In the summer of 2013, less than four months after beginning her first coaching job at Loyola, Sheryl Swoopes gathered her team at a campus theater to watch an ESPN documentary about her emergence as one of the best women’s basketball players ever to compete, as well as her trials with finances and relationships.
In the ensuing months and years, as Loyola players acquainted themselves with Swoopes, some say another picture emerged, one of a coach who was extremely difficult to play for, prompting a mass exodus.
“Just because you’re a great player doesn’t mean you’re a great coach,” said Cate Soane, who transferred from Loyola after the 2013-14 season. “She was the Michael Jordan of women’s basketball. She didn’t know how to teach.
“In the beginning of the year (after watching the documentary), I actually felt bad for the things she went through. But at the end of the season, I was like, everything made sense. She seems to thrive off drama. Wherever she goes, the drama is.”
The Tribune spoke with five former Loyola players, three of whom requested anonymity, who said Swoopes’ unusual coaching style has caused many players to leave the program. In addition to Soane’s departure, five Ramblers transferred after the 2014-15 season, and the university has granted 10 of the 12 returning players from last season’s roster their requests to be released from their scholarships.
The volume of departures was serious enough that Loyola announced April 15 that it had launched an “independent and comprehensive university investigation” into the program.
Swoopes has declined to comment on any allegations. Loyola released a statement Thursday in response to Tribune inquiries that read in part: “Until the investigation is completed, the athletics department and women’s basketball coaching staff are conducting business as usual as we prepare for the 2016-2017 season.”
Nobody is accusing Swoopes of physical abuse or of violating any laws or NCAA regulations. There remains support for Swoopes: Chicago Hoops Express coach Jerald Davis said some players have a tough time competing for a coach with Swoopes’ standards, and the three recruits who signed in November still plan to join the Ramblers next season.
The Loyola investigation comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of how college athletes are treated, on and off the field. Last year, for instance, Illinois fired athletic director Mike Thomas in the wake of allegations of mistreatment in the football, women’s basketball and women’s soccer programs.
Swoopes, who had never coached before, came to Loyola with an almost unparalleled resume as a player: the first player drafted in the WNBA, a three-time league most valuable player and three-time Olympic gold medalist. Earlier this month, she was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
But red flags quickly arose. Even before Swoopes’ first season began, the parent of a player lodged a complaint with then-athletic director Grace Calhoun, who had hired Swoopes in a surprising move.
The five players who transferred after Swoopes’ second season — Bailey Farley, Tiana Karopoulos, Destiny Washington, Cortney Williams and fifth-year graduate transfer Simone Law — included two players Swoopes recruited. Nine of the 10 leaving the team after last season were players Swoopes brought into the program.
The players who requested releases, according to sources, are freshmen Whisper Fisher, Grace Goodhart and Dakota Vann; sophomores Tashawnya Edwards, Ryaen Johnson, Sam Lambrigtsen and Katie Salmon; and juniors Taylor Johnson, Nieka Wheeler and Taylor Manuel, who transferred to Loyola from Purdue.
Only freshman guards Brandi Segars and Citiana Negatu plan to return, according to sources, joined by the three signees — leaving not only Swoopes’ coaching career but also the program in a state of crisis.
And it hasn’t been only players leaving.
Only one assistant coach, Jeanine Wasielewski, has remained on Swoopes’ staff since she was hired. Six staffers departed over her first two seasons, either dismissed by Swoopes or because they didn’t feel comfortable with her style, sources said. Two were directors of basketball operations; the rest were assistant coaches.
‘Just too emotional’
Every day was like “walking on eggshells,” one former player said, requesting anonymity.
Three players said Swoopes cried during halftime of games in the locker room, begging players to rebound better in one instance, and cried during practices while imploring the team to perform better. She stormed out of the gym during practice about four times last season, frustrated at players’ lack of execution, said one player who asked to be anonymous.
At another practice, Swoopes sat on a chair in silence the entire time, multiple players said.
“She was just too emotional,” said another player who requested anonymity. “I wasn’t used to that. She would get frustrated and say, ‘You guys don’t care. I’m done,’ and just walk out.”
Players alleged Swoopes often threatened them with yanking their scholarships. She shared with teammates personal information told to her in confidence, according to sources.
Soane said Swoopes frequently singled her out and verbally abused her. She alleged Swoopes asked to see text messages on her phone from a former teammate during a team meeting.
“Not only did she belittle and mock me herself, but she encouraged other players on the team to do the same,” said Soane, who transferred to Illinois-Chicago, where she stopped playing basketball to concentrate on academics. “She even called on players that hadn’t said anything to tell me how I wasn’t a loyal member of the program and how I wasn’t a good teammate.”
