Tirade by UMBC's Sullivan reported

Parent says it was `straw that broke camel's back,' leading to coach's quitting

College Basketball

March 17, 2004|By Christian Ewell and Mike Klingaman | Christian Ewell and Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Tom Sullivan's resignation as men's basketball coach at UMBC last week was triggered by a prolonged post-game tirade aimed at a senior player, according to the parent of a scholarship athlete at the school.

That blowup, which lasted several hours after a defeat at the University of Hartford on Feb. 29, launched a team-wide revolt against the coach, said the parent, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Sullivan, known for his quick temper and expletive-laced outbursts, was stripped of his post and placed on administrative leave two days later. He stepped down Thursday.

UMBC officials have offered no reason for his departure. "It's not appropriate for us to comment on this matter," Lisa Akchin, a university spokeswoman, said yesterday.

Sullivan has yet to speak publicly or return reporters' phone calls. A Sun reporter who went to Sullivan's house in Catonsville this week was asked to leave by the coach's wife.

"We're not making any comments about anything," Juliana Sullivan said.

According to the player's parent, this is the chain of events that transpired Feb. 29:

After a 66-55 loss at Hartford, Sullivan berated one of the seniors (the Retrievers had two, guard Kareem Washington and forward Eugene Young). The coach's spate continued on the trip home and even back in the locker room at UMBC that night.

"My son said that he [Sullivan] did this to the player in front of everybody," the parent said. "It was verbal mental abuse and a humiliation," but not racial in nature. Washington and Young are black; Sullivan is white.

After the coach departed, team members huddled and determined that unless Sullivan was replaced, they would sit out the America East tournament.

That night, the players telephoned UMBC president Freeman A. Hrabowski III and explained their stance, citing Sullivan's diatribes as an ongoing problem. Hrabowski issued a dictum to Charles Brown, director of athletics, to "handle the situation."

On March 1, at the president's behest, several players presented Brown with a list of complaints against the coach. The next day, Sullivan, 53, was relieved of his duties.

That incident was "the straw that broke the camel's back," the parent said. "Most of the players have been humiliated [by the coach]. I witnessed one episode this year where Sullivan removed a player, who asked, `Why are you taking me out?'

"The coach spent the next two minutes in that player's face, screaming, his voice laced with obscenities with no rhyme or reason - and disregarding everything that was happening in the game.

"It's extremely disturbing to a parent. This isn't about basketball, it's about humanity and how you treat human beings."

Neither Brown nor Hrabowski returned phone calls from The Sun yesterday.

This isn't the first time UMBC players and coaches have complained of offensive comments made by Sullivan, who coached there for nine years.

"He once told a member of the training staff that she shouldn't wear [a particular] blouse because he could see through it," said Catherine Lavery, the university's volleyball coach from 1989 to 2000.

"He'd look at me and say, `Look at those beautiful, brown bedroom eyes.' He'd also say things to my girls."

Lavery said she complained to Brown and was told things would "work out."

"He [Brown] said that Sullivan was `a good coach and would bring UMBC a lot of good.'"

Lavery eventually tired of butting heads with Brown over such issues and became head coach at Towson University.

"I loved UMBC, but Tom Sullivan wasn't UMBC," she said. "I felt he ruined it for a lot of us."

The greatest discord came within Sullivan's program, with a large number of players transferring during the coach's tenure. Two years ago, three promising sophomores - Peter Mulligan, Will McClurkin and Ron Yates - transferred after a 20-9 season. In the past two seasons, UMBC has gone 7-20 and 7-21.

The Retrievers were 106-145 under Sullivan, who was twice named conference Coach of the Year at UMBC.

"He knew his stuff, but he has no idea how to deal with people," said Tim Hyland, a scholarship player who left the UMBC team during his junior season (1999). He said Sullivan's parting words were: "You're a c--- and I don't want to see you ever again."

"Sully would belittle everyone," Hyland said. "He never had a positive word about a player. Even Bobby Knight will pat a kid on the butt, but Sully never did that."

Others swear by the coach's methods.

"He's an old-school coach," said Kennedy Okafor, a standout who graduated in 2001. "When he `goes after' a player, he's trying to motivate him. Some players can't handle that.

"He would be tough with me because he saw potential that I couldn't see."

Nick Grella saw many players come and go in his two years on the team (1997-99), but said he couldn't argue with Sullivan's manner.

"Everyone has their way to do things," said Grella, who left UMBC for unrelated reasons. "Was his way right? They went from the Big South Conference to the [more prestigious] America East.

"You don't get to that level by babying people."

UMBC is expected to make a decision this week on whether to promote assistant Randy Monroe or begin a national search for Sullivan's successor.

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