It was basically like a torture mechanism. I feel like the system wasn’t supposed to be used how she was using it.
In a series of season-ending exit interviews, players alleged a culture of abuse in the Texas Tech program since Stollings took over in April 2018. They say a toxic atmosphere has prompted an exodus of players, including 12 of 21 leaving the program, seven of whom were recruited under Stollings. Two players detailed these allegations to the NCAA and were granted waivers allowing them to play the next season.
USA TODAY Sports collaborated with The Intercollegiate, a college sports investigative media outlet that obtained Texas Tech’s exit interviews with players from the past two seasons via public records requests. In addition to reviewing those documents and others, USA TODAY Sports interviewed 10 players, two former assistant coaches and two parents about the program. Six of the players spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
The university formed a committee to review the players’ allegations of abuse in exit interviews, Title IX complaints, transfer waiver requests filed to the NCAA and interviews with school officials. The four-person committee, which included deputy athletics director Tony Hernandez and Title IX investigator Glenn Mellinger, investigated the allegations against Petrella as well as other issues regarding the program, athletics director Kirby Hocutt said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports.
“Earlier this year, we were made aware of allegations of inappropriate behavior by a support staff member of our women’s basketball program. When the individual was confronted with the allegations, the individual resigned from their position before any university review could take place,” Hocutt said.
“Additionally, based on information received we conducted an in-depth program review of our women’s basketball program. … I have thoroughly discussed this review with coach Stollings and am confident that we are taking appropriate steps to improve the relationship and communication between coaches and student-athletes so that we can continue to grow the success of our program both on and off the court.”
When asked to provide a copy of the committee’s review, Texas Tech said a report was given to Hocutt verbally.
Stollings also gave a statement to USA TODAY Sports, which read in part:
“We know change is difficult and that has been no different at Texas Tech. Some wonderful young women have decided to leave our program and pursue their dreams elsewhere. I hope they have found everything they are looking for at their new destination.
“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.”
Mia Castaneda, who transferred to Washburn University in Kansas last year, said the coaches’ approach has gone beyond instilling hard work and accountability.
“It was just the feeling of fear, anxiety, depression,” Castaneda told USA TODAY Sports. “And it wasn’t just a few people — it was our entire team.
“They were breaking not just athletes, they were breaking people. And they didn’t realize that.”
Texas Tech had a 55-82 record under Candi Whitaker from 2013-18 before Stollings replaced her on April 9, 2018. Stollings had orchestrated turnarounds at Minnesota and Virginia Commonwealth. During the 2017-18 season, her Gophers beat four top-25 teams, advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament and completed the season 24-9.
In the release announcing her hiring, Stollings said she sought to return “to national prominence” a Lady Raiders program that owns 11 Sweet Sixteen appearances and a 1993 national championship led by Hall of Fame coach Marsha Sharp and eventual three-time WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes.
Stollings said in a statement that she would bring a “fun, up-tempo style of basketball that student-athletes will enjoy.” She also brought associate head coach Lowry Dawkins, who had been Stollings’ top assistant at Minnesota and VCU. The roles were reversed more than 15 years earlier, when Lowry Dawkins was head coach and Stollings an assistant at New Mexico State.
Lowry Dawkins’ tenure at New Mexico State ended in 2003 when she was removed following a school investigation “into allegations of mental and physical abuse, and other conduct that has jeopardized the health, safety, welfare and education of student-athletes under your charge,” according to a copy of the school’s termination notice obtained by the Intercollegiate along with other investigative records.
New Mexico State’s investigation found Lowry Dawkins threatened to kill one player, pulled another player’s hair and pushed players in conditioning to the point that some became sick. After Lowry Dawkins was reassigned to assistant athletic director, Stollings was named interim coach and eventually resigned in support of Lowry Dawkins.
“You were counseled for similar behavior last season,” Lowry Dawkins’ termination notice said, “and your actions this year indicate an inability or an unwillingness to conform to an acceptable level of conduct.”
Lowry denied the claims at the time according to The Associated Press: “I would hope they would do a good faith investigation. It seems to me (the allegations) been swept under the rug and I’ve been reassigned. I don’t think that’s fair.”
Lowry Dawkins’ New Mexico State post is not listed on her Texas Tech biography, nor in the 2018 release when the school hired her.
In 2018-19 under Stollings, the Lady Raiders won 14 games, doubling their total from the previous season. Still, eight players transferred to other programs by the summer. Two assistant coaches, including chief of staff Larry Tidwell, left after the season as well.
Tidwell, who retired briefly before coaching at Kansas 2019-20, praised Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec and Hocutt when reached for comment.
“Your team is a reflection of the head coach,” Tidwell told USA TODAY Sports. “What style the head coach chooses you need to either buy into both feet in or you need to make a change. I don’t have any regrets about my tenure at Texas Tech.”
In the correspondence of five players to the NCAA regarding transfer waivers for Merriweather and LaMark, they described the Texas Tech program as an “extremely unhealthy” and “toxic environment” in which players were “mistreated” and “degraded,” according to copies obtained by USA TODAY Sports. And in the exit interviews, which were anonymous, players addressed the exodus bluntly.
“That’s not a lack of talent or a lack of playing,” one player wrote. “That’s having respect for themselves that they recognize a toxic environment when they see one.”
Texas Tech conducts exit interviews with players via a college sports survey software program called RealRecruit, which compiles feedback and then scores respondents as “promoters,” “passives” or “detractors” of the program. Each of the nine players who completed the 2018-19 survey were classified as a “detractor.”
In comparison, no other Texas Tech team registered half of its players as detractors. When asked to rate Stollings’ character, one player said: “By how she treats people, her character seems poor.” Another player said, “no morals, no integrity.”
In 2019-20, the Lady Raiders’ record again improved, before the novel coronavirus abruptly ended the season. Texas Tech won seven of 18 conference games, the most since 2013, and finished with its first winning record (18-11) in seven seasons.
“She’s a good coach on the court X’s and O’s,” one player said. “I think she’s smart.”
Even so, players transferred to Nebraska, Kansas State, Virginia and North Texas. In 2020 exit interviews, a player said coaches “used fear to motivate you,” and that there was “not one person on this roster that feels comfortable going up to our coaches (sic) office.”
“Do something about the coaches,” one player wrote, “so that my teammates don’t have to continue suffering in silence.”
The most alarming claims from USA TODAY’s investigation into Texas Tech
SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports obtained Texas Tech’s exit interviews with players from the past two seasons via public records requests. In addition to reviewing those documents and others, USA TODAY Sports interviewed 10 players, two former assistant coaches and two parents about the program.
Stollings and her staff called players “disgusting” and “trash,” five players from the past two seasons told USA TODAY Sports. Coaches called post players “fat pig,” “grossly out of shape” and “grossly disproportional,” four say.
Players say coaches dismissed some injuries and pressured players to play even though a trainer or medical professional recommended otherwise.
One player said Stollings told her to take anxiety medicine, an allegation that was also noted in an exit interview and described by a teammate the player told at the time. The player said she met with a psychiatrist, who concluded medication wasn’t necessary.