GO, YOU ARE DISMISSED
PRODUCTION: hit list measure includes five inches for an addition on Monday. Please save that amount of space. The day after Grand Canyon University fired basketball coach Bill Westphal April 5, he met with his team one last time.
Westphal said some parting words and handed each player a copy of the book Classic Christianity. "It compares a rule-oriented, rigid style of Christianity with my view of God--a God that's not looking to zap us when we screw up," he says. "If I erred, I erred on the side of love, and that's okay. But was I that bad that the school felt it had to ruin me?"
Bill Westphal is a member of one of the Valley's most recognizable sports families. His brother Paul is an assistant coach for the Phoenix Suns and a former NBA standout. His own athletic record is outstanding. Bill Westphal's teams at Grand Canyon compiled a sparkling 51-15 record in his two-year stint, earning him NAIA District 7 coach of the year honors both seasons.
But the school unceremoniously dumped the 46-year-old coach after last season. Westphal's firing stunned local sports fans, especially in light of his winning record. It put his head-coaching career in limbo and his professional reputation at peril.
School officials have spoken obliquely of "style" and of the need for "change" as why they won't honor the final year of Westphal's contract of about $35,000 per year. The Pentagon and the Kremlin are more forthcoming than those in charge at the Southern Baptist-affiliated school.
"There are a lot of questions we can't answer because Bill has proceeded with possible litigation," says Grand Canyon athletic director and baseball coach Gil Stafford. "I'll say this: How many rocks does it take to sink a ship? In other words, a lot of things."
Stafford adds, "This could have been handled with grace and style, but we weren't given the opportunity by Bill to handle it that way. Bill is a fine Christian man, and this kind of image wasn't what we wanted."
The official evasiveness has given rise to rampant speculation, even by those close to the situation.
Everyone interviewed by New Times seems to have a different idea of why the school canned Westphal. What emerges is a picture of a somewhat reticent coach sandwiched between an image-obsessed, overreacting university and self-absorbed players who lost respect for him during an unhappy season.
Central to the question of image may be a figure outside the school. Some in Bill Westphal's corner speak of the influence powerful North Phoenix Baptist Church pastor Richard Jackson has on Grand Canyon president Bill Williams. They say Jackson--known privately to some as "King Richard"--didn't like the basketball program's direction under Westphal, although Jackson vehemently denies this.
"Image" was also behind the reaction of Grand Canyon's tight-cheeked czars to a party at a Kansas City hotel after the Antelopes' season ended. Grand Canyon players and their pals from Oral Roberts University charged about $500 in liquor and snacks to several rooms, according to Westphal and the guilty players.
Grand Canyon officials were reportedly infuriated that Westphal didn't boot the offending players off the team. To the school, the incident confirmed that Westphal didn't have control over his players.
Ugly charges of racism also have surfaced in the firing. Some unnamed Grand Canyon boosters have apparently complained about the presence of a predominantly black team on a mostly white campus--eleven of Grand Canyon's fourteen players last season were black.
Those charges come despite the May 9 hiring of Leighton McCrary, a black coach from Arkansas State, to replace Bill Westphal.
At the same time he was struggling last season to placate the administration, Westphal faced an uphill battle with his players. His team angered him so much during one game, he went and sat in the stands.
Despite the team's winning record, a majority of the players on the team don't speak kindly of their former coach. They speak of Westphal's taciturn personality and "negative" coaching style, and claim they won 25 games last year in spite of him.
Unless Grand Canyon is holding a secret ace, however, Bill Westphal's worst sin appears to have been lending a player $150 to pay rent last January. He says the loan was an act of kindness--the love he referred to. But Grand Canyon is making a leap in prestige from the laissez-faire NAIA to the rule-inundated NCAA, and lending money to players is against NCAA rules.
Even people unimpressed with Westphal as a coach express surprise that the school declined to pay him the final year of his contract.
"Bill is not the most dynamic coach in the world, okay," says a longtime Grand Canyon insider. "Maybe he should have been let go after next year. But I was shocked when they fired him and wouldn't pay him. He's a very fine person, he's honest, and he won 51 games in two years. His reputation is kind of ruined, and it didn't have to be."
That damage to Westphal's reputation makes a lawsuit against the school likely, unless something breaks during closed-door discussions that so far have gone nowhere.
Westphal describes himself as a "paranoid ex-coach sitting by the pool wondering what to do with my life. I don't know why I ever wanted to work there, the way they've treated me. A criminal without charges. Gossip and innuendo rule, all in the name of Christianity."
