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Minnesota Women’s Basketball: Former Gopher coach Marlene Stollings accused of toxic culture at Texas Tech

Her toxic culture may have existed at Minnesota as well.

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NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Ohio State vs Minnesota Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, USA Today, in collaboration with The Intercollegiate, published an article describing a toxic culture in the Texas Tech Red Raiders women’s basketball program led by coach Marlene Stollings. Stollings just finished her second season in charge of the Red Raiders program, but before that, she was the head coach of the Minnesota Gophers program for four seasons running from 2014 through 2018. While no explicit details of mistreatment and abuse of players have come to light from her time at Minnesota, one former Gopher alluded to the fact that Stollings was not great to her players at the U.

The Intercollegiate obtained exit interviews with Texas Tech players from the past two seasons via a public records request. Documents identified a clear picture of a toxic environment in the program. USA Today reporters Jori Epstein and Daniel Libit then aided in the investigation and interviewed ten different players, two former assistant coaches, and two parents about the Red Raider program. The review revealed a clear and systemic abuse of players, in some cases, physically and mentally, and a culture where fear of retaliation was prevalent.

Among the claims identified—these five were the most significant:

■ The emphasis on maintaining an elevated heart rate during play drove two players to eschew taking over-the-counter painkillers to use the pain to keep their heart rates spiked.

■ The three international players on rosters the past two seasons allegedly faced treatment such as being ridiculed, isolated, and threatened by coaches. Brazil native Marcella LaMark said Stollings told LaMark her fitness lagged so far behind teammates that she was “dangerous” to them.

■ Emma Merriweather, a 6-5 center, said coaches admonished her for displaying symptoms of depression, for which she was eventually diagnosed. She was also allegedly told by assistant coach Nikita Lowry Dawkins to snap a rubber band on her wrist when she had a negative thought.

■ Five players alleged strength and conditioning coach Ralph Petrella sexually harassed players, making suggestive comments to one player and using a therapy technique that involved applying pressure to some players’ chests and pubic bones and groins. Petrella, who denies any misconduct, resigned in March after the season.

■ Three players said Stollings retaliated by holding tougher practices after they brought abuse claims to school officials, including Judi Henry, executive senior associate athletic director, and senior women’s administrator.

Along with Stollings, Nikita Lowry Dawkins was a Gopher assistant all four years that Stollings was the Gopher head coach. Ralph Petrella came over from VCU in 2015 and spent the final three years of the Stollings tenure at Minnesota as her strength and conditioning coach for the Gophers.

The details outlined in the story are incredibly concerning. The initial interest in this story came after The Intercollegiate received exit interview data from the 2018-19 Texas Tech season. According to the article:

Texas Tech conducts exit interviews with players via a survey 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.”

After the 2019-2020 season, several players transferred out of Texas Tech. Exit interviews with these players were even more alarming.

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.”

In follow up interviews with players, several who are still on the team and requested anonymity, even more, disturbing details emerged.

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 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.

Three players said Stollings retaliated against them after they alleged abusive behavior to school officials, including Henry, the senior women’s administrator who supervises women’s basketball and Title IX issues. One player said she spoke with Henry by phone in fall 2018; several said they met with Henry after the 2018-19 season. Each time players said their next practice was tougher than usual, with Stollings berating them as mentally weak after the 2018-19 season. “After that,” said DeGrate, “we were like, ‘We don’t know who we can to talk at this place.’”

Players were pushed to absurd limits in practice and games using heart rate trackers. Players were required to reach at least 90% of their capacity in practice and games eight players told USA TODAY Sports. Playing time in practice and games depended on the data, which players never could access themselves. If players did not achieve the threshold, they were threatened with dismissal from the team or forced to do extra conditioning. It got to the point where players were more worried about getting their heart rate up than what was happening on the court.

Texas Tech players claimed they sometimes jumped up and down without regard for the game to elevate their heart rates. “It just messed with our mental (health),” one player said. “I’d be on the court and wouldn’t be thinking about winning or losing or scoring or not. It’s: Is my heart rate enough? “I knew I’d get punished if not.”

Stollings even reportedly took away a player’s dog because it was a distraction from basketball and gave it to a program booster without the player’s consent. After that, Stollings and Lowry Dawkins scolded the player for showing symptoms of depression, of which she was later diagnosed.

Merriweather also had panic attacks in the stairway on her way to workouts, she said, fearing her coaches’ tempers. Merriweather said she was scolded for displaying symptoms of depression, for which she said she was later diagnosed. Merriweather said Lowry Dawkins warned her to stop showing up to practice upset, concerned she’d “bring everyone down with you.” Merriweather said Dawkins added: “Do you want us to feel how you feel?”

