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."