Glenn Guilbeau / Gannett Louisiana
BATON ROUGE – As if in a classic Wimbledon duel, fired women’s tennis coach Tony Minnis and LSU are in the midst of a tiebreaker.
Thousands of pages of testimony, discovery, petitions, position statements, motions, memorandums in opposition to motions, unopposed motions to exceed page limitation and depositions have been served, volleyed and rallied since Minnis filed a lawsuit against LSU on Nov. 20, 2012, for his firing on May 16, 2012. And it’s not over yet. United States District Court Judge Brian A. Jackson will decide in the next weeks or months if the case will be dismissed, as LSU is asking, or if it will meet its trial date of Nov. 3 in federal court.
Minnis and his attorney Jill Craft, who has specialized in winning various settlements against LSU for two decades, charge that LSU athletic director Joe Alleva wrongfully fired Minnis following 15 NCAA postseason appearances in 21 years after discriminating against him, harassing him and retaliating against him amid years of disparate pay and unrealistic expectations considering the lack of adequate facilities Alleva himself acknowledged.
“It’s very clear and blatant they were trying to frame me,” Minnis said last week. “No question from day one, Joe wanted me out. Why? Is it because I’m black? Is it because I complained about not having an indoor court like every other school in the Southeastern Conference? I never had these problems with (former athletic director) Skip Bertman. I decided I’m not going to be treated this way, and I’m going to fight this all the way to the end.”
To Alleva, firing Minnis was simply quality control. “The program was not going in the direction that I thought an LSU program should be going in,” Alleva said in a deposition April 9 that became public record on June 26 when Craft filed a memorandum in opposition to LSU attorneys’ motion to dismiss for summary judgment by Judge Jackson.
“Recruiting was poor. Morale was poor. The record was poor (89-153 in the Southeastern Conference in 21 years for a .367 winning percentage). Can you imagine Les Miles having a record like Tony Minnis? How long would he be the football coach?”
Contacted last week, Alleva declined to comment, as did associate athletic directors Miriam Segar and Eddie Nunez, who were named in the lawsuit along with members of the LSU Board of Supervisors, citing policy not to discuss pending legislation.
The last thing Alleva told Minnis was, “I want to go in another direction,” and handed him a termination letter at a meeting in his office on May 16, 2012.
Minnis’ firing “had nothing to do with race or retaliation,” LSU’s attorney team of Taylor, Porter, Brooks & Phillips wrote in its request that the lawsuit be dismissed. “LSU had many legitimate, non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory reasons for its decision not to renew Mr. Minnis’ contract. At the time this decision was made, it is undisputed that the overall health of the women’s tennis program was poor.”
Change of direction
But LSU had just reached its 15th NCAA Tournament in 18 years, Craft said.
“There are highly disputed, genuine issues of material fact in dispute, Craft returned in her opposition to dismiss. “The law provides that employers, like LSU, cannot discharge its burden of production by simply throwing up a plethora of false, after-the-fact, created reasons in an attempt to justify its action.”
Craft is seeking for Minnis all reasonable sums of money under the premises, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and all cost of the proceedings.
Alleva, who replaced the retiring Bertman in 2008 after leaving the athletic director post at Duke, and his key assistants point to Minnis’ three consecutive losing seasons from 2010-12 just before his dismissal – 10-15 overall and 4-7 in the Southeastern Conference in 2010, 11-12 and 5-6 in 2011 and 11-13 and 4-7 in 2012. But Minnis’ last team did reach the NCAA Tournament and finished 44th in the nation at 11-13 as SEC teams often qualify for the postseason despite double-digit losses because of the quality of the conference.
“The athletic department doesn’t understand how tennis works,” Minnis said. “If you play in the SEC, you’re going to lose some matches, but you will stay highly ranked and get into the NCAA Tournament because the SEC is such a great conference.”
