This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. Once a program is rebuilt, it’s not supposed to fall apart again.
After taking over a miserable women’s basketball program and leading it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament just two years ago, Sue Guevara has seen her last two teams take nosedives.
Two years in a row, Michigan has started the season strong in the nonconference schedule, but ended it limping to the finish. This season, the Wolverines started off 9-2 before finishing tied for last in the Big Ten (3-13) and 13-16 overall. It was Guevara’s first losing season at Michigan, which is remarkable considering the Wolverines finished 7-20 the year before she became head coach.
So what has gone wrong the past two seasons? It appears that what helped Guevara become the winningest coach in Michigan women’s basketball history isn’t working anymore. Guevara has always tried to transform her players into leaders that are mentally tough. But according to players on this year’s team, Guevara’s style of coaching, combined with her frustration in losing, has resulted in too much criticism.
Guevara, who was the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1999-00, explains the importance of mental toughness and leadership by pointing to her past success.
“I look at an Anne Thorius, who, when the going got tough, she got everybody together and put them on her shoulders,” Guevara said of her point guard that led the Wolverines to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in the 2000-01 season. “That is tough.”
The problem is, no one has assumed Thorius’ role since she graduated. Last season, Michigan moved shooting guard Alayne Ingram to the point, something she struggled with all season. This season, the point guard duties were handled by several freshmen, while captain and preseason All-Big Ten pick LeeAnn Bies struggled throughout the Big Ten season at center.
The past two seasons exemplify why Guevara tries to craft players into the mold of an Anne Thorius. So if some feelings get hurt in the process, so be it.
“I talked to a player once because she was upset about the way someone said something to her. And I pulled her off the floor and I said, ‘When you play in the Gus Mackers (basketball tournament), don’t people talk trash and swear at you and stuff? Do you crumble? Or do you fight? Do you go back at them? What do you do?’ “
” ‘I go back at them,’ ” the player said, according to Guevara.
” ‘Well, then why can’t you do the same thing here?’ ” Guevara asked. ” ‘It’s the same thing. You have to block that out.’ “
From bad to worse
The problem is, some players think Guevara became overly critical once the team started its season-long slide.
“We need motivation and confidence and not any negative things,” said a current player who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We need a season when we aren’t yelled at for one turnover.
“If we make a mistake, she won’t correct it. She will just make them look like an idiot. You can tell by the look on her face. She just makes you feel so stupid.”
Guevara claims the negativity is a result of misperception and unavoidable frustration.
Said Guevara: “We can be in the middle of an eight-game winning streak, and I can say, ‘What are you doing today? You look out of it today. Are you having a bad day?’ And you would take it totally different if we are on an eight-game winning streak or an eight-game losing streak. Now I’m negative, as opposed to just asking you a basic question.
“Players hear what they want to hear, and sometimes, it is the tone in how it is being said, instead of what is being said. I think you try and be as positive and specific as you can, and I know that is how I am. Now if I keep telling someone to do the same thing over and over and over, and I am not getting the results, then (I say), ‘Are you hearing what I am saying to you? And if you are, then show me.'”
But from what a second player on the team said about Guevara’s negativity, it appears to be a problem no matter how the team is doing on the court.
Said this player: “A teammate once asked me, ‘Does Coach G ever tell you good job?’ And I had to think about it for awhile and was like, ‘I guess not.’ ” The player added that if she did receive positive feedback, it was said under Guevara’s breath and not in front of the team.
The player said Guevara was notified by members on the team about being too critical during the season. The player claimed her coach was more positive after being addressed, but that there was still room for improvement.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Guevara said, referring to the notification about being too negative.
The player said the team sometimes just stopped listening to Guevara in practice.
“Some people kind of tuned her out,” the player said. “There were days when I tuned her out. And then there were days when I was receptive. I’m not sure there were days we were all receptive.
“Coach G is just a very emotional person,” the player explained. “She wears her emotion on her sleeve and when we are losing and she is frustrated, she admittedly wears her emotions on her sleeve. I wish sometimes she had kept a cooler head, because I think the team feeds off that when she gets frustrated.”
Others agreed Guevara’s emotions had a negative impact on the court.
Said another player on this year’s team: “When we were having our losing streak, instead of playing to win, we would play not to lose. Instead of staying composed and weathering the run, sometimes I feel like we would get flustered and panic. I feel like you feed off the coaches sometimes.”
One of the aforementioned players also didn’t approve of how much Guevara made the team run during the team’s two bye weeks at the beginning of January, when Michigan started 0-3 in conference play. The player described this time as Guevara’s “angry phase.”
“That’s not one I would have taken,” the player said about Guevara’s method of making the team run more. “From a player’s perspective, it wasn’t conditioning that was the problem.”
The player said that the running was unnecessary because everyone was upset about losing, not just Guevara. She added that the team’s exhaustion during practice would carry over onto the court, saying, “It was obvious sometimes we were tired.”
Needing a closer look
Although it might have been obvious to the player, it actually could have gone unnoticed by Guevara. After all, according to some of the players, Guevara is not close with most of the team and does not know about the problems they are going through.
“I can’t go to her with all my problems, and sometimes I wish I could have,” a player on this year’s team said.
Said another: “I don’t really have (a relationship with Guevara). I feel like if I came in there to see how her day was going, she would be like, ‘What is going on with her? What is wrong?’ ”
Guevara maintains that she tries to understand the mood of the team and encourages players to come to her with their problems.
“If there is a problem, I always tell my players, ‘This door is always open. If you have a problem, come in and talk to me about it. I can’t fix it if I don’t know.’ “
But one of the current players doesn’t think just an open-door policy is enough.
