GO, YOU ARE DISMISSED

FOR COACH BILL WESTPHAL, A SMALL LOAN TO A PLAYER ENDED UP AS THIRTY PIECES OF SILVER

Westphal played for the Christian-oriented Athletes in Action team for two years after USC, then went into coaching. He earned a master's degree in education, writing a thesis about the organization of basketball camps.

Before Grand Canyon hired Westphal in April 1988, he had coached for twelve years at two small colleges--Occidental and Western Washington--and for two years as an assistant with the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers. Westphal, his wife Lynne, and their three daughters jumped at the chance to move to the Valley, where his brother Paul was already living.

The Antelopes finished the regular season 26-4 in Westphal's first year, and were seeded first going into the NAIA national tournament. Surprisingly, the team lost its first game there.

After the season, Westphal and his assistants hunted for players to take the place of six seniors. The trio signed eight junior college transfers, each of them a star at his respective school.

Westphal had a message for his 1989-90 team at the first practice last October 15. "Keep it simple," he told them. "Play hard. Have fun."

That was easier said than done. The Antelopes had won only half of their first twelve games when they left Phoenix in late December for a road trip. But the team then somehow turned its season around. The winning record, however, only superficially disguised the problems the Antelopes continued to have.

In the final minutes of a tournament game in Hawaii, for example, Westphal took the very unorthodox step of leaving his team's bench.

"They weren't listening to me," Westphal recalls. "I was mad and I didn't want to explode, so I left and sat a few rows up. We won going away."

The Hawaii trip was also marked by the one-game suspensions of three Antelope players for breaking curfew. ("Bill wanted to kick them off at first, but he got talked out of it," recalls one player, laughing at the memory. "After a few hours, they all prayed together, and he let them back on after a one-game suspension. We had him wrapped around our little finger.")

Grand Canyon was starting to turn its season around. But by now, the administration was firing six-shooters at Westphal because of his lack of control over the troublemakers.

Athletic director and baseball coach Gil Stafford wrote to Westphal in late January about the state of affairs. The letter counseled the coach to "remove players from the team who are the center of the storm." The storm apparently included the Hawaii curfew incident and the perceived lack of team discipline.

Stafford also berated Westphal for not enforcing a team dress code, for leaving the bench during the game in Hawaii and for not having regular office hours. It listed a litany of other complaints.

"They wanted me to boot off several players," Westphal says, "but my manner is to counsel as long as possible. I'm not Bobby Knight; they don't have to salute me. I explained the situation to Gil, and he told me he'd throw the letter away. But they put it in my file anyway."

Stafford, however, says, "I didn't tell him I would throw the letter away." He wrote his letter before Grand Canyon's administration learned about Westphal's $150 loan to player Mike Johnson. It happened a few days after Westphal kicked Mark Dyer off the team. Assistant to the school president Carl Paetz confronted Westphal, telling him, according to Westphal, that Dyer was the source of the information. Dyer declines to talk about it.

Word of the loan sent the school's chiefs through the roof. It also gave them the ammunition they were looking for. On February 5, athletic director Gil Stafford again wrote to Westphal. Stafford said the school wouldn't honor the third year of Westphal's contract, and would decide after the season whether to let him continue coaching there. The letter would sit in Westphal's personnel file, Stafford wrote, but could be removed "upon resolution" of the loan issue.

Despite the strife, Westphal's Antelopes won 19 of their final 23 games. A close loss in the second round of the NAIA national tournament ended the year with an excellent 25-10 record. Then came the infamous drinking bash at the Kansas City hotel.

Bill Westphal was soon history.
"They called me in," he says, "and offered me $10,000 to sign a waiver not to sue and that they could release my personnel records," he says of Grand Canyon's administration. "No way. I'm not the bad guy here."

Even North Phoenix Baptist Church pastor Richard Jackson agrees that the situation was bungled. "I think that everybody could have handled it better," he says. "I mean, Bill's reaction when he says, `I didn't do anything wrong,' and, on the other hand, how the school dealt with the situation, it's just too bad."

BILL WESTPHAL MET privately a few weeks ago with Grand Canyon president Bill Williams in the presence of their respective clergy. (The meeting did not include Jackson.) "The purpose was to air our differences one-on-one, and see if things could be resolved," Westphal says.

They couldn't. Westphal has retained a lawyer, Denver's Arch Decker. Litigation is likely. Westphal says he's looking forward to this summer, when he and brother Paul will run their basketball camp.

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