Fast break-up

Chico State’s women’s basketball team loses seven players in a year; the latest and greatest says it’s all about the coach

Amber Simmons

Amber Simmons

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Release rule
Chico State Athletic Director Anita Barker cites NCAA Division II bylaw in explaining why Chico State cannot grant Amber Simmons an “unconditional release.”
The rule says in part that another school “shall not make contact with the student-athlete of an NCAA or NAIA four-year collegiate institution … without first obtaining the written permission of the first institution’s athletics director.”
The NCAA Membership Services Department clarified that Chico State would have to send permission (i.e. acknowledgement of her release) directly to a school Simmons wished to contact or have contact her.

Last year at this time, the Chico State women’s basketball program had reached an all-time high. The Wildcats made the Final Four for the first time, led by the first Kodak/WBCA All-American in school history, Amber Simmons. Talk of a 2007 national title permeated the afterglow. Simmons would be a junior, most of her teammates would return, and the semifinal loss to the Division II champion would provide all the motivation necessary to go onward and upward.

Those were heady days.

Now … what a headache.

Chico State posted a 24-5 record this season—successful, but with a caveat. That fifth loss came in the NCAA regional finals, leaving the Wildcats two games short of their 2006 run. Not matching expectations is enough to make any fan unhappy; that this happened after a coaching change only intensified the criticism.

Lynne Roberts was a fan and player favorite. Molly Goodenbour, her successor, has not engendered the same affection—quite the opposite, in fact. She dismissed two players from the team and lost another midseason. Three have decided not to return. Add in the player who left before the season, and that puts the departure total at seven.

In December, the university investigated Goodenbour over verbal-abuse complaints lodged by players’ parents. She got cleared. But those allegations are surfacing again, and from a most unlikely source: Chico State’s poster child, the pride of Chico High.

Amber Simmons.

Just about two weeks after the team’s final loss, on March 29, Simmons’ family sent a fax to local media saying she would not return for her senior season. Simmons asked for a release from her commitment to Chico State, the fax stated, but Athletic Director Anita Barker refused that request.

“I had hoped to leave quietly,” Simmons’ statement said, “without having to rehash all the problems we faced as a team last year. However, the athletic department’s refusal to release me makes that impossible.”

As of Wednesday morning (April 4), when the CN&R went to press, Simmons did not have her release. Barker explained that Chico State does not issue “unconditional releases"; according to NCAA rules, she said, her department must give permission to a specific school or schools to talk to one of its student-athletes. After not doing so initially, Simmons identified colleges she’d like to contact, so the process—which Barker regrets has played out in the media—is progressing.

The three winter break exits also earned media attention. What’s different here is the standing of this particular player. Simmons was the cornerstone of the team under Goodenbour, as she’d been under Roberts. In repeating as an all-region honoree, she averaged 16.5 points and 8.6 rebounds a game. Simmons, highly regarded for her attitude as well as her athleticism, played the whole season without a peep of complaint in public.

It turns out she could have said a lot. Over the weekend, Simmons echoed complaints that led to the investigation of her coach’s behavior—F-bombs, personal insults, intimidation. She described pressure on players to keep quiet, which may well have influenced the university’s findings. She talked about feeling she had nowhere to turn in an athletic department so strongly supporting the coach.

Leaving Chico State is not an easy decision for a 20-year-old who grew up in Chico. Fans followed her from Chico High to Acker Gym; they likely would have seen her break Wildcat career records in most every major category next season.

Goodenbour plans to return. She feels support from the university president, vice president of Student Affairs and athletic director (though Barker has not begun the review process for any of the coaches, who all are on year-to-year contracts that expire May 1).

Forcing Goodenbour out is not on Simmons’ agenda—she says her motivation can be summed up thusly:

I’m not trying to get back at anybody. I’m just trying to get out.

