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USF may have broken rules

Ex-players on the women's basketball team say they were allowed to make long-distance calls on coaches' phones.

By DARRELL FRY and ANTONYA ENGLISH

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 12, 2000


TAMPA -- The University of South Florida may have violated NCAA rules by regularly allowing players to make personal long-distance phone calls from the women's basketball office.

During the past few seasons under coach Jerry Ann Winters, at least five former players interviewed by the Times said, team members frequently were permitted to make long-distance calls from the coaches' phones.

"The coaches knew about it," said former player Charmain Leslie, who is not among four former players suing the university and Winters for racial discrimination. "Basically the way it worked was you'd say you wanted to make a call. You'd go in, dial the number, (the coaches) would put in their code and then walk out.

"Supposedly it was to call family, but sometimes I'd call friends."

Former player Dione Smith said "just about everybody on the team made at least one call."

Asked Wednesday if Winters knew about the calls, Leslie said: "Oh, yeah, she had to. As a matter of fact, I think she did it for me once. Yeah, just once."

According to the NCAA manual, it is "not permissible to allow student-athletes to use a telephone or credit card for personal reasons without charge or at a reduced cost." Such actions are commonly referred to as an extra benefit.

Said NCAA spokesman Wally Renfro: "It is a possible violation. ... There can be several mitigating factors, and the school has a responsibility to look into those."

The Times made several attempts to reach Winters for comment Wednesday. Associate sports information director Fred Huff said Winters was out of town and declined to comment through him.

The players' phone usage is just one in a series of problems and allegations that have stung the women's basketball program under Winters, the Times has learned.

According to university documents and interviews with former players and former assistant coaches, several incidents have occurred within the program the past two years:

Several players and students were caught during the 1998-99 season making more than $7,000 in telephone calls through an assistant coach's stolen access code.

On at least one occasion, Winters asked former women's basketball office secretary Lisa Walker to fabricate meal receipts. And on another occasion a USF assistant coach is listed by Winters as attending a dinner to entertain recruits, but the assistant coach denies being there.

Winters regularly allowed players to use her personal credit card to entertain recruits, prompting an inquiry by the athletic department.

Winters' boyfriend, Ernie Brewer, who is not affiliated with the university, joined her in entertaining recruits, and his expenses apparently were paid by the university.

During the 1998-99 season, a female player acquired the university-issued calling card access code of then-assistant coach John Hughes, according to university documents. The code was passed on to other players, including some on the men's basketball team, as well as to students who were not athletes.

According to state attorney's office documents, several players involved said the code initially was acquired by former player Shay Jackson, a junior-college transfer who played in one 1998-99 preseason game before quitting the team.

In April 1999 athletic department officials caught on and discovered more than 4,000 unauthorized calls totaling $7,324, according to the state attorney's office, which investigated the case but decided not to prosecute.

University officials said they notified Conference USA about the case and then turned it over to the dean of students and the campus police. The players and students were ordered by the university to reimburse the school for the calls, which they did by January 2000, according to university documents. No further disciplinary action was taken.

In recent years, other universities, including Georgia, Pittsburgh and LSU, have wrestled with similar cases, some involving far less money, and responded with suspensions and community service work assignments.

NCAA spokesman Wally Renfro said his office is satisfied with the way USF handled the case.

"The NCAA says unless it's an extra benefit, and as long as the process and punishments are applied to the general student population in the same manner (as) applied to student athletes, it's not an issue," USF athletic director Paul Griffin said.

Walker, the former longtime basketball office secretary, said Winters was "casual" about handling financial matters such as expense accounts. She said Winters sometimes turned in expense materials to her that lacked the required documents for substantiation and asked Walker to make it appear proper.

She said that on at least one occasion Winters asked her to make up a receipt, but Walker couldn't remember any specifics.

Former assistant coach Tara Gibson, who has an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the university, also questioned Winters' record-keeping. Shown an October 1999 dinner receipt in which Winters listed Gibson as one of several dinner companions, Gibson denied being there.

"I wasn't there," Gibson said.

University documents show that Walker reported Winters late last season to assistant athletic director for compliance Steve Horton. Later, in a meeting about a variety of issues, Walker said she told Winters her concerns.

"I felt that some of these things were common enough that I needed to bring it to the attention of the proper authority," said Walker, who this summer was transferred to another department at her request. "I specifically told coach Winters that I did not want to be put in a position of creating meal receipts again. I was asked to do it on one occasion, but I felt some of the record-keeping was loose enough that it was a strong enough of a concern that I needed to address it directly."

Winters also frequently included Brewer at recruiting dinners, according to players and Winters' expense reports. His meals, according to Walker and the expense reports, were almost always paid for by the university, which Griffin said was allowable under university policies.

"It's not an issue," Griffin said.

Last year, university officials discovered that Winters regularly had given her personal credit cards to players to pay for expenses while hosting recruits, according to university documents. Sonya Swick, a former player and assistant coach, told the Times she frequently hosted recruits and often was given Winters' personal MasterCard and Visa to use instead of cash from the university.

Athletic department officials discovered the practice after noticing Winters' signature on several credit-card receipts didn't match.

Horton, concerned about the appearance of impropriety, confronted Winters in April 1999. She admitted giving players her credit cards a number of times over the past years, according to the documents. But she said the players used the cards only for allowable expenses.

In a memo to Griffin, Horton suggested reminding all university coaches and athletic staff members that their personal or university-issued credit cards should never be given to student-athletes.

"I told her giving student-athletes credit cards for any reason whatsoever is, at best, a perception problem," Horton wrote in a report. "Jerry Ann stated she understood."

Griffin said he did not believe Winters intended to break any rules. "It wasn't anything of any seriousness," Griffin said.

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