Soane said Swoopes reacted harshly when Soane’s mother called an assistant coach to inquire about her daughter. Soane said Swoopes asked for a meeting with Soane’s parents and “berated” her mother for questioning her authority. She said Swoopes later scolded her and told her to stop talking to her family about team issues.
“I had to watch my mom get ripped to shreds,” Soane said, “and I couldn’t do anything about it due to the fact I was already on thin ice and didn’t want to give Swoopes another reason to not renew my scholarship.”
‘People were scared’
One former player said Swoopes treated her unfairly regarding her scholarship.
Lauren Hibbard was on Loyola’s roster from 2010 to 2013. She told the Tribune that after she had suffered knee injuries, Swoopes “pressured” her to sign a medical hardship form, telling her another school would not want her as a transfer and that Swoopes would bring her back as a team manager.
“I basically signed my last two years away,” Hibbard said.
When a medical hardship is granted, the school pays for tuition and it frees up an athletic scholarship on the team, but it ends the player’s NCAA athletic career.
“She said if you sign the medical waiver, I promise you can still be on the team as a manager, you can still go on our trip to Italy and take summer classes,” said Hibbard, who graduated from Loyola in 2014. “She told me nobody would take me (as a transfer) and she wouldn’t consider playing me any longer. She said she needed a spot open. I was the only one with enough medical history.”
About a week later, Hibbard said, Swoopes called her into her office for a brief meeting and told her she wouldn’t be a manager or travel with the team to Europe. Hibbard said she could never get an answer from Swoopes about why she changed her mind.
“I had been playing basketball my whole life,” she said. “It’s more than a sport to me.”
Her mother contacted the Missouri Valley Conference in July 2013 as well as athletic director Calhoun. The conference referred her complaints back to Loyola, and Calhoun declined to discuss the matter, saying Hibbard’s mother, Kelly Manvilla, was not her legal guardian, according to emails the Tribune obtained. (Hibbard said she was raised by two mothers and the school had communicated with Manvilla previously.)
“I can share that the department’s administration has been involved throughout this process and we are comfortable that Lauren was treated fairly,” Calhoun said in an email to Manvilla in July 2013.
Calhoun, who left Loyola in March 2014 for the AD job at Penn, did not return a message from the Tribune requesting comment.
Hibbard said former assistant coaches and administrators later apologized to her.
“The AD wasn’t going to go against Sheryl Swoopes because she has a big name,” Hibbard said. “She has celebrity status. People were scared to talk against her.”
‘Someone who cares’
In three seasons at Loyola, Swoopes has compiled a 31-62 record without a winning season. After her first season, in which the Ramblers went 11-21, she received a contract extension through 2017-18 from then-interim AD Susan Malisch, who cited Swoopes’ “commitment to performance excellence, energy and passion for the game.”
“She challenges and inspires players and coaches alike to be the best they can be,” Malisch said at the time.
The Ramblers finished the next season 6-25 before improving to 14-16 last season.
After Loyola announced its investigation, Swoopes tweeted a meme that read, “No need for revenge, just sit back and wait,” before quickly deleting it. A Twitter account named We Support Swoopes was created April 20, and she retweets its messages of encouragement.
All three recruits who signed national letters of intent in November — Morgan Park guard Deja Cage, Montini guard Tiara Wallace and guard/forward Kiana Coomber of Prairie Central in Fairbury, Ill. — are still on board to join the team for the 2016-17 season.
Coomber has no hesitation about playing for Swoopes, her family said.
“Coach Swoopes said from the beginning: ‘I’m tough and I’ll keep track of you off the court also because you represent the school and team. I want you to be a strong young woman, and the first thing is to graduate,’” said Kim Coomber, Kiana’s grandmother, who raised her.
“Kiana has had tough coaches and does well. She understands coaches are hardest on their best players. If something was harmful, that would be different. From what I’ve heard, that stuff doesn’t seem abusive to me.”
Davis, who coaches the Chicago Hoops Express travel team, said he supports Swoopes and has formed a friendship with her, as two of his former players competed for her at Loyola.
“She played at such a high level, her expectations of her players when it comes to level of commitment is greater than other coaches I’ve spoken to,” he said. “She has an old-school temperament as a coach, being as successful as she has been. She always has come across to me as someone who cares ... as someone who has keen maternal instincts.”
Davis said he talked to Swoopes recently.
“She assured me she has not mistreated anybody,” he said. “She said once the investigation (ends), it would clear everything up. ... I always believe that some coaches are good for some people and not good for others.”