PAUL WESTPHAL IS TRYING to sort out what happened to his brother at Grand Canyon. The former Grand Canyon coach and heir apparent to Phoenix Suns head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons doesn't confine blame to the school's bureaucrats and "a bunch of kids who thought they were superstars." He also raises the possibility that North Phoenix Baptist Church pastor Richard Jackson had a hand in his brother's firing.
"The big feeling when I was there was that Dr. Jackson calls any of the shots he wants," Paul Westphal says. "The school president [Bill Williams] once told me it was very frustrating for him because of the authority North Phoenix Baptist seems to exercise."
Pastor Jackson is a force on many levels: His 20,000-member congregation is one of the largest in the Southwest, and provides Grand Canyon with healthy endowments. Many of the school's top administrators attend North Phoenix Baptist. Bill Westphal, however, attends a small Bible church in Scottsdale.
But Jackson denies he had any involvement in Westphal's demise at Grand Canyon.
"That's an absolute fabrication," Jackson says. "People assume that because our church is supportive that I throw my weight around. I had nothing to do with Bill Westphal's hiring; I had nothing to do with his dismissal."
Paul Westphal, however, recalls something that happened when he was coaching at Grand Canyon. The team was moving its home games during the championship 1987-88 season from its bandbox campus gym to a larger one at North Phoenix Baptist.
"I liked our little bitty gym, and I wanted to have the loudest pep band you ever heard," he says. "I bought the band these black, long-sleeved shirts, and they looked wild. Real jazzy. Everything was fine until we had a game on the Baptist television network.
"We had this heavyset guy playing the national anthem; he had long hair and his shirt was untucked. They had a close-up and he almost looked like a Hell's Angel without tattoos. Word then came to me that North Phoenix wanted its own band, and they would wear ties. When we played our first game there, they did have their own band. Excellent musicians, but they didn't play our fight songs anymore. They played hymns. `Amazing Grace!' That doesn't really stir up the passion for the moment, you know."
That sort of response isn't new to Grand Canyon. In 1979, school officials wouldn't let the baseball team compete in the national tournament after a photo of players hoisting bottles of champagne appeared in a newspaper. "The very existence and purpose of this school is at stake," school president Bill Williams said at the time.
So it's not surprising that the honchos at Grand Canyon were appalled in late March by the Kansas City booze incident, and by Westphal's allegedly tepid response to it. But Westphal says the school fired him before he could discipline the players.
"The administration wanted me to get rid of these `bad guys' who were drinking," Westphal says. "But the guys had stayed in their rooms, and they weren't running through the streets of Kansas City with Grand Canyon sweat shirts on. I'm not a rebel, but I can't get all that shook up by someone having a beer."
The Kansas City incident was the last straw for the strait-laced administration. "People here perceived that Bill's team had too many players one step removed from the streets, and that Westphal wouldn't get rid of them when they caused trouble," says the source, who requested anonymity. "The administration saw the team as being `out of control,' because Bill wasn't a tough guy."
Since almost all the players were black, it's not surprising that race became an issue as well.
"People would say to me, `They have a good team, but they sure have a lot of blacks,'" Paul Westphal says. "Those who want Grand Canyon's team to project a little different, quote, image, somehow got the ear of the people who make the decisions. Some equate black kids to trouble. Things may be very different on the team in a few years as far as the racial mix goes."
Pastor Richard Jackson, however, bristles at Westphal's suggestion.
"It's very unfortunate for Paul to suggest that racism is behind the firing," he says. "Paul is wrong. That cannot be validated in any manner. I think he's just saying that out of frustration."
Paul Westphal also puts his finger on what may have been the school's most important motivation in firing his brother. Grand Canyon's athletic program is joining the NCAA--going big time--and they knew Bill Westphal didn't like the idea.
"Grand Canyon is taking a step they should not be taking in basketball," Paul Westphal says, "and Bill told the world what he thought." The step up in status had been prompted by the school's desire to upgrade its baseball program, and all athletic programs have to belong to the NCAA if one does. Bill Westphal, however, sneered at the idea.
"When the school announced its plans to go NCAA," Paul Westphal recalls, "Bill said publicly, `So, we're going to join the Great Western Hemisphere Conference?'" Westphal was referring to the fact the conference includes teams in such far-flung places as Hawaii and Alaska. "The problem is, basketball is not ready, and they're being dragged along with baseball. Bill was undiplomatic. That didn't go over well."