As often happens when a team has a breakout year, Chico State lost its coach to a bigger program (in Roberts’ case, Division I University of the Pacific). Barker brought in Goodenbour, a Final Four MVP and two-time national champion at Stanford, who went on to play professionally before becoming a successful junior college coach and Division I assistant head coach.

Goodenbour inherited the players, and the players inherited her—neither specifically choosing the other. “Molly’s style and Lynne’s style are different,” Barker said. Simmons, for one, sensed early on that this wouldn’t be a seamless transition.

“A lot of the situations in [preseason] conditioning and other things were tense,” she said. “It wasn’t what I’d hoped for. I got a feel for the program, and I was definitely unhappy.

“I quit at the beginning of the season, but she promised me that things would work out and I needed to give them a chance. I totally agreed to that; I had no reason not to trust them at that point.”

Practices began. “We’d dealt with intensity before; Lynne was an intense coach,” Simmons said. “But the atmosphere was really uptight. You felt you couldn’t mess up, but if you did, there was an intimidation factor with her.”

The Wildcats entered the season ranked No. 5, even with the offseason departure of point guard Amy Van Hollebeke. The team got off to a 5-1 start before Goodenbour suspended—then, in mid-December, dismissed—Jennifer Borror and Erin O’Connor for what were labeled as issues related to team dynamics. Haley Ford, a returning all-conference player and North State star, quit soon after.

Anita Barker

Photo By Evan Tuchinsky

Complaints about Goodenbour began to go public. Borror and Ford gave accounts to Chico State’s student paper, The Orion. Meanwhile Tim O’Connor, Erin’s father, released copies of a letter he sent to Chico State President Paul Zingg demanding redress for his daughter.

“These young women deserve better than to be called ‘f*#king p*ssies’ and ‘f*#king idiots’ time and again to their face,” O’Connor wrote. “ … In today’s day and times, how can any institution of education put up with verbal abuse, intimidation, harassment, retaliation, and infringement of civil rights?”

The realm of athletics clearly operates under different rules and standards than the rest of a university (or the civilized world). “Blowing whistles and shouting are part of the natural scene on a basketball court or a football field, but not a philosophy seminar or office meeting,” Zingg, a noted sports historian, explained in an e-mail. “A coach with a loud, aggressive style does not preclude respect and a positive learning environment.”

Views vary on the environment Goodenbour has cultivated.

“We’ve all heard cuss words before,” Simmons said. “We all know coaches use them, and that’s not the problem. The problem is she uses them to demoralize you, intimidate you and belittle you.”

Junior Audi Spencer disputes that assessment. She says Goodenbour would single out players for criticism—"like every coach does"—but not name-call or curse at them to put them down.

“I could see how people could take it different ways,” Spencer said. “If you see it as not directed at you as a person but at what you do as a player, it’s easy to get through practice. It’s not intended to be personal.”

Goodenbour denies calling anyone a “fucking idiot"—"never have, never will,” she stated emphatically.

“Do I swear at practice? Yes. Do I ever use expletives as a way to be demonstrative? On occasion.

“I’m not going to defend how I coach and how I teach,” she continued. “But I think the real issue is my intensity in practice is probably something none of them had experienced.”

Goodenbour did have to defend herself in December 2006, when Chico State launched an investigation into her conduct, headed by Vice President of Student Affairs Drew Calandrella.

After a Dec. 9 game at Sonoma State, the coach took Simmons and Niki Simons outside and asked for their support. Simmons now calls it “a totally unprofessional calling for help, because she know it was going to hit the fan.” Still, after Goodenbour asked her team captains for letters expressing their positive feelings about the program, Simmons sent one to Barker.

“When someone comes to you like that—a coach, who you’re supposed to look up to—I felt obligated to do it,” Simmons said. She also gave Goodenbour the benefit of the doubt: “At that point, I felt Molly was supporting us—she needed our support, so she’d give us support. It lasted about a week, and then things started getting bad again.”