In 2014, for example, five SEC women’s tennis teams reached the NCAA Tournament with double-digit losses, including LSU at 14-13 and 3-10 in the SEC under second-year coach Julia Sell. Sell found out how difficult the SEC is in her first season in 2013 when she went 9-16 overall and 1-12 in the league for the worst SEC mark in LSU women’s tennis history.
Minnis’ academic record, meanwhile, was one of the best at LSU as it finished third of all LSU’s sports with a 992 mark over the 2009-13 span judged. In addition, Minnis’ 38 academic All-SEC selections from 2006-12 were among the most in the conference while Megan Falcon became the first No. 1 ranked women’s singles player at LSU in 2008.
A 48-year-old Baton Rouge native who remains one of the winningest singles players in Louisiana-Lafayette history, Minnis was a five-time regional coach of the year at LSU from 1995-2009 and SEC coach of the year in 1997. But he was coming off four losing seasons in the SEC at 16-27 when he was dismissed.
Since his firing, Minnis has interviewed for head women’s tennis coaching positions at Maryland and William & Mary, but he did not get either job. Athletic department spokespersons at each school declined comment on Minnis.
“As far as my understanding, he’s essentially being blackballed by LSU administrators, who have spoken to his potential employers,” Craft said. “And there’s this whiff of suspicion out there because, why would somebody so successful be fired unless he did something? Well, he didn’t do anything.”
LSU athletic department officials have maintained in depositions they have not given bad recommendations concerning Minnis, who has been busy traveling the country hosting a college tennis show on The Tennis Channel.
Minnis has had bad seasons, including seven with .500 or worse overall records since 2002. But Alleva was not pleased with his good seasons either. In 2008, LSU finished 15-8 overall, 6-5 in the SEC, No. 27 in the nation and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. In 2009, the Lady Tigers were 14-11, 3-7 in the SEC finished No. 24 and again reached the NCAA Tournament second round. But after each season, Alleva gave Minnis “below average” evaluations.
“I was shocked when Tony was fired. Most people in the tennis world were shocked,” said Vanderbilt women’s tennis coach Geoff Macdonald, who was LSU’s women’s coach from 1989-91 and worked under Alleva as Duke’s coach from 1992-94. “This is a move that’s going to haunt Joe Alleva. You can’t just throw people away. There is employment law for that reason.”
And employment law tends to be more stringent at state universities than at private schools, Craft said.
Change of athletic director changed atmosphere
Alleva came to LSU as a bit of a pariah for his role in the lacrosse scandal of 2006-07 at Duke detailed in the book, “It’s Not About The Truth,” which was a quote attributed to Alleva.
“I didn’t find him supportive of me or my program,” Macdonald said. “I got the feeling Tony felt the same way after he (Alleva) got to LSU. His teams have consistently reached the NCAA Tournament at a school that’s very tough to recruit to in a state that has very few blue chip players. Now he had his down years, but he made the tournament his last year. It’s not easy making the NCAA Tournament. Through 21 years, his teams were always competitive, not easy to play against, well coached. Then when you go down there, and he has the worst facilities in the conference.”
Minnis was shocked when he got fired, too, particularly since he received a $3,500 bonus on his way out for making the NCAA Tournament, which was written into his contract. “I might be about the only coach in history to get a bonus after getting fired,” he said.
Minnis’ 15 NCAA postseason appearances were not regarded as highly by LSU senior associate athletic director Nunez in his deposition on April 11 as they were by Macdonald. “I think making the NCAA is a given,” Nunez said when asked about expectations for Minnis. “I think what we were looking for was a Sweet 16, competing for the Sweet 16 and farther.”
Minnis had not advanced as far as the Sweet 16 since 2000, but then his own athletic director said tennis at LSU simply could not compete amid the nation’s elite on the Baton Rouge television talk show, “Sports Monday” in March of 2010.
“Our tennis teams don’t have that opportunity right now,” Alleva said when asked if all LSU teams could compete for national championships. “Because if you’re a really great tennis player, you’re going to question coming to LSU – and I’m probably hurting my program by saying this - because you can’t play every day because we don’t have indoor tennis courts. And if you’re a great player, you want to know you can play (or practice) every day. And we don’t have that opportunity right now. So for us to get to that level, we need indoor tennis courts. We’ve got some angles that we’re working.”
