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Investigation of Eastern Washington volleyball uncovers series of concerns

Former Eastern Washington University volleyball coach Michael King, shown at home in Spokane on Friday, is selling his house and moving his family to the Portland area. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Former Eastern Washington University volleyball coach Michael King, shown at home in Spokane on Friday, is selling his house and moving his family to the Portland area. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Eastern Washington University volleyball program is in tatters following an investigation into an alleged improper payment to a player that led to fired coaches and showed an ongoing trend of student-athletes abandoning the team.

A university investigator “substantiated” an allegation that head coach Michael King improperly paid $300 to the player. That payment prompted administrators to fire King and newly hired assistant Nathan Fristed.

Both denied any wrongdoing.

But the 105-page investigative report revealed a number of other concerns within the athletic department that had nothing to do with the cash: The program was shedding players at an alarming rate; some players who stayed said they didn’t trust King to be truthful; players told an investigator that administrators “sweep things under the rug.”

Former Eastern volleyball coach Wade Benson laments the state of affairs at his beloved former school, which he led in 2001 to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Administrators “thought (King) was the right leader over the last three years … even though players were leaving five at a time,” Benson said. “I think the questions need to go to them.”

Most of the problems with the program came under the leadership of Athletic Director Bill Chaves, who in January took the same job at the University of North Dakota.

Chaves hired King in 2014 to lead the volleyball program. In three years as head coach, 18 players left the program early while his teams finished no better than third place in the six-team Big Sky North Division. The player losses do not include three more underclassmen who will not return this fall.

Chaves declined to address the problems with EWU volleyball. “I’ve got no comment. None,” he said this week.

Lynn Hickey, recently hired as athletic director, would not discuss the King investigation, saying university policy prevents her from discussing it.

“You don’t talk about personnel issues,” Hickey said. “That’s the best thing for the program and more fair to the people involved.”

For his part, King, 43, answered all questions about the situation and put the blame solely on the player, Jayde Robertsen, whom King accused of taking $300 in cash from a money clip on his desk.

Robertsen was the only player who was not reimbursed by EWU for working a summer camp. The money came out during a discussion of how she eventually would get paid.

“It’s a crappy situation. I do feel she should have got paid for the camp,” King said. “I don’t hide behind it at all. I own it. I never ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ told her to take it.”

One person who hasn’t heard his version of events, King said, is Hickey.

“Lynn was only there a week before this happened,” King said. “I wrote Lynn an email … that I would like to have a conversation. She never once heard my side of the story. She never asked.

“A lot of people in my industry are scratching their heads and they said it sounds like the new AD wanted to do her own thing and get her own people in there.

“That’s just an easy out.”

The cash

Benson and King both explained that many small Division I schools such as Eastern Washington don’t provide scholarships to cover classes for athletes over the summer. However, coaches want their athletes to remain on campus to train in the weight facilities and practice together even though the coaches can’t be present.

One way schools can accomplish that is to have players work camps over the summer. But the players must pay their own way. They then submit the living and travel costs to the university, which is allowed to reimburse them.

Until a few years ago, the camps were only available to sophomores and upperclassmen. However, the NCAA changed its rules to allow coaches to include incoming freshmen, like Robertsen, King said.

King had Robertsen, from Tsawwassen, British Columbia, work the camp but was unaware until told later by administrators that international law required players to be enrolled full time to make them eligible for reimbursement. Therefore, King said he knew that the university could not reimburse Robertsen.

As the only player who didn’t get paid for the camp, Robertsen approached King to find out how she could get the $300 she was owed.

On March 1, King met with Robertsen and Fristed, the assistant coach, in his office. King explained that she had to wait until the next camp to get paid. However, Robertsen told EWU’s Title IX investigator, Jeff Lamoureaux, that King told her that the only way she could get paid is if she “found” the money.

“l don’t want to do anything that will get anyone in trouble or make me feel uncomfortable,” Robertsen said, according to Lamoureaux’s report.

King went outside and shuffled around in his car before returning to his office. He laid $300 cash on the desk.

“I basically took the money out with the money clip, ‘Here you go. I will take care of you,’ ” King said in the interview with The Spokesman-Review. “And, I’ll put this in the camp account and we’ll pay you out of that.”

Robertsen said in the report that both King and Fristed got up from the meeting and left her alone in the room with the cash. Thinking this settled the issue, she grabbed the money and walked out.

But within 15 minutes, Robertsen began to worry that she had done something wrong and alerted assistant coach Diana Villalpando, who in turn alerted compliance administrator Mikayla Brandhorst and Associate Athletic Director Don Ross.

Less than an hour after the cash incident, the player had turned over the money, which was locked in a school safe. But King had not reported it stolen or missing.

The ‘cover-up’

King said that once he discovered the cash missing, he sent Robertsen a text message later that same day explaining that she needed to return it. However, the player denied receiving that text. She later turned her phone over the investigator and it did not list the text as being received.

The next morning, on March 2, King overheard the new athletic director, Hickey, talking on the phone. King and Hickey shared a thin wall between their offices. King said he heard Hickey say the words “problem” and “volleyball player.”

