Former women’s basketball players cite ‘toxic environment’ for early departures

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In the past 5 seasons, 19 players have left the program

Photo by Mykah Heaton

At the end of her freshman season with the Utah Valley women’s basketball team in the spring of 2015, Brooke Wheeler had a meeting with head coach Cathy Nixon who informed her she would not be offered a scholarship for the next season.

Wheeler, a 6-3 center from Springville, Utah, was told by Nixon that the team had recruited too many post players and needed to free up her scholarship for an incoming guard. She asked Wheeler to transfer to another school for a year, then return for the 2016-17 season. The decision was news to Wheeler who understood she was given a four-year scholarship when she was recruited by Nixon to play for UVU in high school.

Wheeler never returned to play for the Wolverines and did not want to. Her story, while bizarre in the nature of her departure, is not unusual.

In the past five seasons, 19 underclassmen players have left the women’s basketball team, many citing the dysfunctional culture within the program perpetuated by Nixon, who has led UVU for 23 years.

UVU joined the Western Athletic Conference before the 2013-14 season and has finished with a winning record once in the five seasons since. The winning season in 2015-16 was hardly successful, as the team finished the year one game above .500 and tied for fourth place in the conference.

The next season saw the Wolverines fail to break double-digits in wins with a 9-22 record and notch just three wins in conference play. Down the stretch the rotation of players fell to six or seven forcing the starters to play heavy minutes each game. Although some promise was offered for the following season when UVU made a push in the 2017 WAC Tournament and fell just short of a title game appearance.

Despite three starters slated to return for their senior campaign, 2017-18 was a failure as well. Sam Lubcke, one of the three seniors, left the team less than a month before the season started. The low point of the year came when Nixon’s squad handed Chicago State its first, and only, victory of the season in Orem on Feb. 8, snapping a 59-game losing streak for the Cougars. After a first-round exit from the conference tournament and an 11-19 record, the future does not look promising.

Although the product on the court has not been exceptional over the last several years, Nixon has helped produce positive headlines for causes unrelated to basketball.

Britta Spencer, who just finished her second year playing guard for UVU, was one of five Division I players selected to the Allstate Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Good Works Team. She was nominated for the team after she left collegiate basketball for 18 months to serve a Mormon mission in Rancagua, Chile.

Nixon also established the Mentor Program, designed to pair each player with a successful man or woman from the community who can help them transition into their professional careers more effectively and have a base of support once their days playing basketball are over.

“The only lasting value that athletics has is who it makes us as people, who it helps us to become,” Nixon told The Daily Herald earlier this year. The players “all have a good connection and I believe will be lifelong friends.”

Despite this, some former players don’t care for the Mentor Program and feel it is used as a negotiation tool with UVU in order for Nixon to keep her job. Lubcke points to a game last season when the team paused warm-ups to film a video for a mentor who was not doing well.

Sam Lubcke (40) boxes out against Pepperdine at the UCCU Center Nov. 29, 2016. Lubcke left UVU after her junior season. Photo by Mykah Heaton

“We ended up losing that game by 20-plus and were down by 10 in the first five minutes,” Lubcke said. “The Mentor Program looks good for not only the women’s basketball program but also the university as a whole. It doesn’t really matter if the basketball program is successful or not as long as the Mentor Program is publicly seen to be thriving. However, truth be told, half of us never ever saw our mentors outside of mandatory team events.”

Former players’ criticism of Nixon centers around a few common themes: Nixon’s favoritism of Mormon players, specifically Mormon guards; manipulation; poor communication in her coaching, which led to losing seasons; and the support of a divisive culture of players telling on one another.

During Lubcke’s official visit to UVU, she was told that she was the “ideal image” of the person they wanted on the team. She had the “values and report card of an LDS person” even though she was not a member of the faith. However, once at UVU, she felt she was discriminated against because she was not a member of the LDS church.

“It is very obvious she favorites the LDS girls, particularly those who actively practice their religion,” Lubcke said. “She provides those girls with privileges and allows them to be exceptions to the rule[s].”

Lubcke points to instances when she said something rude and Nixon made the team run, but Nixon ignored similar comments from other favored teammates.. Or, how Lubcke was given workout assignments during breaks from team activities while LDS players were given time off.

Nixon dismisses accusations of favoritism based on religion.

“I think if you really shrunk it down it was probably based on playing time,” she said. “If you looked at our team this year you could absolutely see it had nothing to do with religion.”

One player, who transferred with multiple remaining years of eligibility, spoke on the condition of anonymity. She said Nixon recruited her when she was a junior in high school and used her naïveté and religion to manipulate her into signing a letter of intent. During the recruitment process, the player said Nixon told her she had prayed and attended an LDS temple and felt like UVU was the right place for her to play. Later on, she learned from other players that Nixon had said the same things to them, leaving her feeling exploited.

This same player was frustrated by Nixon’s neglect of the post players on the team. She said Nixon, who played forward for BYU and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2007, spent all of her time coaching with the guards and relegated instruction of the posts to assistants, creating a divide on the team.

“No matter how hard we worked,” she said, “if we weren’t a favorite or a guard we were never rewarded. That grows so exhausting and after a couple years of it, if you last that long, you have to be done. Mentally and physically I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Nixon rejects the claim that guards are favored, suggesting that the guards would probably say the post players were favored.

“I think that’s just human nature where especially players who have left the program feel like they weren’t highlighted or things like that,” Nixon said. “I think if you looked historically at our program you would see there’s no bias from one position to another.”

