Bad Sports

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."

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Bob Burtman