IOWA CITY - Longtime Iowa women's field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum tells The Associated Press that her firing was unwarranted and based on false claims by former players that she bullied and mistreated them.
Speaking for the first time since her Aug. 4 firing, Griesbaum said she did nothing to justify the abrupt end of her 14-year tenure leading one of Iowa's most successful women's athletic programs. She denied claims that she created an atmosphere of intimidation that included verbal abuse, bullying and communication problems that caused some players to quit and upset their parents.
"As a veteran coach, if I was terminated because of fear and intimidation, I would say I deserved it. But it's not warranted," she told the AP. "I have conducted myself as an utmost professional every single day of my career. I don't want to cite any specific accusations, but there's a lot of untruths and a lot of fabrications being stirred up by a group of student-athletes who once played here."
Griesbaum, 48, guided the Hawkeyes to Big Ten Tournament championships in 2006, 2007 and 2008, compiling a record of 169-107. Supporters say those achievements are noteworthy given that hockey isn't played in Iowa high schools.
Athletic director Gary Barta fired Griesbaum following an investigation into the program by the school's human resources and diversity offices. The firing was without cause, which required Iowa to pay a $200,000 buyout under a five-year contract signed last year. Barta named Griesbaum's longtime assistant, Lisa Cellucci, the interim coach days before practice began.
Barta said in a statement Monday that the investigation "did not find conclusive evidence of policy violations" but identified concerns that were consistent with the allegations that prompted it.
"After reviewing the outcomes of the inquiry, and following several conversations and careful consideration, I made the decision to make a change in leadership," he said, adding that Griesbaum's teams had "experienced tremendous success."
Barta's decision has sparked criticism from current and former players, parents and even rival programs, who have deluged University of Iowa President Sally Mason and the Board of Regents with letters seeking her reinstatement. Mason has defended the firing.
Griesbaum said the timing was "a disservice" to Cellucci and the players. She's been humbled by the support and calls for reinstatement.
"It's just proof that people who know me know how I behave," she said. "Ideally, I should be on the field right now. I shouldn't be sitting at home in front of my computer."
Education professor Betsy Altmaier, who was a faculty representative to athletics through June 2011, said Griesbaum's firing was deserved. Altmaier said she advocated for one student who complained about being mistreated by Griesbaum; the woman received a settlement requiring the university to pay her tuition after her scholarship was ended.
Parents of two other athletes came forward earlier this year to complain about mistreatment, said Altmaier, who discussed their stories in detail with investigators.
"I talked to them about the team environment being intimidating," she said. "I told them I believed students were unwilling to come forward for fear they would be identified and subsequently retaliated against."
The university has refused to release the investigative report, saying it's confidential. Griesbaum also declined to release the report, calling it incomplete and inaccurate in a letter to Mason.
The team's trainer, Faye Thompson, wrote in a letter to regents that the allegations are false or exaggerated and made by a few "individuals who did not particularly like a style or were uncomfortable with an exacting expectation." Former player Niki Schultheis said she was present for incidents that investigators asked about, telling them the allegations were inaccurate.
"Coaching tips were called bullying," she wrote.
Griesbaum said several players quit during her tenure, but there wasn't "one theme or reason" why.