UDM women's basketball coach breaks silence: I was 'blindsided' by allegations

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Detroit Mercy women's basketball coach AnnMarie Gilbert broke her silence Wednesday, four months after the team's season was shut down amid players' and parents' allegations of emotional, mental and physical abuse.

Gilbert was retained as head coach after two investigations — one external, one internal — found almost all allegations "unsubstantiated," according to athletic director Robert Vowels, who also spoke. None of the 14 players on last season's roster will return for next season.

 "An entirely new team is the best course," Vowels said. 

Detroit Mercy women's basketball coach AnnMarie Gilbert broke her silence May 19, 2021.

"It's been a very difficult situation," Gilbert told two Detroit reporters in an interview, during which she and Vowels took questions after months of declining interview requests.

"I just want to say, first, I care deeply about our student-athletes. I always have liked and admired these women. I have always talked positively about the opportunity I had to come here. ... I came to Detroit Mercy because I really believed in this university.

"I’m certainly grateful for every day and every moment that I’m here.”

Before the season was shut down after 14 games Detroit Mercy (1-13), was coming off two of its better-played games. Vowels said he met collectively and individually with players to hear their concerns.

The school then launched two investigations. One was related to the NCAA violation allegations, conducted by athletic department official Steve Corder and university counsel Carey DeWitt of Butzel Long. The second was related to non-NCAA violation allegations, conducted by Dewitt and Detroit Mercy HR's Alana Dillard-Slaughter. Every player who agreed to an interview was interviewed, and every coach and staff member was interviewed, including men's head basketball coach Mike Davis. Davis observed most of the women's team's practices this past season. Video of Davis' practices, which usually included some video of the women's practices, was reviewed by investigators.

Hundreds of pages of documents, texts and emails were examined, Vowels said.

The university did determine that there were level-3 NCAA violations, related to a summer supervised running program and about "3-6 hours" of extra countable athletically related activity (CARA), or practice time, during the season. The university has reported the violations to the NCAA.

"We are continuing to collaborate with the NCAA during this transition period, and the remedies will be in place beginning with the upcoming academic year," Vowels said.

He didn't identify those remedies, and no disciplinary action has been announced. It's unlikely there will be any postseason ban, or loss of scholarships. More likely could be a docking of practice hours.

Vowels said the investigations also found issues with communication, "which we have addressed internally." He considered three allegations brought by parents and players to be most serious: that Gilbert ignored concussion injuries, COVID-19, academics and committed NCAA violations. On those:

►Vowels strongly disputed the allegations that player injuries weren't taken seriously, or that players were told to play through injuries or keep quiet about concussion symptoms. Gilbert doesn't have any authority to force players to play hurt, said Vowels, adding that "no player ever played who had not been cleared to play on the daily injury sheet the highly experienced training staff issued." Vowels said there were two communication issues in regard to issues, but didn't identify those.

►On the allegations players were told to ignore COVID-19 symptoms, Vowels shot that down, saying the school did exhaustive testing, up to three times a week, without one player testing positive during the season. There were allegations players with symptoms such as nausea ahead of the Jan. 18-19 games at Green Bay were forced to travel, and that players were told by a trainer to lie about symptoms upon arriving in Green Bay. Vowels said those allegations were false, and said players were tested before and after that trip, with nobody testing positive. Gilbert also disputed that players were forced to travel, saying the team had enough players to play without them.

►On the allegation academics were dismissed or weren't stressed by Gilbert, Vowels said no player was told to change a class or major because of a practice or game conflict. He noted the team had a collective GPA better than 3.0.

►Vowels confirmed that players were forced to run a 7-minute mile, "consistent" with college programs around the country. That was another complaint from players.

Parents of the players sent a letter to Vowels in mid-January, outlining the allegations. It completely "blindsided" Gilbert, she said. She denied ever saying, "Cowards limp, losers limp," as alleged in the parents letter.

"Have I talked about our team being more mentally tough, being more confident, being stronger in our approach to the game. ... yes," Gilbert said. "But that's not a coaching strategy that I use to demean or belittle anyone.

"All I have done is try to come and change a culture."

