Assistant coach in Illini women’s suit gets results - at a cost, critics say
As players transferred out of the University of Illinois women’s basketball program this past season, then-associate head coach Mike Divilbiss may have had a feeling of deja vu.
His emotional, hard-line style has netted successful results over a nearly 30-year career, but his last head coaching job was clouded by the angry departures of several players during the coach’s sometimes stormy seven-year run at the University of Idaho.
Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas said he was unaware of the Idaho transfers before Divilbiss was hired in 2012 to be the top assistant for Illini head coach Matt Bollant.
A Tribune analysis of Divilbiss’ time at Idaho raises questions about whether U. of I. should have known more about his coaching history before seven Illini players filed a lawsuit accusing him and Bollant, both of whom are white, of creating a racially hostile environment. The allegations, along with well-publicized complaints that injuries were mishandled on the Illini football and women’s soccer teams, could have costly and lasting consequences for the athletic programs at the state’s flagship university.
Several African-Americans who played for Divilbiss at Idaho and elsewhere said that while their sharp-tongued coach could be narrow-minded and insensitive, he is not a racist. But many also claim some of the allegations made by the Illini players ring true.
“He should have been done after Idaho,” said former Idaho guard MacKenzie Flynn, who is white. “I guess someone didn’t do their homework.”
Thomas said Illinois conducted two background checks, one criminal and one with the NCAA, before hiring Divilbiss. He came back clean on both. Thomas said he gives head coaches latitude to hire their own assistants, which is industry standard, and he noted Bollant and Divilbiss worked together with no apparent problems for four seasons at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay before arriving at Illinois.
“Obviously I don’t know the circumstances as to why Mike left the University of Idaho, but I know you’re usually not somewhere for seven years unless you’ve had some level of success or they’re certainly pleased with your performance on and off the floor,” Thomas said.
The accusers in the $10 million federal lawsuit paint Divilbiss as the muscle and Bollant as the silent but present orchestrator in a plan to force black players out while filling the roster with their favored white recruits. Bollant still has his job, but Divilbiss resigned in May, weeks after parents’ complaints, in what Thomas called “a mutual separation.”
The athletes allege Bollant and Divilbiss mistreated players according to race, more harshly punishing black athletes, using derogatory terms, and segregating them in practices and room assignments. The complaint names Bollant, Divilbiss, Thomas, the university and trustees.
Five of the seven young women transferred; two completed their eligibility. Five are black and two are white.
Thomas said the characterization of Divilbiss as “intense” is fair, but he never saw conduct that went over the line.
Divilbiss, 56, declined to comment.
His supporters say he is among the most skilled teachers of the game; a man who is tough, but gets results. Yet many of his Idaho players said he made their lives miserable with verbal abuse and public humiliation. At least two dozen Idaho players defected early under Divilbiss, who resigned in 2008 with two years left on his contract.
Flynn said before she transferred in 2006, she and other teammates went to Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear with a list of complaints. Maureen Taylor Regan, then an Idaho assistant athletic director and senior woman administrator, recalled the angst over the years.
“It was the right thing to get rid of him when we did, but in hindsight, I think it probably should have been done the previous year,” said Taylor Regan, who is retired.
Hard, smart, together
Divilbiss decided to make basketball his life’s passion while growing up in Chicago’s northwest suburb of West Dundee after watching Bobby Knight coach a game for Indiana University in 1972, according to a 2004 Moscow-Pullman (Idaho) Daily News profile.
He played basketball at Winona State University in Minnesota and graduated in 1981 with a degree in physical education and then was an assistant coach at Eastern Washington University, where he earned his masters. He landed his first head coaching job in 1987 at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho, and over the next 14 years built the program into an NAIA powerhouse.
“I hope (the allegations) are not true. I love the guy,” said Amanda Campbell, now 38, an African-American point guard who played for Divilbiss at Lewis-Clark State. “Sometimes I couldn’t believe the things that came out of coach’s mouth. One time he told a girl she had the brains of a gnat. I didn’t always agree with his methods, but I never heard any kind of racial stuff.”
Athletic Director Gary Picone said Divilbiss didn’t have any trouble at Lewis-Clark State.
In 2001, Divilbiss accepted the head coaching job at the University of Idaho. He led the Vandals to back-to-back conference tournament title games in 2004 and 2005. In 2004, he was named Big West Conference coach of the year.
Divilbiss in various interviews over the years referenced the philosophy of coaching legend Dean Smith saying he expects his athletes to play “hard, smart, and together,” whether on the court, in class or in their personal lives.
He signed a contract extension at Idaho in 2005, but the school’s move to a different conference that next season proved tough, and his team struggled on the court the next three years.
The Idaho departures included some players who were injured and left for reasons outside Divilbiss’ control. But many cited the coach as a primary reason for leaving. The transfers included both black and white players, some stars and some deep reserves.
Leilani Mitchell, who is white, transferred in 2006 after playing for Divilbiss for three seasons. Mitchell was named honorable mention All-American her sophomore year under Divilbiss’ tutelage and now plays in the WNBA.
