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Wagner Out "Without Cause"; More Players May Exit

LaVonda Wagner, during the 2009 season, with Mercedes Fox-Griffin.
LaVonda Wagner, during the 2009 season, with Mercedes Fox-Griffin.

Oregon St. Athletic Director Bob DeCarolis announced today that the firing of women's basketball coach LaVonda Wagner after five years is "Without Cause", meaning the University will pay $1.2 million dollars for the remaining three years of her contract, which would have paid her $350,000, $400,000 and $420,000 in salary.

DeCarolis informed university leadership of his decision on Friday, and told Wagner when she returned to Corvallis on Tuesday, before making a public announcement, said he decided on the "without cause" termination, in part, to "avoid legal complications." A "with cause" firing would have meant Oregon State would have argued that it did not have to pay, but would have wound up in court to make their case, incurring legal expenses in the process. Additional ramifications with claims by former players and assistant coaches could also arise in that case.

If Wagner gets another job before the contract was set to expire in 2013, Oregon State will only owe the difference between her what new job pays and what she would have made with the Beavers.

The decision may have come too late for freshman standout Haiden Palmer, who DeCarolis also announced had requested paperwork that would allow her to leave the program. Another freshman, Angela Misa is also debating whether to stay. If both do leave, it would leave Oregon St. with only two players on the roster, junior forward El Sara Greer and sophomore guard Brittany Kennedy.

DeCarolis also said that he has not yet received a written report from the outside consultant the university had hired to review Wagner's program, but that preliminary talks about the findings "just verified what we had heard."

Wagner, 45, was hired in April 2005, and Oregon St. was her first head coaching job, after 17 years as an assistant at Duke, Illinois and East Tennessee State. Wagner, the fourth head coach in the history of the Oregon State women's basketball program, went 68-85 in five seasons with the Beavers, and was 26-64 in Pac-10 Conference games. Wagner led her teams to two berths in the Women's NIT, but was 11-20 in 2009-10, and 3-17 in Pac-10 games, including the Pac-10 tournament, and endured a 17 game losing streak.

Trouble bubbled over when the teams' best player, Talisa Rhea transferred after the season to Seattle University, and sophomore post Kirsten Tilleman and two time Oregon 6A player of the year Kate Lanz quickly followed Rhea off campus, all expressing various concerns about the emotional climate of Wagner's program.

Wagner was not available for comment, and De Carolis declined to comment on Wagner's reaction, saying that he didn't "want to speculate on her emotional frame of mind." De Carolis did say that the athletic department would "take a hard look at our organizational structure, as far as sport management is concerned," in light of the allegations that Oregon St. ignored years of complaints about Wagner, as the Oregonian's Lindsay Schnell detailed in a weekend report.

"We are, by far, the smallest administrative staff in the conference," DeCarolis said. "With a lot of people wearing a lot of different hats ... you run the risk of things falling through the cracks, and certainly we will take some responsibility for that."

The $1.2 million, should it all have to be paid, will be a blow for the athletic department, which already ran a $5.9 million deficit in 2008-09, and will also have to pay for a new coach. DeCarolis said he plans to pay Wagner from athletic department funds, but that the money, if necessary, could be borrowed from the university's general fund.

The general fund, however, could be in for a serious hit in light of last week's announcement by Governor Ted Kulongoski of significant shortfalls in the state budget, which could make layoffs mandatory.

Wagner was as intense a person as anyone on campus, and as a result, could be equally polarizing, in her efforts to succeed in the tough Pac-10 conference. This is something both her supporters and her detractors, including many who have been both, do all agree on.

DeCarolis said the search for Wagner's replace would start immediately, with the hope of filling the position by July 1st., and noted that the department has already received, "double-digit inquiries" from people interested in the position.

The $1.2 million Wagner is still owed, coupled with the department's budget problems, will make hiring Wagner's successor more difficult, DeCarolis acknowledged. As a result, DeCarolis expects the next coach to start with a lower salary, and have their contract backloaded once the Beavers have finished making payments to Wagner.

DeCaroli declined to name any of the names that have inquired, or who might be on the Beavers' short list. But the next coach, in addition to having to be patient to get paid, will also have to be patient with players, as a total change in culture will be necessary to address perceptions.

With nearly no one left, the team in the next year or so is certain to see more than their share of struggles due to youth, which will tax the patients of the fan base as well. The challenge may consume the next coach, and it could be an even more difficult stretch ahead for OSU women's hoops in the next few years. Whether the next coach will survive long enough to still be on the sideline when the backloading of the contract pays out is debatable, and could snow-ball into another expensive stretch of double payments, made worse by declining gate receipts.

The Wagner situation becomes the first high profile failure in DeCarolis' run of coaching contracts, which included packages to retain football coach Mike Riley and baseball coach Pat Casey, as well as adding men's basketball coach Craig Robinson. For a while, Wagner was seen as another good get by Bobby D, but that has proved to be fools' gold, or worse, only a year after consecutive seasons of improvement, and a trip to the postseason.

It's time now for a shrewd hire, and also some economic moves that will need to make the made for ESPN TCU road game payoff pale in comparison.