King then called Robertsen’s cellphone. She didn’t pick up. King sent her a text at 9:24 a.m. “Did you get my text?” No reply.

King walked over to the office of Fristed, the assistant coach, and told him he believed that Hickey’s call was about the money “because of the timing of the incident and because (Robertsen) had not responded to his calls or texts,” said the report, which redacted Robertsen’s name.

At about 11:50 a.m., King and Fristed walked down and intercepted the players as they were arriving at the weight room, which some of the players noted was odd because the coaches had never before done that. Fristed said something about a team dinner and then the coaches focused their attention on Robertsen.

“Did you take the money? She said, ‘Yeah,’ ” King said. “I said there is no way. We can’t do that. I need the money back. She said, ‘You need to talk to my dad about that.’ I said, ‘No. I’m talking to you. I’m sorry if you misunderstood me in any way.’ She started to tear up. She said, ‘My dad is on the way.’ ”

The crying Robertsen then went into the weight room where her teammates consoled her and called Brandhorst, the compliance administrator, to report the confrontation.

In the meantime, King and Fristed went to visit Pam Parks, EWU’s senior woman administrator, to tell her about the money issue.

After receiving the players’ call, Brandhorst asked Ross, who remains on the job despite facing an upcoming trial for felony theft of more than $4,000 missing from a raffle, how to proceed. Ross told Brandhorst to also alert Parks.

Parks, who was inducted last fall into the Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Fame, is retiring later this year. She led the Eagles to the NCAA Tournament her last two seasons (1997-98) as volleyball coach. She was King’s superior and the first person who should have been notified of a problem the day before, the report stated.

But when Brandhorst knocked on Parks’ office door at about noon on March 2, King and Fristed were seated inside.

“I asked if I could speak to Pam alone and they left Pam’s office,” Brandhorst told Lamoureaux.

While she didn’t tell Parks all the details behind the money transaction, Brandhorst let Parks know about how the players called and reported a confrontation between the coaches and Robertsen.

Parks and Ross then proceeded to the weight room to discuss the issue with the players, who weren’t in a talking mood.

Robertsen “said she did not feel comfortable discussing what occurred in the presence of Parks due to past incidents,” the report states. She “did not believe Parks was trustworthy and advised them she did not want to speak about what occurred.”

Another player, who also had her name redacted, went even further describing previous interactions with Parks.

“The athletes felt ‘ambushed’ because ‘Pam and Don sweep things under the rug,’ ” the unnamed player said.

Later, when the investigator asked Parks what she knew about the situation, Parks said King and Fristed told her on March 2 that they were trying to figure out a way to pay Robertsen for working the camp, but the conversation was interrupted by Brandhorst.

“Parks said she was unaware of anything that was reported and had not spoken with anyone about it,” Lamoureaux wrote.

But King said he told Parks everything on March 2, including the text Robertsen denied receiving, asking for the money back.

In the report, Lamoureaux wrote that he doubled back to Parks and asked her to clarify what the coaches had told her about details of the money incident.

“Parks changed her statement and said she did not remember the entire details of her meeting with King and Fristed,” Lamoureaux wrote. “Parks added that she thought it was strange that King waited to speak with her until the following day (March 2) to discuss the circumstances instead of reporting it to her immediately.”

Parks did not respond to a phone call this week seeking comment.

The aftermath

Days after the cash incident, Lamoureaux talked to everybody who played a role in it.

He noted that Robertsen’s story never changed between what she told others and that her “actions by immediately reporting what occurred was consistent with someone that believed what occurred was inappropriate and illegal,” Lamoureaux wrote.

Lamoureaux also noted that King and Fristed had known each other since both men were teenagers. “King and Fristed’s loyalty toward each other would be motivation to lie for each other,” he wrote.

King did not immediately report the money missing or stolen and he didn’t notify his superior, Parks, until just before noon the next day.

“It is unlikely anyone, let alone an NCAA coach, would place $300 on a desk and then leave the office at the same time with his assistant coach while a student-athlete is seated inside,” Lamoureaux wrote. “King’s actions would suggest he was reacting to everything that was occurring in an attempt to cover up what happened instead of simply reporting the circumstances to a sports administrator.”

As a result, the investigator found it “more likely than not” that King provided $300 cash to the player just as she described.

King, a married father of two, is left looking for work. He said he’s not sure how his firing will affect his job prospects.

“I want to stay in college coaching. I have some offers to be a volunteer coach in some big programs,” he said. “But I don’t know what’s best for me and my family right now.”

Benson left EWU in 2014 to battle cancer. He returned as an assistant coach under King in 2015 before leaving the program again later that year. He acknowledged that his second stint at Eastern made it difficult for King because Benson had recruited many of the players.

“I hope that (King) has another opportunity with a different set of circumstances, because I know he can coach,” Benson said.

As for the problems that led to King’s firing, Benson said these types of situations happen at every school.

“It’s not great. Nobody is excited about it,” Benson said. “Everybody has to take a little responsibility.”