University of Utah president David Pershing has ordered an independent investigation on allegations of abuse during the tenure of suspended head swimming coach Greg Winslow.
In the wake of a Yahoo! Sports report detailing Winslow's alleged abuse, which ranges from forcing a student-athlete to swim with a long PVC pipe taped to his back to ordering another student-athlete to swim with a mesh bag over her head, Pershing has directed two lawyers – Michael Glazier of Kansas City and Alan Sullivan of Salt Lake City – to lead the investigation.
"This past week, public reports of alleged misconduct by a former swim coach and of the University of Utah's response to those allegations, have called into question the university's processes and our commitment to our student-athletes," Pershing wrote in a statement. "Though I cannot comment on specific allegations, I can state unequivocally that any conduct by a staff member or student that jeopardizes the safety and well-being of any student, will not be tolerated."
The central question of the investigation will be what did university officials know and when did they know it, and the key figure of that question will be athletic director Dr. Chris Hill. Athletic director since 1987, Hill has played a key role in the rise of Utah athletics. He hired Rick Majerus and Urban Meyer, and was instrumental in the university's move to the Pac 12.
While Hill does not oversee the swimming program directly, Yahoo! Sports has obtained several letters addressed to him from students and their parents dating as far back as 2008 detailing allegations of abuse by Winslow. Hill responded to one of those on March 26, 2008, according to a document obtained by Yahoo! Sports.
In an interview with Yahoo! Sports on Monday, Hill would not comment on any emails or letters he may have received or sent to parents.
"I don't want to have something out there that taints what somebody said," Hill said. "I don't want to make a rush to judgment on anything we've done. This is something I want to make sure I get right and people get that right."
In interviews with Yahoo! Sports, current and former swimmers, as well as several of their parents, detailed allegations of extreme training tactics that included ordering student-athletes to swim with a PVC pipe taped to their arms and back. One former swimmer, Lauren Hewson, said she was ordered to swim with a mesh bag over her head. There were multiple accounts of blackouts, one instance of convulsing, and one trip to an emergency room. All of those incidents took place during or prior to 2010, according to multiple sources.
There were also accounts of verbal abuse. In a 2009 letter from Keith Henschen, a doctor at Utah's College of Health, to an assistant director of compliance at the University of Wyoming, Hewson's struggles with Winslow are detailed. "She felt the communication from the coaching staff was negative, humiliating and disrespectful the majority of the time," Henschen wrote. "Incidentally, others on the team expressed to me exactly the same sentiments."
Asked about some of the alleged incidents that have been reported, Hill said, "We've been aware of some things and some things we were not."
Pershing's announcement of an investigation has not tempered the anger of one former swimmer's parents.
"A day late and a dollar short," Suzanne Jurgens, Hewson’s mother, said.
On Monday, she wrote a letter to the NCAA asking "where to turn for help to hold Utah responsible."
"I am sickened in the core of my soul about what has happened to my daughter and the other swimmers who swam under the direction of Coach Winslow at the University of Utah and the fact that Utah did nothing when informed of the horrible situation," Jurgens wrote.
An email to the NCAA from Yahoo! Sports was not immediately returned.
Jurgens isn't the only parent who remains angry.
"It was like [Utah] turned complete control over to Greg, knowing he was doing this stuff," said a mother of a swimmer, who asked to remain anonymous. "They just didn't do anything. There was no support for the kid. I just feel like they completely dropped the ball."
Winslow had been investigated by the university before, late in 2012, which was precipitated by a letter Hill received from Matt Fiascone, the father of a swimmer who was on the team.
Hill said he went to legal counsel and asked for an investigation, which was taken up by the Office of Equal Opportunity. Hill said he has reviewed the report.
Hill said 50 people were interviewed for the OEO report, yet several of the swimmers interviewed for the Yahoo! Sports story said they were not contacted.
"At that time they didn't recommend any disciplinary action," Hill said.
Asked if he was satisfied with the report's conclusions, Hill said, "Satisfied, I don't know if that's the right term. I took the report and proceeded."
In the time since Hill asked for the OEO report, he said he has discovered "new information from other avenues and decided we should do more."
Asked if he had any concerns with the methodology of the OEO report, Hill said, "I'd like to see the other report [ordered by the president] and see what methods they did."
The new report will have to determine whether Winslow did engage in abusive behavior. Asked how he defines that term, Hill said, "It's a fine line. It depends on the situation. But no abuse is acceptable."
Hill pleaded for patience.
"What I want to do is make sure we have a complete thing," Hill said. "I asked the president on Saturday to have an investigation outside the university. He picked two lawyers. They'll go through all this process to find out what we knew, when we knew it, and what corrective actions need to be taken.
"I hope that people give a chance to let everything play out," he continued. "Half a loaf is not what we need right now. I hope people have the confidence that we’re looking at things fully."
Among the questions that remain for Dr. Chris Hill and the investigators:
• When did the athletic department become aware of concerns about Greg Winslow?
• Yahoo! Sports obtained a number of letters from students and parents written directly to Dr. Hill, one dating as far back to Feb. 29, 2008, detailing alleged abusive behavior by Greg Winslow. What, if anything, was done then about these allegations?
• If "the breadth and depth of these allegations are deeply distressing," as Hill stated in a recent press release, why was no formal investigation launched back in 2009 or 2010?
• None of the former student-athletes Yahoo! Sports talked to who were on the team prior to 2012 say they were interviewed for the 2012 investigation. Why weren't they?
• If these allegations are true, how much responsibility does Dr. Chris Hill shoulder for this oversight?
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