A fight to define Wichita State women’s basketball is underway between two sides that do not understand each other and cannot agree on the coaching techniques of Jody Adams.
On one side are former players who left the program with hard feelings and parents who feel their daughters were treated poorly and beaten down mentally by Adams’ intense style. Some are motivated to speak in hopes of sparing future players a similar experience.
“She truly belittles you as a person,” said Valerierose Agnello, who played in 2013-14 before transferring and quitting basketball. “I don’t love the game any more. I have such zero confidence to touch a ball, because of the way you get reprimanded.”
On the other side are those loyal to Adams, who see her style as hard, fair and productive. They often paint those who left as soft and ill-prepared for the demands of a successful program.
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“I had a great experience,” said Chynna Turner, who played four seasons at WSU. “At times, it was very tough. She told us during recruiting that we’re coming here to change the culture. Jody’s a great coach. She may not be the sensitive person at times, but she does things to make us win, not anything that’s going to make you feel like you’re being mentally abused.”
Adams built WSU into a strong program since taking over in 2008. The Shockers won the past three Missouri Valley Conference titles and made three NCAA Tournament appearances. Now her program is the subject of an inquiry after four players, two who started, decided to transfer after the season. They voiced their complaints to faculty athletic representative Julie Scherz, who reports to university president John Bardo.
WSU’s athletic administration allowed this situation to continue since Adams’ first season, when transfers began and a group of four voiced their objections to Adams’ coaching publicly and others did so privately. The administration and Adams attributed those problems to different philosophies after the coaching change.
In 2011, director of operations Dana Eikenberg, later promoted to assistant coach, used her forearm to pin a former player against the wall in a hotel during a road trip to California, according to the player, her mother and teammates. After the 2011-12 season, the entire team met with athletic director Eric Sexton to voice their complaints with Adams.
In 2012, Sexton reprimanded Adams and the coaching staff after they made the players do pushups on the court during halftime of a game.
“We saw progress both off and on the court,” Sexton said in a statement. “I understand that not all of corrective measures we took may have been seen by players and the public, but steps were taken and the situation appeared to improve. Now it appears there were issues under the surface we didn’t know. As soon as we were made aware of them we took them seriously, and started the process to gather further facts.”
Three years later, the athletic administration is again hearing from unhappy players.
In a statement, Sexton expressed disappointment that some former players felt their concerns were ignored. Requests for comment from Sexton and senior associate athletics director Becky Endicott were handled by Lou Heldman, vice president of strategic communications.
“We take student welfare very seriously and I am deeply concerned by the reports this week that members of the women’s basketball team felt demeaned, rather than motivated, by the coaching they received,” Sexton said in the statement. “I feel badly that there is a perception among players that their complaints weren’t heard and acted upon. Their complaints were taken seriously.”
That some players are not a good fit with Adams is no longer in dispute. Since her first season, when five players left before the schedule started and four more after the season, transfers are part of the routine, as they are at many schools. Next season’s team will not have a returning starter. Of the seven newcomers on the roster for the 2013-14 season, five departed with eligibility remaining.
“The independent inquiry by faculty athletics representative Prof. Julie Scherz is entirely appropriate and the athletics staff is committed to learning from this experience and doing right by students,” Sexton said in the statement. “When the process is completed, decisions will be made to help move the women’s basketball program forward.”
The four players and their parents who are speaking with Scherz decline to speak on the record, because of their concerns about transferring to a new school and finishing the semester at WSU.
In speaking with Scherz, transcripts reveal, the players describe an atmosphere of negativity, isolation and control that they can no longer stomach. Michaela Dapprich, Moriah Dapprich, Alie Decker and Kayla White met with Scherz for almost 90 minutes. Among their specific complaints are long practices that make it difficult to attend class on time, taking White’s car keys for three or four months before her father called, practice time that exceeds NCAA limits and a policy of keeping the circle tight that limits time and conversations with parents.
Adams did not respond to a request for comment.
Allegations of those sort do not mesh with the program described by former graduate assistant Adrian Jackson, who spent three years at WSU.
“Jody is an intense coach, but never to the point she is belittling someone,” he said. “To hear those accusations come about, it’s definitely troubling. She knew where to draw the line.”
Their experiences do match those of some other players who left the program over the years and chose to speak out.
Most prominent for the troubling nature of her story is Molly O’Brien, who said she was pushed against the wall of a hotel by Eikenberg during a road trip in 2011. Eikenberg and Adams coached together at Southern Illinois, where accusations of verbal and mental abuse led to the end of Eikenberg’s tenure as head coach in 2009. They reunited at WSU when Adams hired Eikenberg as director of operations in 2011. She spent two seasons as assistant coach before going to Providence as an assistant.
O’Brien said the incident happened after an exchange in a room that O’Brien considering a joking situation about carrying bags to the team bus. O’Brien said a teammate and a team manager witnessed the moment.
“She put her forearm against my (collarbone),” O’Brien said. “Right underneath my throat, so she wasn’t really choking me, but she had enough pressure on me to where I couldn’t move.”
Eikenberg did not respond to a request for comment.
O’Brien, who played in 28 games and started one as a freshman, finished the season at WSU and returned for the first half of the 2012-13 season before leaving. She said after the incident, the atmosphere improved until she returned for her sophomore season. She was part of the team that met with Sexton in 2012 to voice their concerns about Adams.
“Things really got better, even though nothing was really handled,” she said. “So I stuck around. I thought things would be fine, which they definitely weren’t.”
The incident was reported to Sexton, O’Brien said. The result, she said, was that Adams forced O’Brien to apologize to Eikenberg for the incident.
“I ended up going to Eric about it,” said Roberta O’Brien, Molly’s mother. “He said that Jody was going to call me and talk to me about it. She said that didn’t happened, that it was a misunderstanding and it didn’t happen that way. I told her it was witnessed. Eric had asked me what I wanted out the situation, and I said I think Molly wants an apology. They never did.”
O’Brien transferred to an NCAA Division II school in San Francisco, where she recently finished her career. With her playing days done, she felt comfortable speaking.
“I love basketball again,” she said. “I see things are getting worse at Wichita State. These things need to be handled. I don’t want to see any more players go through the same things I went through, or even worse.”
Agnello voiced similar issues with Adams’ coaching style as other players who left the program early. A junior-college transfer, she played in 27 games as a reserve in 2013-14. Agnello described one scene after the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament where the players, in order to get food after a late game, had to meet their parents in secret in the stairwell of their hotel because coaches wanted to limit time with parents.
“Jody makes it her priority to control as many aspects or your life as she can,” Agnello said. “When you don’t respect a coach because of how they treat you, you’re not going to be performing for them. That’s what it comes down to. My performance lessened as my respect for her lessened and how she treated me badly increased.”