The letter by Vowels was signed by at least one parent of each of the 14 players, though one parent later told The News the letter was sent without her consent or knowledge. All 14 players supported the letter and the allegations it contained, multiple players told The News. The letter was signed by Shakela Webb, mother of star player and former Detroit Country Day standout Kaela Webb. The letter was not signed by Tim Webb, an assistant under Gilbert. When players met with Vowels, they offered to play out the rest of the season, but not under Gilbert. Most players wanted to play under Tim Webb. He remains listed on the athletics website, but Gilbert wouldn't say if he would return as an assistant. Staff changes are possible, she said. Kaela Webb has transferred to Florida Gulf Coast.

Thirteen of the 14 players from last season entered the transfer portal, though forward Maxine Moore and guard Aly Reiff later withdrew. Moore wanted to return to the team, but was told no by Vowels. She has since re-entered the portal. Reiff is done with basketball, as is forward Nicole Johanson, the only player who didn't enter the portal. Vowels said there are discussions under way to keep any of the players from last year's roster on scholarship should they want to finish their education at Detroit Mercy. 

Gilbert said she has commitments for about half of next year's roster, though not all letters have been signed. The only known players on next year's roster are Taylor Blunt, a guard from Pennsylvania, and forward Irena Murua, a transfer from Louisiana Tech.

"With our roster, we're moving forward in a positive fashion," Gilbert said. "We have identified some individuals we believe can compete in this league."

Parents and players also alleged Gilbert came on the job wanting to turn over the entire roster from the start, a charge Gilbert denied.

"We didn't think there would be a complete roster reset," Gilbert said.

At no point was Gilbert on suspension, Vowels said. During the investigation, Gilbert didn't know whether she would keep her job, she said. Vowels, meanwhile, said there are no plans to publicly release the findings of the investigations. Detroit Mercy is a private institution, and not subject to state Freedom of Information Act laws.

Gilbert came to Detroit Mercy from Division II Virginia Union, where she coached five seasons and was 135-18 with an appearance in the 2017 national championship game. She took over a Detroit Mercy program that had lost 80 of its previous 89 games, and inherited a roster mostly from the previous coaching staff.

Her previous head coaching job was at Eastern Michigan, where she was for five years, winning 69 games over the final three years. But that tenure ended in controversy, mostly amid charges of exceeding practice time. She resigned from Eastern Michigan and served a two-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA — time off she used to get a master's degree in sports management from Cleveland State.

Vowels said before hiring Gilbert, he spoke to Virginia Union athletic director Joe Taylor, who reported no violations or misconduct. He also spoke to former Eastern Michigan athletic director Derrick Gragg, who now works for the NCAA.

"Coach Gilbert was hired on the basis of her qualifications, experience and successful record at Virginia Union," Vowels said.

Previously, Gilbert was on staff at Michigan State as a key recruiter for a program that advanced to the 2005 national championship game. She also was the head coach for eight years at Oberlin, a Division III school in Ohio.

Gilbert called this ordeal "difficult," but was appreciative to those who reached out in support. One of her biggest advocates from the start was Davis, who conveyed to investigators that if Gilbert was fired, then any coach could be fired. Davis made a habit of texting Gilbert motivational videos. Gilbert also appreciated those who reserved judgment until she spoke, she said.

"We're glad to get our side out," Vowels said.

"This is the first time we had a chance to speak to the other side of this situation," Gilbert said.

The school had declined multiple interview requests from The News since January. Until Wednesday, the school had released three statements. The first came in January when the allegations surfaced and the season was shut down. The second was furnished in April when Gilbert was retained. The last was this month when specific allegations against Gilbert came from multiple players who went on the record for the first time. Vowels said he and Gilbert didn't speak earlier, because he wanted to "provide a more complete statement."

"I don't think anything that we did reflected hard coaching," said Gilbert, adding that no complaints were brought directly to her or her staff before the parents sent their letter to Vowels, university president Dr. Antoine Garibaldi and three NCAA officials. "I was coming from a different culture.

"I came here to build a new culture and to do that progressively. No one thought within one year we would totally change everything, but there was a different expectation that I think I brought than maybe the individuals in the program were used to in terms of just a general work ethic on a daily basis ... understanding how to compete at a higher level.

"I came here to be a part of change, positive change to help change the culture ... to impact these women positively. I'm here to coach, teach, develop them and to grow them into strong empowered women.

"I'm saddened about the outcome."

We're running a new-subscriber special. Support local journalism, and subscribe here.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984