Gael Storm: Assistant's Suit Against Iona

    
October 22nd, 2006
Craig Holcomb was hired as an assistant men’s basketball coach by Iona College in 1995.  Holcomb, who had coached at Spartanburg Methodist Junior College in South Carolina, was hired by former Iona head coach Tim Welsh.  Welsh’s hiring of Holcomb was approved by Iona’s Director of Athletics, Richard Petriccione.  Holcomb’s specific duties were overseeing practices, maintaining team discipline and training, and recruiting players from local high schools and junior colleges. 

 

In 1998, Welsh left Iona to become head men’s basketball coach at Providence College, and another Iona assistant coach, Jeff Ruland, was promoted to head coach.  Ruland and Petriccione immediately promoted Holcomb to the position of “Associate Head Coach,” but left his responsibilities largely unchanged. 

 

Iona’s first three years under Ruland were highly successful.  Iona won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) tournament in 2000 and 2001—thereby earning berths in the NCAA tournament—and won the MAAC regular season title in 2001. During Ruland’s first three years at Iona, the Gaels achieved an overall record of 59 wins and 35 losses (0.620).

 

In 2001, Petriccione was promoted from Director of Athletics to Vice President of Advancement and External Affairs for the College.  Shawn Brennan, a former Gaels coach, took over the Director of Athletics position.  Later that year, Ruland signed a new eight-year contract with Iona which paid him over $300,000 per year—making him the highest paid employee of Iona—and imposed significant financial costs on the College if it chose to fire him.  Craig Holcomb was given a raise of approximately $25,000 per year.

 

 The Iona men’s basketball program suffered a number of setbacks, both on and off the court, during the next three years. 

 

Iona had a record of 41-47 from 2001-2004, and failed to earn a spot in either the NCAA or NIT tournaments.  The Gaels were the subject to intense criticism by the local media for “lacking discipline and drive.”

 

In late 2001, several Iona players were accused of misusing vouchers for course books by re-selling them for cash.  Brennan ordered the players to make restitution to the College, but he did not report the incident to the NCAA nor did he keep a written record of the investigation.  Two starters were expelled after the 2002-2003 season, and two more suspended during the 2003-2004 season for failing to meet academic requirements or violating team rules.  One of the suspended players, DeShaun Williams, had been recruited for the program by Holcomb.  In October of 2003, the NCAA informed Iona that it was beginning an investigation into the possible violation of various rules by Gaels coaches and players.  As part of this investigation, Ruland and another assistant coach Rob O’Driscoll, were interviewed, but Holcomb was not.  It was not known whether Iona’s third assistant men’s basketball coach, Tony Chiles, was interviewed during the investigation. 

 

The Iona administration decided that it had to do something to “shake up the program” in early 2004.  Iona President Bro. James Liguori had stated to the press that the men’s basketball team was not meeting his expectations and that he was “not a happy camper.”  Two months later, Liguori and the Iona Board of Trustees ordered Brennan to undertake a written evaluation of the men’s basketball program and make recommendations for its reform. 

Brennan made his preliminary report to Petriccione, Sister Marie Thornton, Iona’s Vice President of Finance, and Dr. Warren Rosenberg, College Provost, several weeks later, shortly followed by a revised preliminary report.  In the preliminary reports, Brennan suggested four possible courses of action:  (1) fire the entire coaching staff, including Ruland, (2) fire all of the assistant coaches, but retain Ruland, (3) make no changes to the coaching staff, or (4) putting the entire coaching staff “on notice” and requiring the implementation of a 25-point plan to rehabilitate the team.  Brennan supported the fourth option, but stated that he believed Ruland was responsible for the team’s lack of discipline.  Brennan felt that firing Ruland was not possible due to the financial penalties that were written into his contract with the College, and that firing Ruland’s assistant coaches without firing him would be “detrimental to the program.” 

However, all three assistant coaches, Holcomb, Chiles, and O’Driscoll, were the subjects of heavy criticism both in the report and by certain members of the Iona community during Brennan’s investigative process.  Brennan learned that it was believed that Holcomb’s recruiting was substandard.  Brennan stated that the coaching staff—both assistants and Ruland—could not get along, paid no attention to details, and that they “lacked a fundamental understanding of how college basketball works.” 

Brennan presented his final report to Liguori, Petriccione, Thornton, and Rosenberg, and recommended that his suggested “fourth option” be taken.  Petriccione supported Brennan’s recommendation, but Liguori, Thornton, and Rosenberg refused to consider the fourth option, insisting that some sort of change had to be made to the coaching staff.  After a series of conference calls involving Brennan, Liguori, Thornton, Petriccione, and several members of the Board of Trustees, the decision was made to retain Ruland and O’Driscoll, but that Holcomb and Chiles would be terminated. 

Brennan then met with Ruland to inform him about the decision, stating to Ruland that it was believed that the assistants were not giving him the support he needed as head coach.  Ruland—who apparently had no idea that the administration was considering terminating his assistant coaches—said that he would “go to the wall” to retain Holcomb.  However, there was nothing to indicate that Ruland did, in fact, take any action to retain Holcomb.

Both Holcomb and Chiles were asked to resign in May, 2004.  Chiles agreed to resign, but Holcomb refused to do so.  He was fired several days later.  O’Driscoll was informed that Liguori had ordered the firings of Holcomb and Chiles, but that his job was secure.  However, unbeknownst to Brennan and Ruland, O’Discroll had applied for several coaching jobs during the spring of 2004.  Less than a week after the termination of Holcomb, O’Driscoll accepted the position of first assistant men’s basketball coach at Marist College.

