Holy Cross Coach Bill Gibbons Sidelined after Abuse Allegations

By Scott J. Croteau and Jennifer Toland
Telegram & Gazette
October 17, 2013

Bill Gibbons signals a play for his team, while referee Michael Motta signals a three-point shot, in a game on Nov. 28, 2012. (T&G Staff File Photo/STEVE LANAVA)

Holy Cross women's basketball coach Bill Gibbons voluntarily stepped aside from his coaching duties, one day after he was accused in a lawsuit of verbally and physically abusing his players at games and practices.

The college said in a statement Wednesday he will be on administrative leave with pay and his assistant coaches will assume all coaching duties.

Gibbons declined to comment.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, a former student-athlete alleged that Mr. Gibbons physically and verbally abused his players and the college perpetuated a culture of denial and feigned ignorance over his actions.

In the 21-page lawsuit filed in New York, Ashley Cooper, who played two years on Mr. Gibbons' team, claims the coach struck her on the back on more than one occasion, including during a January 2012 game against Brown University. That incident caused Ms. Cooper to experience pain and left a red handprint on her skin, according to the complaint.

Ms. Cooper, 20, claims her then coach struck and humiliated her sometimes in the presence of other school officials. She is seeking unspecified damages and lawyers' fees, according to the suit.

A star high school basketball player from New Jersey, Ms. Cooper accused Mr. Gibbons of shaking her by the shoulders, yanking her by her shirt collar, and squeezing the back of her neck in anger on several occasions.

"Defendant's (Mr. Gibbons) actions constitute the worst type of bullying because not only is defendant Gibbons her coach and supervisor, but also he is someone she is supposed to respect and instead plaintiff Cooper was in fear of physical pain, suffered emotional abuse and fear of retaliation at the hand of defendant Gibbons," the suit said.

Holy Cross said Wednesday it had investigated earlier allegations by Ms. Cooper, but the lawsuit contains new information, which it intends to review with lawyers, according to a college spokesman.

"The physical, mental and emotional well-being of our students is our highest priority at Holy Cross. We just received the lawsuit and are in the process of reviewing it," the college said in a statement Wednesday.

The college's investigation into earlier allegations made by Ms. Cooper found nothing to substantiate her claims, a college spokeswoman said.

Mr. Gibbons held a meeting at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Hart Center. Those in attendance included former and current players, Holy Cross administrators and coaches of other Holy Cross sports teams and Holy Cross legal counsel.

Journalists were also in the room at Mr. Gibbons' invitation, but were subsequently told to leave by college officials, then escorted from the building and off campus by Holy Cross police.

Two former players who attended the meeting did so in a show of support for Mr. Gibbons.

"We are here to support Coach," said Anna (Kinne) Patel, who played for Holy Cross from 1996 to 2000 and later served as an assistant on Gibbons' staff.

"We are 100 percent behind Coach Gibbons," added Jeanette (Paukert) Wehrenberg, a Crusaders player from 1998 to 2002. "I have a 3-year-old daughter and I would not hesitate for one second having her play for Coach Gibbons."

Mr. Gibbons, entering his 29th season as coach, has the most victories in the program's history, with a career record of 533-315.

The suit names Mr. Gibbons, the college and its trustees, athletic director Richard M. Regan Jr. and associate athletic director Ann Zelesky as defendants.

Ms. Zelesky's employment status has not changed, a college spokeswoman said. Mr. Regan announced in July he was stepping down as athletic director. A national search is underway for his successor.

Ms. Cooper's lawyer, Elizabeth Eilender, said she was pleased with Mr. Gibbons' decision to temporarily step aside.

"He has no place in collegiate coaching," she said. "At least I know the current players at Holy Cross will not be subjected to his abuse in the foreseeable future."

Ms. Cooper, who now lives in New York, played guard and was enrolled at the college from September 2011 to May 2013. She accepted a full scholarship to play at Holy Cross after a high school basketball career that featured two state championships.

The suit claims she was forced to leave Holy Cross and enroll in another college to escape the alleged abuse.

Ms. Cooper's love of basketball and self-esteem have been damaged, the suit said.

Ms. Eilender said Ms. Cooper is now a junior at New York University and is not playing basketball. Ms. Cooper has gone from a free college education to a $65,000-a-year payment, the New York City-based lawyer said.

"The whole point of the lawsuit was to make real change," Ms. Eilender said. "We just don't have anyone's attention at Holy Cross. She's trying to change things at Holy Cross and all over."

The lawyer said former Holy Cross players contacted her and relayed similar stories about the coach.

Clark University men's basketball coach Paul Phillips has had a personal and professional relationship with Gibbons for 40 years. Mr. Phillips called Gibbons a cornerstone of the local college basketball coaching community.

"He's a person who represents basketball the right way," Phillips said, "certainly off the court with everything that should be done for your players getting involved with community service, making sure they're accountable academically, that they're representing the college the right way off the court. There is no one as classy a person. If I had two daughters, which I don't, I would love them to have an opportunity to play for Bill Gibbons."

Ms. Cooper, a 5-foot-10 guard from Colts Neck, N.J., would have been a junior this year. The daughter of former University of Louisville basketball player Tim Cooper, she attended Rumson-Fairhaven High School.

Last year, she played in 21 of Holy Cross' 32 games, starting in five. She averaged 4.7 points and 1.6 rebounds. As a freshman, Ms. Cooper averaged 3.0 points and 1.6 rebounds in 26 games.

Ms. Cooper alleges that at a fall 2011 team meeting a psychological professional was brought in to discuss team chemistry.

"Subsequently it was revealed that the only 'team chemistry' issues were the players' distress with defendant Gibbons' outrageous and abusive behavior, of which Holy Cross was aware," the complaint said.

A Worcester native, Mr. Gibbons graduated from Clark University in 1981 and joined the Holy Cross men's basketball staff as an assistant the same year. Mr. Gibbons took over the women's program in 1985.

A six-time Patriot League Coach of the Year, Mr. Gibbons served as an assistant for Team USA at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2007.

Ms. Cooper said opposing players would remark that Mr. Gibbons was "crazy."

She claims Holy Cross officials did nothing to address the alleged behavior. Players complained to Ms. Zelesky about the coach's alleged actions, but instead of their complaints being addressed the players were retaliated against, Ms. Cooper said in the suit.

"This has been brewing for a while," Ms. Eilender said. "Holy Cross has known about this for years."

Ms. Cooper's suit alleges Mr. Gibbons struck another player on the back during a Lehigh University game in March 2013.

According to the suit, the father of the player involved in the alleged incident at Lehigh complained to Holy Cross administration, but the results of an investigation have not been released. The lawyers for Ms. Cooper have asked for the film of the Brown game but have not received it from the college.

Ms. Cooper claims Holy Cross does not have an alumni game because players are demoralized by the time they complete the basketball program. The former Holy Cross player does not want other women athletes to be abused by coaches under the guise of it being "motivation," the suit said.

In April, Rutgers fired men's basketball coach Mike Rice after a videotape aired showing him shoving, grabbing and throwing balls at players and using slurs against gays during practice.

Earlier this month Georgetown placed women's basketball coach Keith Brown on administrative leave after complaints of unprofessional conduct and inappropriate language.

Contact Scott J. Croteau at Follow him on Twitter @ScottCroteauTG








Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.