Calm after storm for Weller's Terps Maryland: The women's basketball team is off to a relaxed start, with last spring's charges against the program's 22-year coach put to rest.

November 04, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- The sounds emanating from the University of Maryland women's basketball practice one recent afternoon at Cole Field House seem different from past seasons. The expressions on the faces of the players, as well as the one worn by their coach, seem to have changed, too.

Sitting within a long three-point shot of the court, you can hear the thud of balls being bounced, the squeak of sneakers being broken in and the general enthusiasm that the anticipation of any new season brings. You can barely make out what Chris Weller is saying, except that it often brings smiles and even a few chuckles from her players.

It is only the third week of practice for the 1997-98 season and the Terrapins have yet to botch a play or lose a game they should have won, but the atmosphere surrounding Weller and her team seems to be remarkably relaxed. The intensity is still there, but the decibel level is noticeably lower.

"I think there was as much intensity as before, but it came from the players," Weller would say after the nearly three-hour practice. "That's encouraging to a coach. On some of the successful teams we've had in the past, there was much less intensity generated by me."

It was last spring that Weller's coaching techniques were called into question. Her 22-year career at Maryland appeared in jeopardy, the result of charges leveled by six players and some of their parents after a tumultuous final month of what, on the surface, had appeared to be a relatively successful 18-10 season.

Weller says the problems stemmed from an incident involving Kelley Gibson, a talented but often-injured player whose father criticized Weller's decision to put his daughter back into a game that had already been decided. Gibson, who had undergone surgery on her right knee three years ago, wound up badly injuring her healthy knee.

The controversy, which some believe predated Gibson's injury, continued to mushroom. It grew to the point where Weller was accused of degrading players in front of teammates and, on a few occasions, withholding their NCAA-approved per diem during summer and winter breaks. The depth of the charges, many reported to the media by Gibson's father, took Weller by surprise.

"I knew a couple of players were frustrated and that something was going on," said Weller, who denied the charges, most strenuously the one involving withholding per diems. "I had no idea that was going on. I don't think a lot of players meant what happened to happen. The important thing is that people respect the players on our team as good people and respect me for being a good person."

Investigation, then changes

The turmoil led athletic director Debbie Yow to meet with Weller and the team. Senior associate athletic director Danita DeHaney and assistant athletic director Pat Nicol conducted an investigation to separate truth from fiction. Weller was allowed to keep her job, but two players and all three of Weller's assistant coaches wound up leaving.

Yow put a letter of reprimand into Weller's personnel file and brought in a sports psychologist to work with the coach and the returning players, including Gibson, this season. There is speculation that, depending on how the team responds, Weller's contract might not be renewed when it reportedly runs out after the season.

Yow has promised Weller she wouldn't discuss the situation or the coach's future with the media.

"I want to give them a chance to let the year go by as normal as

possible," Yow, a former women's college basketball coach, said last week.

Those close to Weller say that last season's problems on the court paled in comparison to the upheaval in her personal life. The season before, her father, Warren, died suddenly of a heart attack. By the time last season began, Weller's mother, Marie, already suffering from a degenerative brain condition, moved in with her.

Though Weller hired a professional caregiver to provide help, she spent hours at home with her mother when she normally would have been at school with her players. She often would fax material to her assistants to prepare for practice, then show up minutes before practice started. The stress at home took its toll on Weller's tolerance level with her players.

Too close to home

Weller seems uncomfortable talking about her family, not wanting to sound like she is making excuses. She said that she recently moved her mother, who had a stroke in 1984 and has had two subsequent brain operations, into a nursing home. But she acknowledges that, in dealing with her players last season, she went against one long-standing belief.

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