Bill Westphal also let the world know that NCAA status, prestigious as it would be, might make it difficult for Grand Canyon to continue as a small-college basketball power.
"That's the absolutely worst thing they can do for the basketball program," Paul Westphal explains. "Basketball is virtually committing suicide as far as being a national power by going NCAA. One big thing that's enabled Grand Canyon to get good athletes was the more lenient NAIA rules."
Grand Canyon had long recruited athletes who for various reasons were ineligible to play under NCAA rules. "Last-chance" players such as Rodney Johns, a star on the 1988 championship team recently named an assistant coach at the school, probably won't be coming the Antelopes' way in the future.
"Grand Canyon was Rodney's fourth school in five years or something," Paul Westphal says. "This was his last stop. If we had been an NCAA school, Rodney couldn't have come here. And I wouldn't have coached a championship team."
That said, college administrations usually tolerate undiplomatic coaches who win more than 75 percent of the time. But the well-publicized move into the NCAA may explain why Grand Canyon officials came unglued last season over Bill Westphal's $150 loan to a player.
Westphal describes the loan scenario this way: "Mike [Johnson] owed the money for his apartment. A mix-up between him and two roommates. He didn't have the money, and his scholarship check wasn't coming in for several days. Mike had asked me for a loan a few times, and I'd told him no. Finally, I said, `I'll give you the money. Pay me back when you can.'"
Back-up forward Johnson repaid the loan within days, he and Westphal say.
"The loan was a mistake, but it wasn't done with bad intent," Bill Westphal agrees. "Mike averaged four points a game. He wasn't a kid I was trying to keep happy, as if I'd do that. It was a mistake."
NCAA director of legislative services Rick Evrard tells New Times that lending money to athletes is "a definite no-no." He adds, however, that "lots of things are taken into consideration in any investigation--the school's past record, for example. And whether the incident is isolated or inadvertent." Evrard says he's unfamiliar with the Grand Canyon situation.
To an organization that investigates payoffs of Mercedes-Benzes and trunkloads of cash, a $150 loan would hardly seem a priority. In fact, enforcement sources at the NCAA tell New Times they've never heard of the Grand Canyon incident.
When school officials learned of the loan shortly after it happened--from a disgruntled teammate of Johnson--they didn't fire Westphal on the spot, or report the incident to the NCAA. Instead, for reasons they won't explain, they waited until season's end to dismiss him.
Revelation of the loan stoked a fire at Grand Canyon already threatening Westphal's job. The administration had learned months earlier that Westphal's assistant Scott Mossman had given a recruit a $10 Grand Canyon tee shirt. That's also an NCAA no-no, though hardly the worst violation that's ever been committed.
Westphal says the school advised him to fire Mossman, a junior high teacher who had worked for two years under Paul Westphal before Bill took over.
"Bill asked me what had happened," says Mossman. "I told him the truth, that I'd taken a recruit to a store in Metrocenter because our bookstore was closed, and that I'd bought the kid a tee shirt because he didn't have any money. It was a stupid thing to do, and I haven't done it before or since. Bill backed me."
Mossman says Grand Canyon put him on probation, "and then six months later they said I was on my own again. What gets me is that now, they tell Bill that one reason they fired him is because of the tee shirt. It just flabbergasts me. Bill Westphal did not deserve this."
IT'S A SCENE reminiscent of a 1940s Hollywood college movie. Idyllic campus at sunset, clean-cut Baptists strolling on the well-trimmed lawns, on their way to Bible study.
Hundreds of Grand Canyon's 1,700 students live in apartments on the lovely campus, located at 33rd Avenue and Camelback. They include members of Grand Canyon's basketball team. On a balmy, early May evening, several players sit in a living room and discuss their season. This articulate group, all black, is quite pleased Bill Westphal lost his job.
To a man, they reject Paul Westphal's comments about a possible racial motivation to Bill Westphal's firing. As for the "racial mix" on next year's team, at least, the players say the school has asked all of them to return.
"I thought Bill deserved to be fired, and it has nothing to do with race," says Darryl Williford, the team's senior captain. Most of the players' complaints about Westphal center around their lack of playing time and to his sometimes laconic approach to coaching.
The 24-year-old Williford transferred to Grand Canyon two seasons ago from Glendale Community College, where he broke several Arizona junior college scoring records. After a productive junior season, Williford averaged just 5.5 points a game last season. He blames his disappointing output on Bill Westphal.
"Bill told me I would be The Man as a senior, and that's what I was living for," Williford says. "He wouldn't give me a chance."
