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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Coach learned of dismissal a year ago
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Rod Wood never could fully enjoy his crowning achievement at the University of Mary Washington because he knew the 2013–14 season likely would be his last as men’s basketball coach.
Long before the Eagles came within one victory of the NCAA Division III Final Four in March, Athletic Director Ken Tyler told Wood he would not be returning as coach in 2014–15.
According to sources close to the program, Wood hoped the breakthrough 25–6 campaign would earn him his job back. But on March 26, UMW announced Wood was being promoted to director of athletic facilities after 18 years as head coach.
And on Monday, the Eagles announced the hiring of former Cabrini (Pa.) College coach Marcus Kahn, who served as an assistant under Tyler at Albright (Pa.) College and Shepherd (W.Va.) University from 2000–02.
Wood, 50, said in a news release that he’ll miss coaching, but added: “I am excited about this new phase of my career.”
Tyler said Wood’s new position comes with a three-year contract and a raise.
In the news release announcing the move, Tyler praised Wood’s “exemplary” record on the court, especially this past season that culminated in the first Elite Eight appearance in school history. He also cited “the positive impact [Wood] has had on countless student–athletes.”
But Tyler’s and Wood’s comments in the release run counter to claims in a letter written by the coach’s former players to UMW administration and to statements the ex-players, former assistant coach Bill Engels and former Athletic Director Ed Hegmann made in interviews with The Free Lance–Star. All said Tyler and Wood had a contentious relationship that led to the coach’s ouster.
“It’s not a promotion. It’s a demotion,” said Engels, who served as one of Wood’s assistants the past nine years. “If you’ve ever been in the business of coaching and you’ve done it for so long, being in charge of a facility is a demotion from being a head coach.”
After initially declining to comment, Tyler later acknowledged he told Wood last May that his five-year coaching contract would not be renewed, saying he thought the basketball program needed “new leadership and a fresh perspective.”
Wood declined comment for this story. Engels said that’s because Wood was told that the new position came with a stipulation that he cannot make disparaging remarks about Tyler or UMW.
“I kept telling Rod, ‘I don’t know how you did that this year because you don’t have a job and [Tyler] doesn’t want you around, but you have to stay around,’” Engels said.
“It’s like being married and your wife comes in and says, ‘I want a divorce, but not until two years from now.’ Well what are you going to do for two years? How do you co-exist?”
‘SATISFIED’ WITH NEW JOB?
Tyler said Wood isn’t happy, but is “satisfied” with his new position. He said it’s a “natural progression” for coaches to go into administration.
But Engels believes Wood was promoted to “sugarcoat” his firing, which he thinks would not have been well-received by alumni following the most successful season in school history.
In a letter to administrators dated March 22, Wood’s players wrote that Tyler unfairly suspended team members, didn’t congratulate the Eagles for winning the Capital Athletic Conference tournament and the first NCAA tournament games in school history, and used social media to emphasize relationships with opposing head coaches.
They also said Tyler called former players in an effort to dig up negative information on Wood.
“It is important that those who supervise Mr. Tyler are made aware of the negative effect he has had on the student–athletes on the team,” the players wrote in a statement signed by all 13 team members. “His behavior has contributed to feelings of helplessness, anger and anxiety.
“We are especially worried that other athletes will be subjected to similar experiences as Mr. Tyler pursues an agenda that materially damages the athletic department’s reputation among students and parents as they consider enrolling at UMW.”
PLAYER ARRESTS A FACTOR?
Wood had a career record of 249–194 entering last season. He had been named CAC coach of the year four times, had one losing season in the past 10 years and he guided the program to its only NCAA tournament appearance in 2003.
But he was coming off a 14–13 record in 2012–13, Tyler’s first season as his boss.
Engels said the relationship between Tyler and Wood fell apart at the end of that season after two UMW players were charged in two separate incidents.
One faced a misdemeanor shoplifting charge, which was later amended to trespassing. He paid $109 in court costs.
The second faced a felony charge of grand larceny, which was downgraded to petit larceny. He pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor and was sentenced to one year of jail time with all but 10 days suspended.
Wood dismissed the second player from his program, but the first remained.
Tyler initially banned the remaining player from the team’s season-ending banquet in April 2013. But after his teammates threatened to boycott the event, against Wood’s advice, the player was allowed to attend.
Engels said Wood told Tyler he thought the arrests drew attention on campus because the players involved are black. The coach also mentioned other issues in the past between his players and coaches and athletes from other sports in which he thought race was a factor, Engels said.
Weeks after the discussion with Tyler, Wood was told his contract would not be renewed. Tyler said the exchange with Wood wasn’t a factor in the decision.
AD INTERVIEWED PLAYERS
Hegmann served as Mary Washington’s athletic director for 36 years before retiring in January 2012. Tyler was hired four months later after a four-year stint in the same position at West Virginia Wesleyan University.
