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USF basketball coach fired in controversy

Jerry Ann Winters is dismissed after four years as the women's team coach after claims of discrimination.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000


TAMPA -- Jerry Ann Winters, the South Florida women's basketball coach in the center of a bitter racial discrimination controversy, was fired Thursday.

Winters had been suspended with pay since Oct. 25 after a university investigation concluded she dismissed former player Dione Smith in retaliation for participating in a 1999 internal review of racial discrimination claims against the coach.

In November, Winters appealed the decision rendered by the university's Equal Opportunity Affairs office. On Thursday, her appeal was denied and she was promptly fired by USF athletic director Paul Griffin.

"Given the serious findings and breach of university policies, I've notified Coach Winters that the university plans to exercise the contractual options to terminate her employment at the university," Griffin said.

Acting coach Jose Fernandez, in his first year with the USF program, was named head coach and given a two-year contract. This is the first collegiate head coaching job for Fernandez, 29.

Winters, who was to begin her 25th season of coaching, will receive one-twelfth of her base salary of $70,000, or just less than $6,000, as part of a buyout clause in her contract.

USF President Judy Genshaft said Thursday the university is committed to diversity and concurred with Griffin's decision.

"(Griffin) has described what he is doing to make sure the core values of this university are fully reflected in our women's basketball program," Genshaft said. "These actions have my complete and full support. . . . We are taking actions to ensure the university maintains its commitment to diversity and fairness."

After spending four seasons at the helm of the South Florida women's basketball team, Winters, 52, said she was "extremely disappointed" that USF had denied her appeal, saying "the EOA final investigative report is factually inaccurate in almost all respects."

Winters also said she looks forward to the day she can clear her name.

"I am deeply disappointed in the decision denying my appeal," Winters said in a statement released by her attorney, John Goldsmith.

"From an examination of the affidavits attached to my appeal, it cannot be more clear that the appeal decision's conclusion is flatly wrong. . . . I am shocked that USF has decided to terminate me on this basis."

Griffin acknowledged he had several options to choose from as punishment for Winters but said firing her was the correct decision.

"We had the opportunity to consider a wide range of options, but quite frankly given the seriousness of these findings as given on Oct. 25, in consultation with both President (Judy) Genshaft, general counsel and human resources, we were of the opinion that if those findings stood, termination was the appropriate response," Griffin said. "We considered every option, but the decision for termination was one that became abundantly clear as the appropriate and right thing to do."

In March 1999, Smith and several teammates complained to then-assistant athletic director Hiram Green that Winters was discriminating against them because they were black. Smith and others submitted written complaints to Green, who then investigated the matter and found "a re-ocurring theme of racism" within the program, according to university documents.

In April 2000, Winters dismissed Smith, a three-year starter, from the team, saying Smith showed an "outward and blatant disrespect for me" by singing a verse from a song on the team bus a month earlier that Winters thought questioned her job security.

Winters said Smith sang the phrase, "We ain't gonna see our coach no more." Smith said she sang: "This may be the last time we see our coaches."

The EOA investigation determined Winters retaliated against Smith because there was a "causal connection between Smith's dismissal and her participation in Green's 1999 investigation." According to the EOA report, several of Smith's teammates and coaches, plus former basketball office secretary Lisa Walker, said Winters talked about eliminating everyone who spoke against her in Green's investigation, and specifically contemplated dismissing Smith.

After interviewing 17 people, the EOA office determined that Smith "would not have been dismissed from the basketball team was it not for her participation in a discrimination complaint."

But Winters appealed that decision, claiming among other things that the EOA investigation attributed statements to witnesses that were not made or were taken out of context, and that many of the witnesses who supported her claims were not interviewed.

Former assistant coach Ron Gathright and current player Aiya Sheppard, who is black, held a news conference shortly after Winters was suspended. Gathright said his comments were taken out of context and Sheppard said she never made several statements attributed to her.

But Laurey Stryker, the university vice president who conducted the appeal investigation, concluded that the original finding was correct.

"My review of the record leads me to conclude that . . . facts were considered, witnesses, with relevant information, were given an opportunity to testify and the investigation was properly conducted," Stryker wrote.

Smith was dismissed from the team in April but has remained on scholarship and attends classes at USF. Griffin said because the EOA found in Smith's favor, she will be granted an opportunity to return to the team with the same status and opportunities as other team members.

"Since the EOA report found that Dione's dismissal from the team was, at least in part, in retaliation for claims that she brought forth in April 1999, we will be offering an opportunity to Dione to rejoin the team immediately," he said.

Smith, who met with the media at the office of her Tampa attorney, Jonathan L. Alpert, said she isn't sure she will return to the team. She underwent surgery in November and is undergoing rehabilitation.

One possible option, she said, is to seek a medical redshirt for this season and return to the team next year.

"I would love to play again," Smith said. "I started here. I want to finish here."

Winters' dismissal ends at least one chapter of a saga that began in March 1999 and escalated last August when Smith filed a federal lawsuit claiming Winters discriminated against her because of her race. Since then, seven other former players have filed similar suits and former assistant coach Tara Gibson has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Former women's basketball secretary Walker, a 21-year-veteran of the athletic department who has since been transferred, has publicly sided with the former players' allegations.

Alpert said the firing of Winters was not the primary objective and that the matter won't end with Winters' removal from the program.

He said the issue is "institutional racism" in which many USF officials knew of the players' claims but did nothing to remedy the situation. He said Winters has become a scapegoat.

"We believe this coverup harmed Jerry Ann Winters in its own way because of what has happened since," Alpert said. "Had this been dealt with, had it not been concealed, had proper steps been taken in the beginning, Jerry Ann Winters might still have a career today and these kids would have their hopes and dreams.

"This is not something upon which we can rest. This is not over. This is not the final chapter. But we express our sympathy and our concern for Jerry Ann Winters -- all of my clients do."

Recent coverage

Martin Luther King III supports ex-USF players (December 8, 2000)

Report on USF due this month (December 7, 2000)

Ex-USF assistant AD gets support (December 5, 2000)

Ex-assistant AD says he gave report on Winters (December 3, 2000)

Worker backs USF bias claims (September 19, 2000)

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