Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt apologizes to players: 'We have failed them'

Offering a public apology to members of the women's basketball team, Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt acknowledged Friday that he was unaware until this week of the full extent of the breakdown in trust between players and former coach Marlene Stollings.

The school dismissed Hollings for cause on Thursday night after she spent two seasons as coach. Her dismissal followed two days of meetings between Hocutt and women's basketball players in the wake of a USA Today Sports story that alleged a toxic culture in the program.

"I apologized to them yesterday for what they have experienced," Hocutt said Friday. "And I want to do the same publicly today. We have failed them, and we have to do better."

The dismissal and apology marked a reversal from earlier in the week, when the school initially backed Stollings, who oversaw a significant on-court improvement at one of college basketball's most historically significant women's programs. Hocutt said in a statement that was included in the USA Today investigative story this week that while he was aware of the allegations and had spoken with Stollings, he was "confident that we are taking appropriate steps to improve the relationship and communication between coaches and student-athletes."

Hocutt appeared to attribute the abrupt change in the school's position to conversations he had with players on both Wednesday and Thursday. He said that after listening to their concerns, he recommended to school president Dr. Lawrence Schovanec that they dismiss Stollings.

"While we were aware of the concerns that the young women brought forward after the first season," Hocutt said, "we were not aware of the magnitude to which they had occurred or to the magnitude that it had affected the young women in our locker room."

Hocutt said that a small group of players raised concerns about the culture under Stollings and her staff in exit interviews after the 2018-19 season, her first at Texas Tech. But he also described what he felt were "indications of improvement" after discussing those concerns with the coach.

Yet after spending more time around the team over the course of the 2019-20 season, Hocutt said he determined that an "in-depth" review of the program was necessary and named a panel of four administrators to begin that process in early April of this year.

According to the timeline the athletic director presented Friday, the school was already "going down a path with our discussion and continued review" when the USA Today story was published. He said a meeting with players, originally scheduled for July but pushed back due to scheduling conflicts, was already set to take place on Wednesday as the final part of the review.

But despite saying the school was already going down a path with regard to Stollings, both Hocutt's statement of support for the coach earlier this week and his comments Friday indicate that the discussions with the players -- first Wednesday and then again Thursday -- played a decisive role in the final decision.

"In this particular situation, there was a disconnect," Hocutt said. "I believe that the coaches believed they had that relationship but it was fractured. It wasn't anywhere where it needed to be for this program to thrive and to reach the level of success it is capable of achieving."

He declined to say whether the same decision would have been reached without the USA Today story and ensuing national attention.

"If [the meeting with players] would have been on a day different than when the article came out," Hocutt said, "would the conversation and discussion have been as open and free flowing as it was with the team? I don't know that."

Among the allegations relating to a toxic culture under Stollings were that team members played through injuries because they were allegedly punished if they did not keep their heart rates at 90 percent of capacity during games and practices, and mental health issues were minimized. A total of 12 players left the program in the coach's first two seasons. Hocutt blamed a lack of trust and poor relationships for such issues but attempted to differentiate those allegations from sexual harassment allegations against former strength and conditioning coach Ralph Petrella. Hocutt said that he was first made aware of the Title IX allegations on March 25 and that Petrella, who also worked with Stollings at Minnesota and VCU, was no longer an employee by March 27.

According to USA Today, at least one player contacted a Title IX supervisor after what she felt was inappropriate touching by Petrella during physical therapy. Other players cited in the story spoke about demeaning comments and behavior from Petrella.

"All investigations related to Title IX go through the university Title IX office, not athletics -- we do not investigate Title IX incidents or allegations," Hocutt said. "When I became aware of some of the things that were alleged with Ralph, not necessarily being the Title IX side of it but some other inappropriate behavior, we took those complaints to him."

Hocutt said he had not heard complaints from current players about retaliation by coaches when players took concerns to administrators, as alleged in the USA Today story. He also said the school was unaware of any complaints about Stollings during her time at Minnesota and VCU, although former players from those schools posted on social media this week about similar issues.

Assistant coach Malikah Willis will stay on in an interim role while Texas Tech conducts a search for a new coach. The rest of Stollings' staff was dismissed. Stollings had four years remaining on her contract, for which she would not be owed if fired for cause.