Calandrella held a group meeting with players, in Barker’s presence, in which he asked “a set of structured questions and rather direct questions. What I got back,” he said, “was, ‘Well, I don’t like the way she coaches'; ‘I don’t like the way she curses'; comparisons to the last coach.”

No one came forward with more serious complaints, either then or in subsequent individual meetings or by e-mail. Zingg also spoke with several players and has done so recently. “They do not allege abuse,” he wrote in an e-mail. “They acknowledge that Molly has a different coaching approach than her predecessor and that they preferred the former.”

The university concluded there was no problem to address.

“It is partly our fault that we didn’t step up and say how we felt,” Simmons acknowledged. “But in the meeting we had with the vice president, Anita was in there, and we know the whole time that she’s on Molly’s side completely—she’s told us this.

“I’m not saying that completely made me talk good about Molly, but it didn’t allow people who wanted to speak up to speak up, I think, knowing what’s said would go back to Molly with Anita being there.”

As the season wore on, Simmons found herself feeling more and more demoralized. Her intensity flagged—something unheard of from a player whose dedication draws raves. ("She never gives up,” teammate Cory Edwards said, as reported in the cover story of CN&R’s Sports Issue, published Sept. 28, 2006. “No matter what coaches or the opposing team throws at her, she’s just going to go after it.")

“We still had the strongest desire to win,” Simmons said, but, “I wasn’t trying as hard anymore in practice…. Why sit here and try so hard when my effort’s not going to be recognized, but as soon as I mess up, I’ll get called out in front of everybody?”

Chico State finished the regular season 22-4 and earned the second seed in the Division II West Regional. Their tournament run ended in the Sweet 16 against top-seeded UC San Diego.

“I do credit San Diego for their win—they did play better than us,” Simmons said. “But I know that some of our passion was gone. I know mine was.”

Barker continues to support her coach. In her office this week, she didn’t hesitate to explain why.

“First of all, Molly has a very defined and articulate vision for the program at Chico State—and when I say program, I mean the student and the athlete,” Barker said. “She believes first and foremost that students who are in college should get a college degree. She sets a very high standard for them academically. We have seen academic results with this particular women’s basketball team this year that we’ve never seen before.

Coach Goodenbour (center) surrounded by her team.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

“Second of all, she is attempting to create an environment where students are independent, where they understand that hard work and dedication pay off, whether in the classroom or on the court.

“And I think the success of the team has been hidden in all this stuff. I also think she coaches a unique and intelligent brand of basketball that we’ve come to enjoy at this institution. She has some incredible skills in teaching these students how to play the game.

“At the end of the day, what she wants for them is success beyond this institution and beyond the city of Chico, in their everyday lives,” Barker continued. “Does she have an incredibly intense style? Yes. She’s intense, she’s demanding, and she expects her student-athletes to concentrate and work hard.”

The behavior alleged by some of the former players would seem to conflict with this mission. Barker said she’s gotten no new information since December and is “not going to speak to what I guess is one person giving you examples. … I’m not going to respond to that.”

Neither Barker nor Goodenbour is exactly sure why Simmons is unhappy. “We know Amber is stoic,” Barker said, “and perhaps she kept it to herself.” Simmons declined to elaborate at a March 28 meeting with the coach and athletic director, and she still feels she doesn’t owe them an explanation in order to get her release.

That meeting came two days after a phone conversation with Goodenbour that partly explains her reticence.

“She was nice to me at first,” Simmons said, until it was clear the decision was final. “Then she was like, ‘You know what, Amber? I’m just scared for you, scared for you every day. You’re just going to end up in a trailer park with four kids.’ I was like, OK …”

“They know Amber’s mom has six kids,” said Kimberly Hunt, Amber’s aunt. “She was trying to be a bitch; she was trying to demoralize her. I’m so offended by that.”

Goodenbour affirms she made the statement, which she says has been quoted out of context.

“What was said was that I hoped that this decision would not impact her future in a negative way, but that my concern for her every day is she not get into a situation where five years down the road she lives in a trailer and has four kids. It was taken in a very emotional context.