LSU broke ground on May 5 on an indoor tennis facility that is expected to open in the spring of 2015. Every other SEC school has indoor tennis courts.
“The new coach, who is white, is suddenly getting a ton of funding,” Craft said. “Now, they’re building the indoor stadium that Tony has been screaming about for a decade or better.”
Sell, who had no previous head coaching experience but has connections to Alleva, is also making a salary in the $110,000 range. Minnis had been making $85,000 since 2009 as the lowest paid head coach at LSU and one of the lower paid women’s tennis coaches in the SEC, according to Craft’s research. Minnis got his last raises only after then LSU Board of Supervisors member Dorothy Reese, who is African-American, asked about the disparity, Craft said.
“It says to me that it’s clear that LSU’s pattern is discriminatory,” Craft said. “They got a coach with little experience for whatever reason, and our concern is race. And once they get her, she can have what Tony has been screaming about – a representative salary and facilities. It’s sad. Tony’s worked all these years to get LSU to acknowledge women’s tennis, and for the fruits of his labor, they give the facility and $30,000 more in salary to somebody else.”
Minnis screamed too loud and too often about a variety of things, Nunez said in his deposition.
“He must have angered Alleva by standing up for his program,” Macdonald said.
In his deposition in April, Alleva said Minnis’ inability to recruit even without the indoor facility was one of his reasons for firing him. Alleva also previously contradicted what he would say on the talk show in a letter of expectations to Minnis on Aug. 4, 2009, in which he wrote, “LSU women’s tennis should be a top 10 program. I know you will work hard to make that happen.”
Minnis said he immediately thought of that letter when he was watching the “Sports Monday” show, found it and filed it in his growing dossier.
Changing coaches, upgrading facilities
“You’ve got Alleva basically saying there’s no way we can be successful or competitive in women’s tennis because our facilities are so bad,” Craft said. “So what does he do? He fires the guy who succeeds where he admits it’s impossible to succeed. Then he hires someone with no head coaching experience.”
Alleva and Nunez said Sell, the 33-year-old sister-in-law of Duke men’s tennis coach Ramsey Smith whom Alleva hired, was considered a rising star in women’s tennis coaching after assistant stops at Notre Dame and Harvard. And she was being considered for the South Carolina head coaching job while LSU was considering her. But she was a part-time youth tennis coach when hired by LSU, and South Carolina never offered her the job, Craft said.
Alleva and his assistants apparently did not feel Minnis had the ability to make LSU a top 10 program even with better facilities.
“Student-athletes complained that he created unnecessary tension during matches rather than offering tactical advice,” LSU’s attorneys wrote in their motion to dismiss. “And that he yelled and would not accept their input and often threatened to revoke scholarships. They were also concerned that Minnis was unorganized, conducted team meetings that lasted several hours and did not provide them constructive feedback.”
Taylor Porter attorneys Vicki Crochet and Robert Barton, who attended the recent depositions with members of the LSU athletic department, did not return calls last week. Former women’s tennis players Megan Falcon (2005-09) and Whitney Wolf (2008-12) of Baton Rouge declined to comment on Minnis.
LSU’s attorneys also said that a sports psychology consultant, Tiffany Jones, told associate athletic director Miriam Segar that the women’s tennis team “was in crisis.”
That is not the team that former LSU women’s tennis player Bruna Colosio, now living in Houston remembers.
“One thing I always admired about Tony was his character,” Colosio, a top player at LSU from 1999-2002, said. “And I’m not just saying that because of the lawsuit. Of all the coaches I knew, he was the one doing everything right. He was always fighting to get an indoor court. He was a very patient coach with players. I was very surprised when I heard he was fired.”
Segar saw a different Minnis.
