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IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa interviewed volleyball players individually as part of a program review done in the weeks before it fired head coach Vicki Brown at a cost of $370,000.
Athletic Director Gary Barta fired Brown Nov. 4 “without cause” in the middle of a disappointing season in which the team at that point only had three wins. Without giving a qualifying justification for Brown’s termination, the UI was forced to buy out the rest of her contract up to a $370,000 limit.
Barta last month told The Gazette he made the call after “taking a look at the overall direction competitively and where we're at.”
“After several conversations over the last few weeks and months, just decided it was time for a change in leadership,” Barta said.
Records The Gazette received last week after an open records request show the Athletic Department conducted a “volleyball program review” in October that involved inviting volleyball players and staff to attend individual, confidential interviews with Suzanne Hilleman, senior associate athletics director for human resources, as well as Liz Hollingsworth and Nicole Grosland, two UI professors who are faculty athletic representatives.
“It will provide athletes and staff associated with the volleyball program an opportunity for a confidential, open and honest discussion about their experience,” Hilleman wrote in an Oct. 4 email to student-athletes that was also forwarded to parents. “Our plan is to move quickly but thoroughly through the process.”
A follow-up email sent Nov. 1 thanked people for participating in the interviews.
“Feedback in the form of themes and recommendations will be provided to Athletics administration, Head Coach Brown and student-athletes by the end of this week,” Hilleman wrote.
The UI did not provide The Gazette the feedback report noted in the Nov. 1 email when the newspaper asked for records about the review. When The Gazette asked Steve Roe, director of athletics communications, what sparked the review and what it was about, he said: “We have no additional information to provide regarding the review.”
Roe said the UI is in the midst of a national recruitment for Brown’s successor and the head coach job is posted online. Assistants Dave Brown and William Tatge are leading the program in the interim.
Brown’s contract went through 2024 with an annual salary of $185,000 with extra pay based on the team meeting academic and athletic goals.
The contract allowed the UI to fire Brown without cause by paying her $185,000 for each year left in her contract or $370,000, whichever was less. The payout comes “in lieu of any and all other legal remedies or equitable relief,” the contract states. Brown also had to sign a “full release of claims” to get the money, which may mean she can’t file legal action.
Brown declined to comment for this story.
Brown had been UI’s head volleyball coach since May 2019, when she was promoted from associate head coach after then-head coach Bond Shymansky was fired for paying a player’s rent in the summer of 2017, which was a Level II NCAA violation.
Shymansky led the Hawkeyes to a 78-82 record in five seasons, including 15-16 in 2018-2019. Shymansky's annual base salary was $215,000. Because he was fired for cause, he received no payout.
As a consequence of the NCAA violation, the volleyball program had to vacate 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 wins, pay a $5,000 fine and face recruiting penalties that likely would have affected the start of Brown’s head coaching tenure.
The team went 10-21 in Brown’s first season as head coach and 4-16 in the second season, which was truncated because of the pandemic.
Brown’s two-plus-year tenure as head coach was the shortest for an Iowa volleyball coach since Ruth Nelson lead the program in 1989-1990. Brown was the UI’s only Black head coach.
Firing a head coach midseason is unusual, especially for win-loss.
When Long Beach State fired Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer in the middle of her fifth season as head volleyball coach, Athletic Director Andy Fee said in October it was the first time he’d made such a move. It came as the team was 9-12 in the season so far.
“A program with the legacy and tradition that this one has, we need to be competing at the top year in and year out for a Big West championship, at the very least,” Fee said. “The ceiling isn’t winning a Big West championship, that’s the annual expectation.”
University of North Dakota fired its head volleyball coach, Jeremiah Tiffin, Nov. 22, after the end of a season with 28 consecutive losses, the Grand Forks Herald reported.
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