Lowry Dawkins gave Merriweather a rubber band to wear on her wrist, telling her she should snap it each time she had a negative thought, the player recalled.

A lot of these girls had never experienced depression or extreme anxiety before they came to Tech, and they experienced it with Marlene,” Merriweather said. “Coach Marlene was evil and manipulative and vindictive in a quiet watered-down manner, so you can’t outwardly say, ‘This person is evil.’… Her values are not in protecting her team and the girls. “That woman is a millionaire off being evil.”

Probably the most concerning accusations in the article relate to sexual harassment and assault allegations against Petrella.

Players say it started with Petrella degrading them over weigh-ins, and that he took pictures of their bodies from multiple angles before the 2018-19 season. He said the staff wanted “before” and “after” photos to show players how their body composition was improving, but players said they were never shown the pictures.

Players say Petrella always asked permission before administering what he called reflexive performance reset (RPR) recovery techniques. While some say Petrella showed them how to apply pressure themselves in intimate areas, at least two players said he applied pressure near their chest and groin.

“Everything was extreme,” one player said. “But I thought they were experts in their fields. So whatever he did, I trusted him.”

RPR is designed to incorporate breathing drills and rubbing parts of one’s body as a “system of daily self-care technique that builds your resistance to stress, reduces injuries and improves performance,” said J.L. Holdsworth, who co-founded the technique.

“It’s empowering the athletes to control their own nervous system. ... We say, ‘If you’re touching someone, you’re not doing RPR.’”

When DeGrate complained to Stollings that Petrella had called her “trash” in the presence of teammates, Stollings allegedly said Petrella hadn’t.

Another player was met with Stollings’ disbelief when reporting that Petrella had threatened her with violence, saying: “If I were younger, I’d punch you in the face.”

“With his eyes staring, face red, breathing hard,” she told USA TODAY Sports. “I felt uncomfortable. Unsafe.”

That would have been bad enough, but it appears Petrella’s antics and behavior worsened in the 2019-2020 season.

Still, a third player alleged he called her “beautiful” and “sexy,” which multiple teammates recalled, once asking her if she was “trying to feel me up.” He’d ask about her dating life and allegedly quipped in June 2019 about having sex in his office.

“I was in his office and he was like, ‘Don’t shut the door, we don’t want (director of operations) Tiffanie (Couts) to think we’re (expletive) on the couch,’” the player told USA TODAY Sports. “One comment here or there would’ve been fine, but it was on a consistent basis.

“I was like: Are you grooming me?”

Throughout this past season, Petrella continued to administer RPR to multiple players. He allegedly requested that this one player stay afterward for one-on-one treatment, according to the player and teammates. He also allegedly applied pressure to her pubic bone, went under her sports bra to reach a chest pressure point, and went under her spandex shorts to reach an area near her groin, the player said.

The player said she consulted with Title IX administrator Kimberly Simón in March and then told Stollings about the behavior. A day later, the player spoke by phone with Hocutt, who reported that Petrella had resigned the previous afternoon before the athletics director learned of the allegations. In April, the player met again with Title IX representation at Texas Tech.

Petrella responded to the allegations with a statement through his attorney, which read: “Ralph Petrella denies any inappropriate conduct while employed by the Texas Tech University women’s basketball program. Ralph voluntarily resigned his position after the conclusion of the 2020 basketball season.”

No detailed allegations of mistreatment of players similar to these have been brought forward publicly by any Gopher players who were coached by Stollings, Lowry Dawkins, or Perella. However former Minnesota Golden Gophers center Annalese Lamke tweeted out the following on Wednesday evening:

The tweet was liked or retweeted by several Gophers who were Lamke’s teammates under Stollings, including Palma Kaposi, Kehinde Bello, Taiye Bello, Kenisha Bell, and Jasmine Brunson.

Stollings was hired in 2014 by disgraced Minnesota AD Norwood Teague. After Teague resigned and Mark Coyle was hired in May of 2016, Stollings was never quite confident about her place at Minnesota. She entered her final season in 2017-18 on the hot seat and ended up having her Gopher team make the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament before she resigned and took the Texas Tech job. She also never endeared herself to anyone associated with Minnesota amateur basketball as she never recruited a single Minnesota native to play for the Gophers in her four seasons. The University of Minnesota is perfectly happy to be rid of Stollings and have Lindsay Whalen as their current head coach.

We will keep on this story, and if anything new involving Stollings time as the coach of the Gophers emerges, we will make sure you know about it.