“I thought he had poor student-athlete management,” Segar said in her deposition on April 9. “He didn’t have a team that was healthy internally. He had girls that were wanting to quit the team (though none did). He had parents that were complaining about different things within the program. There was I guess a little bit of a faction on the team. Some of the girls I guess had different objectives within the team. I think the girls felt they could not talk to Tony about the issues.”
There was also faction in the athletic department against Minnis, Craft argues.
After Jones reviewed the women’s tennis team, she sent an email to Segar on March 24, 2012, that was not included in Taylor Porter’s document to dismiss. Craft included it in her memorandum in opposition to LSU’s dismiss efforts on June 26 with the redaction of a student-athlete’s name.
“(Redacted name) is a huge concern,” Jones wrote to Segar in the email. “I know that I have spoken to you about this, but during some of my individual meetings I have learned that there has been some drug abuse since she’s been at LSU. I believe this is a huge concern, especially with the ‘medical’ things she’s had going on. She’s also extremely negative with the team. She said, ‘Don’t believe Tony. He’s not going to change. He hates us and will always be negative.’ Her issues are now stirring the pot. Though most of the team is able to ignore her, a couple of the girls have definitely been sucked in. I truly believe she’s playing us all, and she’s a pathological liar. I felt as though all of this needed to be brought to your attention.”
Segar, though, never brought this student-athlete’s possible drug problem to Minnis’ attention, according to Segar’s deposition.
“You did not tell Tony Minnis or talk to Tony Minnis about (redacted name) having alcohol and/or drug issues?” Craft asked Segar in the deposition.
“I did not do that,” Segar said.
“Don’t you think that would have been important information for you to pass on to a coach? ‘Maybe you should keep an eye out on her?’” Craft asked Segar.
“I think Tony knew,” Segar said. But Minnis said he did not.
Alleva with assistance from Segar later reprimanded Minnis in a Feb. 10, 2012, letter for making the unnamed student-athlete run when she arrived late for a fund raising team event on Jan. 28, 2012. The student-athlete had been drinking the night before and needed medical attention after passing out while running.
“Segar would later accuse Minnis of not properly evaluating this player even though it was Segar herself who withheld that information from Minnis,” Craft wrote in her memorandum in opposition to Taylor Porter’s motion to dismiss.
Craft also said LSU “wiped out all of Minnis’ sent emails” while Minnis was at the NCAA Tournament later in 2012.
“During the course of responding to Minnis’ requests for production and discovery, LSU failed/refused to produce them,” Craft wrote. “Among those were a March 28 Minnis email to Alleva containing his discrimination complaints, which fortunately Minnis had a hard copy. LSU also failed to produce a critical email from sports psychologist Tiffany Jones.”
On March 28, 2012, Minnis responded to Alleva’s letter of reprimand with a letter about the athlete who passed out that ended with, “My only conclusion is that this is another case of clear and blatant retaliation for speaking out against the inequities of the women’s tennis program at LSU.”
Minnis did not hear from Alleva again until Nunez told him to be at Alleva’s office at 10 a.m. on May 16, 2012, to be terminated. Craft asked Alleva during his deposition if this last incident was one of the reasons he fired Minnis.
“If he had a winning record, and if he had recruited well and provided quality experiences, that would have just been an incident,” Alleva said. “His contract was not terminated because of that incident alone, no.”
Craft says LSU attempted to come up with additional reasons for Minnis’ firing only after Minnis filed a discrimination charge against LSU with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June of 2012 after his firing. The EEOC did not make a ruling on Minnis’ case but did review it and wrote him to say “he had the right to institute a civil action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964” against LSU.
“Alleva, Segar and Nunez contradicted each other as to why Minnis was fired,” Craft wrote to conclude her response to LSU’s request to dismiss. “The law clearly mandates that when the employer has given post hoc, false, shifting, morphing, manipulating reasons over time, those reasons must be rejected. A jury, on that basis may freely determine that illegal discrimination, retaliation and reprisal were the likely motivations.”