It took more than a month for Wisconsin-Green Bay to fully evaluate claims that coach Brian Wardle mistreated players, but the university has found that "a good deal of what was alleged did not occur."
As a result, Wardle will not only retain his job but also avoid either a fine or suspension.
What led UWGB to hire an independent investigator to look into Wardle's behavior was a series of alarming accusations by former forward Brennan Cougill and walk-on center Ryan Bross. In a story published last month by the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Bross claimed Wardle called him derogatory and homophobic slurs, interfered with his academic course choices and ran him when he was ill during preseason conditioning to the point where he lost control of his bowels.
The statement UWGB chancellor Tom Harden released Friday mostly defended Wardle's conduct, especially how he handled Bross' illness during preseason drills.
Evidence culled from interviews with more than two dozen individuals suggested Wardle neither forced Bross to keep running even though he wasn't feeling well or humiliated him in front of the team. Harden does acknowledge, however, that "Wardle should have more appropriately sent the player back to the locker room at an earlier point in the drill."
UWGB also largely dismissed Bross' claims that he was prevented from pursuing a certain major because the course load would interfere with basketball. The investigator found that, like all freshmen, Bross' course preferences weren't given the same priority when the team's practice schedule was set as they would have been were he an upperclassmen.
The one area where the school did fault Wardle was the language he used when criticizing his players. Harden said some of Wardle's words were "obscene or vulgar" and he crossed the line encouraging a player to have sex because it would make him better in practice.
"I do not condone the notion, as some have suggested, that Division I basketball “culture” should allow coaches to mistreat players or direct obscene or vulgar language toward them," Harden said.
"There are certain words that are unacceptable — period — and Coach Wardle has acknowledged they are unacceptable. [The] report shows Coach Wardle has, at times, used such unacceptable language in criticism and comments to players,though whether it was specifically directed at particular players remains unclear. Coach Wardle has acknowledged the need to stop using certain offensive words in his dealings with student athletes, and I am confident he will be able to do so."
Since the school essentially found Wardle was only guilty of something numerous coaches do across the country, his punishment is predictably minor. In addition to a disciplinary letter addressing his language being placed in his personnel file, Wardle will not get his usual rollover contract extension and will be assigned an adviser to help him properly motivate players in the future.
Wardle, not surprisingly, was pleased by the outcome.
"I want to stress that I am grateful for the opportunity to represent this University and will continue to build a program of which it can be proud," Wardle said in a statement. "As a head coach it is my responsibility to care for our student athletes as if they were my own children. Their personal development is very important to me. I have done a tremendous amount of reflection and self-examination over the past several months that will help me improve as a coach. I am confident that our players are in a healthy environment where they can reach their academic and athletic potential."
That the independent investigator essentially refuted the worst of the accusations has to be a relief both for Wardle and for UWGB. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the allegations from Bross, in particular, were severe enough that Wardle's job likely would have been in jeopardy were they found true.
Of course, the one question that remains is why Cougill and Bross would concoct or embellish accusations against Wardle.
Maybe other players and coaches covered for Wardle. Maybe the two ex-players simply had an axe to grind. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between. Regardless, hopefully this experience serves as a learning experience for Wardle and his staff and accusations like this don't surface again.