In June 2004, the NCAA issued a report on the alleged violations at Iona.  The NCAA stated that it found several “secondary violations” and stated that one of the violations was traceable to O’Driscoll.  The NCAA found that it had been a violation of NCAA rules for O’Driscoll to help one of the members of the men’s basketball to move his belongings from his dormitory to a garage. 

Brennan left Iona in July 2004 to accept a position with AdPro, a sports apparel company. 

Shortly after leaving Iona, Holcomb filed suit against the College for racial discrimination in federal district court in Manhattan.  Holcomb, who is white, alleged that Iona fired him out of racial animus because his wife is an African-American. 

Holcomb based his claim of discrimination on two factors which, he believed, indicated a work environment that was racially intolerant:  (1) Iona’s decision to restrict attendance by coaches’ spouses at functions sponsored by the Goal Club, an alumni fundraising organization associated with the Gaels’ athletic department, and (2) a history of “racist and racially insensitive conduct” by Petriccione.

From 1997 through 2003, the Iona athletic department invited members of high school basketball teams—including potential recruits—to attend Goal Club post-game receptions with players and coaches.  Most members of the Goal Club were white alumni and donors of the College. 

Jamie Fogarty, Iona’s Assistant Athletic Director of Compliance, noticed Dexter Gray, a highly-recruited local high school player at a post-game reception after Iona’s 92-83 loss to George Mason on November 29, 2003.  Fogarty immediately called the NCAA’s compliance office to determine whether Gray’s attendance at the reception was in violation of NCAA rules limiting a recruit’s contact with an institution to certain staff members.  The NCAA responded that Gray’s attendance at the Goal Club event—as well as the attendance of other high school players and potential recruits at other Goal Club events—did, in fact, constitute a violation of NCAA rules.  Brennan immediately banned all high school students from future Goal Club events.  Many of the high school athletes who had been invited to attend Goal Club events were African-Americans. 

Holcomb met with Brennan to discuss the new policy.  Holcomb was upset because he believed that permitting high school students to attend Goal Club events was “within a grey area of NCAA rules” and that the new policy would hurt recruiting.  Brennan did not offer to change the policy, but also informed Brennan that his wife, as well as other spouses, girlfriends, and boyfriends of athletic department staff, would no longer be permitted to attend Goal Club events because they were neither alumni nor donors. 

Holcomb “concluded that Iona was attempting to limit minority presence at its fundraising events.”  He noted that Ruland and three other Gaels coaches or assistant coaches were married to spouses of a different race or were involved in interracial relationships.

Holcomb claimed that Petriccione often used racially offensive language.  Holcomb claimed that in 1995 or 1996 he heard Petriccione say, “Everybody at Fordham thinks they have these good black kids and Iona has niggers.”  Holcomb also claimed that when the College discovered that several men’s basketball players had sold their College-issued long-distance telephone access codes to other students, Petriccione said to him that the men’s basketball coaches should “keep [their] niggers in line.”  Holcomb also alleged that he ran into Petriccione at a bar on February 4, 2000, after Iona had defeated Canisius 66 to 56, and Petriccione stated that he learned that Holcomb had recently become engaged and asked him if was going to marry an “Aunt Jemima.”  Holcomb also claimed that Petriccione also called him a “nigger lover” at the bar.  Petriccione later stated that he did not recall these conversations.

Several other Iona employees also claimed that Petriccione made racially insensitive remarks in everyday speech.  Bonnie Sirower, Iona’s Director of Annual Giving, stated that Petriccione regularly referred to Italian-Americans as “guineas,” to Sirower herself as “his favorite Jew,” and to a member of his office who was a native of Nigeria as “a jungle bunny” and “an African princess.”  Sirower also stated that when the Nigerian-American applied for a promotion, he said, “Who does she think she is coming from hut in Africa and thinking she could apply for this job?”  Sirower stated that Petriccione regularly said “things that really were not becoming or suitable for a person, especially a vice president.” 

Iona asked the federal court for summary judgment, alleging that Holcomb failed to sufficiently allege a case of employment discrimination, based on his status as spouse of a minority, in his initial pleadings.  The court noted that in order to survive a motion for summary judgment in a case of employment discrimination, a plaintiff must show that he or she may have been discriminated against and the employer must be able to show that it did not have a “facially non-discriminatory reason” for the negative employment action taken against the employee. 

The court found that the evidence presented by Holcomb related to the Goal Club’s exclusion of high school players and athletic department spouses and the comments allegedly made by Petriccione may have indicated that he was discriminated against because of his wife’s race.  However, the court found that Holcomb was unable to link the events related to the Goal Club and the comments made by Petriccione to the College’s evaluation of the men’s basketball team and its decision to terminate two of the assistant coaches.  Further, the court noted that there was significant evidence to indicate that non-whites attended Goal Club events in significant numbers after the ban on coaches’ spouses and high school athletes—those minorities who attended were just not coaches’ spouses or high school athletes.  Additionally, the court noted that there was not only no evidence indicating that Petriccione wanted to fire Holcomb, but that Petriccione had, in fact, suggested retaining Holcomb during his discussions with Iona administrators and Board of Trustee members.  The court found that Holcomb was simply unable to link any of the alleged racist behaviors with Brennan’s evaluation of the men’s basketball team and Iona’s decision to fire him.

Accordingly, the court entered judgment in favor of Iona.

The case is Holcomb v. Iona College, No. 05-CIV 0848 (S.D.N.Y. 2006).