Andre Edwards, a junior from Los Angeles, is one of the "bad boy" players that the Grand Canyon administration was reportedly unhappy with. "Bill's problem was that we had twelve guys playing twelve minutes each," says the outgoing Edwards. "He tried to make everybody happy, and that didn't work. I was shooting with one eye on the basket and one eye on the bench."
Each of the players expects increased playing time next year. With practically the whole squad returning, however, that's highly unlikely. But the players are looking forward to life without Westphal.
"Off the court, he's a heck of a guy. But he didn't stick with us through thick and thin," says Williford. "He said in public that we were stupid. He only would give us negative reinforcement. It's hard to believe in yourself when he's always pulling you down."
"This is a big-name school on the NAIA level, and I was happy to be here," says Anthony Steward, Grand Canyon's leading scorer last season. "But it got crazy. Nobody knew where they stood with Bill. He didn't communicate."
Westphal says it was a white benchwarmer, not these black kids, who really had it in for him. Junior guard Mark Dyer apparently tipped the administration off about Westphal's $150 loan to Mike Johnson. Dyer was a scrub player who had scored only five points all season. Westphal kicked Dyer off the team in late January, during a tumultuous time in Grand Canyon's season.
Again, it all began with a disagreement over playing time.
"It's hard to figure," Westphal says. "We had given Mark a $1,000 scholarship so he could travel to the Hawaii tournament with us as a reward for being at practice every day. When we got back home, he started getting mouthy. Stuff like, `I'd be NAIA All-American anywhere else. Give me more time.' I was trying to focus on getting this team into gear. Finally, I told him to go shower and call it a year. He told me--probably out of frustration and immaturity--`I'll get you. I'll have you fired. You don't play me because I'm white.' I said, `I don't play you because you're no good.' And then he ran to the administration about how bad I was."
Dyer, naturally, has a different story:
"I never said anything about him not liking whites, or about getting him fired. That's ridiculous. People on the bench usually want to play a little bit more, and so did I. He never did give me a reason why he kicked me off. I'm pretty soft-spoken and I don't go around blaming others. But I think instead of blaming everyone else, Bill should look inside himself. He got himself fired."
The ambivalence some of Westphal's former team members feel toward him is shown by the reaction of Mike Johnson, the recipient of the $150 loan.
"It's hard for me to talk about this," he says. "My parents aren't rich, and I don't have any money. But it was against the rules and he probably shouldn't have done it."
Things were so bad, by the time Westphal was planning to discipline the players who had boozed it up in Kansas City, one of them told him, "Why are you gonna bother punishing us? You're gonna get fired anyway."
BILL WESTPHAL IS WEIGHING his options. He's a trim, lanky guy whose habitually worried expression clashes with his easy sense of humor. He tries to mask his bitterness with small jokes.
"Hmm, let's see," Westphal says. "Should I mow the lawn first, or should I go to my daughter's recital? Decisions, decisions."
He's wearing shorts and a tee shirt from the summer basketball camp he runs every year with his brother. Somewhat introverted by nature, Westphal is uncomfortable talking about all this. But his reputation has been "terribly dirtied," Westphal says, and he wants to set things straight.
"I look at last year as one of my better coaching jobs," he starts. A high school basketball star in the Los Angeles area, Westphal earned a scholarship in the early 1960s to the University of Southern California. His coach was Forrest Twogood, a veteran nearing retirement. Westphal and several other players became disgruntled with Twogood's coaching style.
"Some of us were thinking of trying to get Forest fired," Westphal says. "He had lost touch. But the older and wiser seniors said, `Let's think about this a minute,' and things calmed down."
He is able to smile about the obvious parallel between his time at USC and the turbulent past year at Grand Canyon.
"We had eight new players, and they all assumed they were going to start," he says. "Most of them had false expectations based on excessive opinions of themselves. These players didn't realize that I knew what they were going through."
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.
"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.
"This has been very rough on me and my family," he says. "I'm still waiting to hear a good reason why I shouldn't be coaching. Haven't heard one yet."
One of the players told the coach, "Why are you gonna bother punishing us? You're gonna get fired anyway."
For an organization that investigates payoffs of Mercedes-Benzes and trunkloads of cash, a $150 loan would hardly seem a priority.
"I'm not a rebel, but I can't get all that shook up by someone having a beer," Westphal says.
"We had him wrapped around our little finger," one player says.
"Excellent musicians, but they didn't play our fight songs anymore. They played hymns."
"I'm a criminal without charges. Gossip and innuendo rule, all in the name of Christianity.
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