“The more they lost, the angrier (Divilbiss) seemed to get,” said Leilani Mitchell’s father, Dennis Mitchell. “When he doesn’t win, his personality seemed to change. My daughter said, ‘You know dad, it just isn’t fun anymore.’ ”
Several other players quit in 2006 as well.
“He’d say he had an open door if you needed to talk and then berate you,” said Flynn, 28, now living near Seattle. “He’d get really close to my face and start yelling, ‘Are you going to quit like them? Are you going to cry to your parents?’ ”
Jessica Summers, also white, left the team months later.
“It wouldn’t be a normal practice if he didn’t throw a ball or act like a child throwing a tantrum,” said Summers, 29, of Virginia. “I’m actually surprised he’s been allowed to be a part of the NCAA this long with the multiple complaints and multiple players who have left his program.”
Michelle Mickle-Castillo, who is white, left before the end of her freshman year at Idaho in the 2002-2003 season. She accused Divilbiss of grabbing her jersey and “throwing me up against” a wall during practices when he was displeased with her play.
“I just think it was a tragedy, honestly, how he treated everyone,” said Mickle-Castillo, 31, from Washington.
Summers also said Divilbiss grabbed her by her jersey, including once during a game while pulling her off the court. Mickle-Castillo said she never filed a formal complaint, but Summers said she complained both to the university administration and, later, in a petition to the NCAA while trying to get back a year of her eligibility. Two other players interviewed by the Tribune said they witnessed the incidents.
Divilbiss resigned March 28, 2008. His seven-year record was 82-119, ending his final season with just four wins. Spear, who became Idaho athletic director during Divilbiss’ tenure there and remains in that role, declined to comment.
Flynn and Summers, as well as other former players, echoed the Illini women in recalling how Divilbiss threatened their scholarships. But, his former players said they never witnessed racism. Shortly before Divilbiss left Idaho, two of his four black players spoke to the Lewiston Tribune in support of their coach. Neither woman responded to Chicago Tribune inquiries.
One of the four, Alana Curtis, said Divilbiss held separate practices for his “dog pound,” which the Illini players allege was discriminatory, but Curtis said it was for non-starters and not based on race. Still, Curtis said, she wasn’t surprised by the lawsuit allegations.
“I remember he had a preferred style of basketball,” said Curtis, 26, of Colorado. “He scoffed at street-ball style, which is predominantly associated with black teams.”
Two months after leaving Idaho, Divilbiss returned to the Midwest to join Bollant at Wisconsin-Green Bay, where they led the Phoenix to the NCAA tournament in four straight seasons. Neither coach dealt with any major complaints, according to the university records and interviews.
“I was always one of the only blacks on the team, and I did not see that (discrimination) at all — not these two coaches,” said Breannah Ranger, 24, of Skokie, who played at Green Bay. “They pushed me, like any other coach would do, and really developed me into the player I was.”
In 2012, Thomas fired Illinois women’s basketball coach Jolette Law and hired Bollant, who tapped Divilbiss to join him as his assistant coach.
Allegations stir debate
The lawsuit has sparked debate and strong opinions.
The parents said their daughters have shown incredible courage, dealing with critics who dismiss them as pampered cry babies who sued in retaliation for not getting enough playing time. And why would the two black female assistant coaches who witnessed the alleged conduct do nothing, those same critics questioned.
“Because they didn’t want to lose their jobs. It’s that simple,” said Terry Ekl, the attorney for the former players — Amarah Coleman, Alexis Smith, Taylor Tuck, Nia Oden, Sarah Livingston, Taylor Gleason and Jacqui Grant.
The university, citing the ongoing investigation, hasn’t allowed Bollant or his assistants to comment.
The allegations have “taken a huge toll” on Divilbiss, friend Dan Lesoing said. Lesoing, a basketball club coach in Nebraska, said Divilbiss in recent weeks has spent a lot of time with him, working with kids and teens in his club.
He said Bollant and Divilbiss recruited three current Illini players from his program, including standout Chatrice White, a white center, whose father said he doesn’t believe the allegations, including segregated room assignments.
“That’s a bunch of horse pucky,” Bob White said. “I asked Chatrice, ‘Did you ever room with non-white athletes?’ She did. The only requirement she thought they had was two freshmen couldn’t room together.
“I am absolutely offended by their rush to judgment on a good man and how they treated him. Coach Matt and Coach Mike are like a left arm and right arm. They work together.”
Thomas said he learned of one incident of alleged misconduct in February and found out the allegations were widespread in April, when letters from three players’ families critical of the coaches were made public. At that point, Thomas said, he contacted the chancellor’s office and asked for an investigation. That inquiry found no violations of law or NCAA rules. They also sought an external review, the results of which are pending.
As tension mounted, just two weeks before his resignation, Divilbiss returned to Lewis-Clark State in Idaho for his 2001 team’s induction into the college’s athletic hall of fame. His players had advanced to the national semifinals, placing third. In an interview with KLEW-TV, Divilbiss looked back longingly.
“This feels like my home, honestly,” he said. “A lot of days you just kind of wish you never left.”
Chicago Tribune’s Shannon Ryan contributed.
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