“The meaning I’m trying to convey in a way that resonated with her—which obviously did resonate, because it got quite a response—is that I’m concerned for her future. It was intended to be a sensitive point with her, because I would hate to see Amber five years down the road underachieving, or not achieving the goals she sets for herself.

“She talks about getting out of Chico; the best way for her to get out of Chico is for her to stay here and fulfill her commitment, whether that’s playing basketball for another year or just going to school to finish her degree. Things don’t usually get better by running; things usually get better by facing them.”

Since the end of the season, Teresa Karcher and June Burt have told Goodenbour they aren’t returning, for reasons Spencer says are unrelated to the coach. Goodenbour got three letters of intent during the fall signing period and says the publicized turmoil is not affecting her recruiting efforts.

“We’ve got people coming in with whom I’ve developed a relationship,” Goodenbour said, “who are convinced a) they can play for me and b) they understand my intensity and expectations. We’ve been very forthright about the decisions that I’ve made and what’s been going on.”

Calandrella, in a phone interview Tuesday from a conference in Florida, said he has been in contact with Zingg (who has been in contact with Barker) and planned to get in touch with players upon returning to campus. Though still satisfied with the December investigation, “obviously the new twist and the new angle is something I’m going to look into.”

Zingg also continues to look into the matter.

“I expect all members of the University community to treat each other with civility and respect,” Zingg wrote. “I also encourage our faculty (including coaches) to challenge our students with high expectations of their performance. I find nothing offensive, in and of itself, about intensity.”

Goodenbour says her program isn’t for everyone—and Simmons certainly agrees, so she’d like to look elsewhere. She just isn’t free to do so without a release.

“I’m a pretty strong person and can stick stuff out, but with the season over, I’m not willing to commit another year of eligibility to it when I’m pretty positive that, given the opportunity, I can play somewhere else,” she said. “There’s no reason for them not to release me. I haven’t done anything wrong, I haven’t done anything illegal—I haven’t spoken to other schools, and other schools haven’t spoken to me. I just need to know.”

“What bothers me,” said Hunt, her aunt, “is when they’re pitting her against Anita and Molly. I was on the phone with Anita for an hour, and she was bulldogging me—no matter what I said, she kept hammering at me. There’s no way those kids could hold their own against Anita Barker. And I think that’s unfair.

“Anita’s a paid spin doctor, and Amber’s just a kid who’s unhappy and trying to make her life better. I think Chico State owes her a little more than that.”

Barker said she hopes Simmons reconsiders and would welcome her back—"this is not a burning-bridge exercise.” Regardless, “what I’m asking Amber and her family to understand is Chico State has a right to participate in the process from an NCAA standpoint.”

Before agreeing to release an athlete, Barker requires him or her to talk to the coach (which Simmons has done), not to go to a conference opponent (which Simmons has said she won’t) and come to her with transfer schools he/she is considering (which Simmons wouldn’t do initially).

“She would not articulate what her plan was and whether she wanted to play,” Barker said. “If she doesn’t want to play anywhere next year, she doesn’t need a release.” Simmons could sit out a year, then sign elsewhere. Even with a release, she would not be eligible for a Division I or Division II program until the 2008-09 season.

“I think I need that year to sit out to get that desire to play again,” Simmons said.

Finances are an issue. Hunt said the family would try to pool resources, but it will pose a hardship. So a scholarship is important to Simmons, and she wouldn’t be able to get one for the year off if unable to sign with a school and to red-shirt.

“I don’t know if they don’t respect my decision or just don’t believe me,” Simmons said of Chico State officials, “but I’m leaving. I’m not staying here. If they’re going to throw in all the newspapers that they only want what’s best for me, then they will release me, so I can pay for my schooling, so I can play at a higher level. If they don’t, then it’s obviously a lie that they want what’s best for me—they want what’s best for their program and how people look at them, not what’s best for me.”