As they read last week published allegations about Marlene Stollings and her staff at Texas Tech, former Gophers women’s basketball players Jasmine Brunson and Taiye Bello immediately believed much of it.
The reason was simple: Both said they had experienced similar things while playing for her at Minnesota.
“The culture sounded familiar because all of that is true,” said Brunson, who was recruited by Stollings out of New York and played two seasons for her at Minnesota before finishing her Gophers career with two seasons under Lindsay Whalen.
Added Bello, who is from Michigan and was in the same graduating class with Brunson this past spring: “The first thing that came to my mind when I read the article was, ‘that sounds about right.’ ”
In interviews with the Star Tribune — both conducted with written questions and answers — Brunson and Bello described during their time at Minnesota under Stollings experiences similar to those at Texas Tech that ultimately caused the school to fire her last week.
Both players said they shared their concerns during their Gophers career with a U of M consultant and were planning to transfer before Stollings left Minnesota for Texas Tech in April 2018.
“My sophomore year I ended having to see a sports psychologist because it was just too much, and I ended up taking medication to manage my anxiety. I almost walked away from basketball because of it.”
They also echoed former teammate Annalese Lamke, who last week on Twitter wrote: “Unfortunately, these type of incidents weren’t just isolated to Texas Tech ... Administrators must do a better job researching who they are hiring to protect their athletes! Winning doesn’t make a good coach.”
Lamke declined to be interviewed when contacted but said she stood by what she wrote on Twitter and confirmed it was in regard to her time under Stollings.
• Texas Tech players said they had to wear heart rate monitors and that there were consequences if their heart rates fell below 90% of capacity for more than two minutes of a game. Brunson said the same monitoring, with penalties, happened under Stollings at Minnesota.
“The consequences, depending on the player, were less playing time and more conditioning because the coaches felt you weren’t in shape if you couldn’t get your heart rate up,” Brunson said.
• Former Texas Tech player Mia Castaneda described to USA Today an environment of “fear, anxiety and depression” that permeated the team under Stollings. Both Brunson and Bello described a similar environment fostered in particular by Stollings and assistant coach Nikita Lowry Dawkins, who was also fired from Texas Tech last week.
Brunson said that before the final regular-season game of her sophomore year, Stollings took away her captain status in front of the entire team in a move designed to embarrass her.
Lowry Dawkins followed up with Brunson on the team bus with what Brunson deemed a threat. She recalls the assistant coach telling her: “You don’t have to come with us on this trip. We will leave you and I will make sure you’re on the first plane back to New York. You better fix your face and get it together or I will send you home.”
Bello said players were pushed to play through injuries and illnesses. Threats of having their scholarships taken away were common, both players said.
“It created a lot of anxiety because there was such a fear of messing up and making mistakes in games and practice. They really humiliated people in practice at times and singled people out often,” Bello said. “My sophomore year I ended having to see a sports psychologist because it was just too much, and I ended up taking medication to manage my anxiety. I almost walked away from basketball because of it.”
In a statement released to USA Today last week before she was fired, Stollings said in part about her time at Texas Tech: “Our administration and my staff believe in the way we are building and turning this program around here. Our student-athletes are developing a disciplined approach both on and off the court. I want our students, fans and alumni to know we are committed to winning championships at Texas Tech and doing it the right way through hard work, accountability and fierce determination.”
Stollings couldn’t be reached for further comment this week.
Discussed in Minnesota
Brunson and Bello said players met with Dan Beebe — a consultant hired by the U athletic department who specializes in risk management — after both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. They shared their concerns about their experiences under Stollings and her staff, though it is believed those were raised during the meeting in 2018 after Stollings had already left for Texas Tech.
No school administrators or coaches are present during meetings between Beebe’s group and athletes, but the group can then share information with the athletic department if concerns are raised.
In response to a Star Tribune question about the involvement of Beebe’s group and the general handling of player concerns, a Gophers athletics spokesperson provided this statement: “The Athletics Department retained the Dan Beebe Group to evaluate and recommend ways to improve human relations across the Department. While the University cannot comment on specific personnel information received by the Dan Beebe Group from staff or student-athletes, the Athletics Department can confirm its good faith in addressing any concerns brought to its attention.”
The athletic department has numerous mechanisms for athletes to share concerns — including an anonymous reporting tool and access to the personal cellphone number of current athletic director Mark Coyle.
“Administrators must do a better job researching who they are hiring to protect their athletes! Winning doesn’t make a good coach.”
Bello and Brunson both said they didn’t voice concerns beyond sharing them with Beebe’s group because they feared retribution if word got back to Stollings while she was coaching them.
“Most people just kept quiet and were going to just transfer or try to deal with it if they could. I also think a lot of players don’t leave or speak up because as athletes being tough is what we’ve been taught to do,” Bello said. “Sometimes you don’t realize that there’s a difference between a coach that has high standards and a coach that is just creating an environment of fear, toxicity, and is downright abusive to be honest.”
Both players said they were planning on transferring after the 2017-18 season, the sophomore year for both of them, and other players were prepared to join them.
But Stollings — who had coached the Gophers to the second round of the NCAA tournament — resigned in early April 2018, only a few weeks after that season ended, to take the Texas Tech job. She had been at Minnesota for four seasons after being hired by former Gophers AD Norwood Teague in 2014.
In a statement after Stollings left, Coyle said: “I appreciate what Coach Stollings accomplished in her time with us, particularly this past season when her team provided some great memories for Gopher fans. We wish her the best in her new position.”
Just a few days later, Coyle hired Whalen.
A different approach
Both Bello and Brunson ended up staying after the coaching change, with Brunson describing a “night and day” difference in the culture under Whalen. Bello missed a road trip last season in protest of Whalen’s decision to suspend Destiny Pitts, but she returned to the team to finish her senior season and agreed with Brunson that there was a culture change under Whalen.
“I was one of the players planning on transferring following my sophomore year,” Brunson said. “I felt like I already wasted two years and wasn’t happy from an athlete standpoint for two years. I was excelling in school, but when it came to basketball, the only thing that got me through was my teammates.”
Stollings moved on to Texas Tech after a coaching search that Red Raiders athletic director Kirby Hocutt said Friday revealed no “flags.” USA Today reported that 12 Texas Tech players transferred in the two years after her arrival.
“She had a history of turning around programs and being successful. Taking programs that were not achieving at a certain level desired and elevating them,” Hocutt said Friday of the process of hiring Stollings, whose 18 victories with Texas Tech last season were the most the program had since 2012-13. “Had we heard directly any of the concerns we are now very well aware of, we would have made a different decision.”
It’s unclear exactly who Texas Tech officials asked about Stollings before hiring her. Hocutt said they talked to “many of our colleagues and counterparts around the country who had worked with her and been around her.”
But it’s clear to Brunson that they didn’t ask the right people.
“It doesn’t seem like Texas Tech did the proper vetting,” she said. “If they did, they surely ignored the warning signs and now they are suffering the consequences, as they should.”