kids think I should be doing, I'd like to hear about it," he says. "It may not be that I can do any better particularly in the area that they might be referring to, but I'd like to know what they have to say."
The director seems less interested in input from the coaches, who have no formal channel for throwing in their two cents. "If the players are evaluating us, why aren't we evaluating the administration?" asks Turville, who can't seem to let go of the present tense. "Theoretically, we're a little more mature than the 18-year-old who's evaluating us."
Perhaps he knows that the results might not be entirely favorable. "All of the ex-coaches had some type of shortcoming or other," says one coach. "But we all do. On the other hand, I see administrators who have significantly more shortcomings than we do who will never be fired."
If May sees any room for improvement in his department, he's not sharing it. And while he says there may be isolated pockets of misunderstanding that students have the power to hire and fire coaches, it's ludicrous to see what happened to Wingenroth, Turville, Chen and others in such a narrow light. "I make the decisions," May says definitively. "If anybody has a misperception, that's not good. I'm sure they're out there."
They are indeed out there, and all around him. The student newspaper titled its story about the swimming coach's demise "Rice swimmers oust Wingenroth." Alumnus and former team member Raymond Kan wrote university president Malcom Gillis an emotional letter. Kan concluded, "I wonder if perhaps this is an indicator of what our society has become, where unruly athletes and prima donnas are able to have their way by means of emotional complaints and arguments that have no basis in reality."
Former assistant coach Brian Smith also addressed the issue in a letter to an administrator following his resignation. "[The] perception is that the athletes are making the decisions," Smith wrote. "I know this to be a belief by many coaches in the athletic department and that this perception extends outside the [university]."
Another perception also persists: Whether by oversight or design, in the Rice equation that includes the best interests of faculty, workers, students and administrators, the rights of minorities and the good of the community, coaches have been forgotten. "We are the absolute lowest of the low," says Larry Turville.
And in the insulated world of the athletics department, their lot has remained nearly invisible. "I do not think our president, our provost, our vice president of finance are aware of all the problems down here," says a faculty member close to the athletics program. "They're very able administrators, and I think they would do something about it.
"I think any time that you take someone's life and muck around with it, it ought to be a concern to the university."
Email Bob Burtman @ firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.