Lubcke, a center who was named to the preseason All-WAC first team by the media last fall and was coming off a record-setting junior season with the Wolverines, grew increasingly unhappy when Nixon would not allow her to practice as a forward. Lubcke wanted to develop her perimeter game to show scouts she was not simply a post player because her ultimate goal was to play professional basketball.

“I just shook it off as another downfall of UVU and [like 2016-17], began to count down to the end of the season,” Lubcke said.

Nixon did not agree that was how it was handled.

“We spent hours and hours with her trying to develop her perimeter game,” Nixon said. “The reality is she actually did play quite a bit on the perimeter.”

Sariah Wi Neera, who played for UVU during the 2016-17 season, left after one year in search of a better college basketball experience.

Sariah Wi Neera, handles the ball in a conference game against NMSU in Lockhart Arena, Feb. 23, 2017. Wi Neera played one season for UVU before transferring. Photo by Julie Ostler

“We were on a pretty big losing streak and I don’t enjoy losing, especially if I know the team’s potential is so much better than that,” Wi Neera said. “I came to the end of the season and decided I was unhappy where I was… there was no satisfaction in trying to make the coaches happy because it was making me a person and player I wasn’t and did not want to be.”

Several players who left the team early “didn’t like the fact that the program kept losing and no one ever looked at the coaching staff,” Wheeler said.

Several players cite Nixon’s inconsistency in instruction and discipline regarding team rules that led to a greater problem.

“She creates a toxic environment in a million small ways that add up,” Lubcke said.

Patrice Toston, who played her junior and senior seasons for UVU from 2014-2016, agrees with Lubcke and Wheeler’s sentiments. “You’ll hear the same story from pretty much everyone,” Toston said.

“It was definitely her way or the highway,” said Wheeler, who was asked to transfer after her freshman season and went on to play for Boise State. She believes many clashes between Nixon and players were due to miscommunications. Players felt Nixon would say one thing and do another.

Nixon admits she made a mistake asking Wheeler to transfer. She felt that Wheeler needed more playing time and sees how Wheeler thought the coaching staff had lost confidence in her.

The team has a set of “core values” as Nixon refers to them, ranging from how players should treat one another to a strict no drug and alcohol policy. Nixon has players report to her when someone is not meeting those demands. Lubcke said this has resulted in distrust between players and small issues turning into points of contention that lead to factions on the team.

One night, during the 2016-17 season, two players went to the same restaurant for takeout, but one did not say hi to the other. This small issue was reported to Nixon who, according to several players, held a 45-minute meeting where members of the team were yelling and crying. Nixon abruptly ended the meeting to go to practice with no resolution.

“Your teammates should be like your sisters,” Lubcke said. Due to Nixon’s “preferential treatment to those who would tattle, our team became a team who would have a meeting every day discussing — not basketball — but our issues within the team.”

So, when an offer to play for a professional team in Turkey came less than a month before her senior season, Lubcke took it, ending her career as a Wolverine.

When UVU joined the WAC in 2013, Nixon said there was an adjustment to be made in the type of players recruited, with the conference leaning toward smaller athletic players without specific positions.

It has been challenging, Nixon said, to fully adapt to the new conference because each recruitment cycle is one to two years out.

“It’s taken some time for that tool of being in the WAC to have an impact in the sense of what players we’re able to compete for,” Nixon said.

The number of players that have transferred over the last several years does not worry Nixon, who says it’s due in part to a large number of Division I players transferring across the country.

“If you look back at the last three or four years there’s been very few players we didn’t realize would be leaving at some point or that weren’t our choice that they left,” Nixon said. “Sometimes it’s just not a fit. Players aren’t necessarily ready for this level or they’re not happy.”

She said it is easy to judge a program from the outside and believe there is a trend, but every player who has transferred has been an individual case.

Of the eight teams in the WAC, UVU, with 19, has the second highest number of players that have left the program prematurely since the conference came together in 2013. Rio Grande Valley had 21 players leave early in that time, while 13 have left Grand Canyon through the jump from Division II to Division I. New Mexico State, which has won the WAC the last four seasons has had eight players leave early in that span.

A month following the 2017-18 season, Britta Spencer, who just finished her junior year, has confirmed that she will not return to play for UVU next season. Spencer’s departure leaves a large vacancy on a roster already devoid of senior leadership. Along with departing seniors Taylor Christensen and Mariah Seals, the team’s three leading scorers will need to be replaced.

Cathy Nixon fist bumps Britta Spencer during a game against UMKC in Lockhart Arena, Feb. 9, 2017. Spencer will forego her senior season after two years with UVU. Photo by Mykah Heaton

Nixon admits it will be difficult to replace the trio.

“We challenge the current players we have to fill in some of those gaps and also hope to recruit some players to bridge that gap,” she said.

The one-year contract Nixon signed before last season expired at the end of March. Contract records, publicly disclosed dating back just four years, show that Nixon was given a two-year contract from 2014-16 and one-year deals since.

Vince Otoupal, UVU’s athletic director, said Nixon’s contract has been renewed and she will return to coach the 2018-19 season.

After the 2016-17 season ended, Lubcke said she, with two other upperclassmen players, went to Otoupal to discuss their concerns with Nixon regarding favoritism and inconsistency.

Otoupal said there are many factors that go into renewing a head coach’s contract and it is incorrect to say the Mentor Program was the sole motivation to re-sign Nixon.

“Her job as a head coach is to teach and mentor the student-athletes, which includes both on and off the basketball court,” he said.