Hegmann said that as AD, he fought for coaches to earn tenure. But that was revoked after the administration had a difficult time dismissing former men’s basketball coach Tom Davies, who directed the program from 1976–96.
When Wood succeeded Davies, instead of tenure-track contracts, coaches were signed to renewable contracts to provide some level of security.
Hegmann said Wood’s status as a senior lecturer called for him to be evaluated after the fifth year of his contract, the 2013–14 season. Hegmann said once the year-end performance review was complete, Wood either would receive another five-year contract or be told the following season would be his last.
Hegmann said he thinks Tyler moved too quickly last spring when he told Wood he would be dismissed.
“Rod began the season in October under those kinds of conditions which were horrible, knowing he’s going to have this unbelievable fight coming up and he was basically going to lose his job,” said Hegmann, for whom the school recently named its outdoor tennis facility. “That is just a horrible kind of thing to be under.”
UMW spokeswoman Marty Morrison said employees on five-year renewable contracts are re-evaluated after the fourth year, and then told they’ll receive another five years or that the fifth will be their final year.
Tyler said he followed proper procedure in dealing with Wood’s contract issue. “I wasn’t acting in a vacuum,” he said.
Tyler said if he had waited until after the 2013–14 season to evaluate Wood, his contract would have rolled over for an additional five years, beginning May 15.
Tyler said he told Wood of his dismissal last May because the UMW faculty handbook requires 12 months notice before not renewing a senior lecturer’s contract.
Wood could have been dismissed immediately if there was cause for his firing. Engels and Mary Washington players believe that is why Tyler called ex-players seeking negative information on Wood.
Tyler said he called four former players as part of an investigation into an “unsolicited” allegation of physical and verbal abuse by Wood. Tyler said he was notified of the allegation around the same time he dismissed Wood, but said it turned out to be “baseless.”
Ryan Farrar, who played for UMW from 2008–12, said Tyler called him last fall, shortly before the season began. Farrar said during a 30-minute conversation, Tyler asked him if he ever witnessed Wood choke players, strike players in the face or use vulgar language.
Farrar said they were “outlandish accusations” that he never heard.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know about that,’” Farrar said.
“I was as truthful as I could be,” he added. “It was a very respectful conversation both ways, but he kept reiterating these accusations like I knew what he was talking about. I felt like he wanted me to help him out in a sense.”
EAGLES PLAYED ‘ANGRY’
Tyler said he instructed Wood not to discuss his firing with players, assistant coaches or potential recruits because, “We wanted to focus on the season.”
But Marcellus Holley, a senior guard on the team, said that despite Wood’s silence, UMW’s players sensed something was amiss. During winter break, the team’s five seniors and junior guard Taylor Johnson approached Wood, who acknowledged that he had been fired.
“We were worried for him, like, ‘What can we do to get his job back?’” senior all-CAC guard Bradley Riester said. “The coaches just said, ‘All you can do is win.’ So that added fuel to the fire. It helped us a lot.”
The Eagles adopted the motto “play angry,” which Wood’s former Randolph–Macon College teammate, Gregg Marshall, has used to turn Wichita State into a Division I power.
UMW didn’t have a starter taller than 6-foot-3. But the Eagles scrapped for every loose ball and played each offensive and defensive possession at a frantic pace.
“We never had that mentality before this,” Riester said. “We just came out and played mad.”
UMW, which never had won an NCAA tournament game, won three tournament games before losing at home to Williams (Mass.) with a Division III Final Four berth at stake.
“People knew we were happy, but they didn’t know why we were even happier than most normal people would be in the Elite Eight,” Riester said. “We overcame everything.
“The best part was that I thought we won his job back. That was so gratifying to think, ‘We won his job back.’ But they found ways to keep him out.”
After the season, Wood was named Virginia Sports Information Directors College Division coach of the year. He was also named one of 12 finalists for Division III national coach of the year.
Tyler said Wood’s performance was “one of the best coaching jobs I’ve seen—ever” and led him to reconsider dismissing Wood entirely. So he, Wood and UMW President Rick Hurley entered discussions about a job in administration.
Wood’s new position will allow him to continue to teach physical education, but according to the news release his main duty will be “to oversee the operation and marketing of the athletic facilities for internal and external uses.”
Tyler said Wood also may become the school’s golf coach when that program is launched in the near future. That job would carry an additional stipend on top of the administrative salary and Wood retains his senior lecturer status.
Hegmann said it is a common practice for athletic administrators to put coaches into those types of positions when they want to get rid of them.
“The Rod Wood thing is tragic,” Hegmann said. “I find it extremely disappointing and embarrassing, because he was a resource that they have right there and because of some kind of power struggle between he and the athletic director they’re not going to let him coach any more. I just hate to see this happening.”
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