“I guess you have to take it on yourself to talk to her, and that is a problem itself … If there is a problem, she might not notice. I don’t feel there is a great concern for the players.”
Guevara insists that even when she does talk to her players, they aren’t open with her about their feelings.
“When I sit and talk to kids one-on-one, I don’t get that,” Guevara said in reference to the player’s anonymous comments. One of the players on this year’s team conceded that Guevara could not be solely blamed for the problem.
“It goes both ways,” the player said. “They weren’t knocking down our door, but we weren’t going to them either.”
It should also be noted that some players declined comment on the story, some said the criticism they received did not trouble them and a couple could not be reached for comment.
There appears to be a history of poor interpersonal relationships on the team, as current players are not the only ones to complain about a lack of a relationship with Guevara. In Guevara’s seven seasons, six players have left the program. Transferring is common in women’s basketball – Michigan and Indiana both had three players transfer in the 2000-01 season. Many of the players that left cited a lack of playing time as a major factor in their decision, which is a problem at any school. But it is alarming that many of the former players also said poor communication and a lack of a relationship with Guevara played a big role in their decisions.
“I think in (Guevara’s) case, she was not a coach that every single player felt comfortable going up to on or off the court,” said Michaela Leary, who played just one year at Michigan (2000-01) before transferring to George Washington. “As the season went on, I felt less and less comfortable going up to her … There were really times when (communication) was basically shut down, and that really bothered me.
“I know Coach Guevara always has good intentions, but it is hard (for the players) when you are going through a tough experience.”
Said another former player that left the program and preferred to remain anonymous: “I didn’t really quit because I didn’t get playing time. I didn’t think it was a friendly experience …
“I would walk past her in the hallway on the way to practice, and she didn’t say hi. I felt like I didn’t exist.”
Another former player that also wished to remain anonymous said Guevara did not even make an effort to keep the player at Michigan when Guevara discovered she was transferring. The player claims Guevara pulled her into the coach’s office and handed the player her transfer papers, which were already signed before the player even talked to Guevara about transferring.
“I hadn’t even made up my mind,” the former player said. “I was undecided.”
Mandy Stowe, who suddenly left the program during her sophomore year (1998-99) and later became the 2000-01 Midwestern Collegiate Conference Newcomer of the Year at Wisconsin-Green Bay, had an even worse relationship with Guevara than others that left. Unlike the other players, Stowe thought Guevara cared too much about her personal life.
“She wouldn’t like it if my pants were too tight, or I wore too much makeup,” Stowe said. “One time I went to a tanning booth, and she said I was more committed to tanning than basketball,” Stowe later added.
“I really started hating basketball, going to the gym and being near the coaches.”
Stowe said her experience was much better at Wisconsin-Green Bay, and that the coaching staff there “truly cared about you.”
Guevara declined comment on all players that left the program.
One coach players did feel comfortable sharing their problems with was assistant Yvette Harris, who was on staff for Guevara’s first season, and stayed until she was fired after the 2000-01 season. According to Harris, Guevara said she was unhappy with recruiting. At the time, Michigan had just reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history and successfully recruited current sophomore Tabitha Pool, a Miss Basketball Award winner for the state of Michigan.
All interviewed players coached by Harris approved of the former assistant. None foresaw her termination.
“I thought Yvette was great. She was very friendly,” one of the former players said. “Yvette was the only one that made me feel welcome. I was kind of surprised that Yvette got fired. I just didn’t understand it at all.”
Said Leary: “All I saw Coach Harris contribute to that program was positive. She was a big part of me going there in the recruiting process.” Leary also described Harris as a mother figure.
Just months after her dismissal, Harris filed a $20-million lawsuit against the University for racial discrimination, age discrimination, defamation and wrongful discharge. Harris, an African American, claims in the lawsuit that she was offered the position of head coach by Oakland University in 1997. The lawsuit also claims Harris stayed at Michigan because Guevara “requested and induced (Harris) to reject the offer by giving (Harris) a raise.” According to the lawsuit, Guevara also “advised and assured (Harris) repeatedly, on several occasions, that her employment with the University was secure, and as long as (Guevara) was head coach, (Harris) would be employed as the Assistant Coach Recruiting Coordinator.”
Harris claims Eileen Shea-Hilliard – who is younger and white – took over many of Harris’ duties. Ironically, Shea-Hilliard became the head coach of Oakland University earlier this year.
Harris is now the head coach at Central Connecticut State. Harris maintains she is happy at her new school, but described the firing as a “setback.”
“I am 43 years old, and I have worked in this business for 18 years, and I’m not sure I can outlive the damage done to my reputation,” said Harris, who also said being called a bad recruiter is “the kiss of death.”
Guevara declined comment on the lawsuit because it is still in litigation.
Despite the six transfers and the lawsuit, Athletic Director Bill Martin has continued to openly support Guevara – who does not have a contract – because Guevara’s players have consistently won in the classroom, in the community and on the court during her career.
Martin said that he will sit down with Guevara and others in the athletic department to discuss the team’s problems, adding that he will know more about the players’ complaints in a month. In the coming weeks, the athletic department will conduct exit interviews with the seniors and have the rest of the team fill out written evaluations, as it does with all programs. Martin did say, though, that interpersonal relationships are important in athletics.
Martin isn’t the only one planning on getting feedback from the players. Guevara plans on sitting down one-on-one with her players this week to give them a “clear vision of what they have to do to make us better,” adding that she has already decided to approach this offseason differently than last year’s.
“This year, I didn’t want to talk about last year. That was over and done with. Well, you know what? I am certainly going to talk about (this season) and address it now.”
The success of Guevara’s program not only depends on how the players react to their coach this offseason, but also how Guevara reacts to her players.