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Former EWU women’s basketball coach on unlawful termination claim: ‘It hurts my heart’

Former Eastern Washington University basketball coach Wendy Schuller sits in the office of her attorney Alexandria Drake at the firm of Dunn and Black in Spokane on Friday and describes how she was surprised by her firing from her 20-year coaching position at EWU and her legal claim that she was retaliated against for pressing her accusations that her players were abused by other athletes at the university and other complaints. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Former Eastern Washington University basketball coach Wendy Schuller sits in the office of her attorney Alexandria Drake at the firm of Dunn and Black in Spokane on Friday and describes how she was surprised by her firing from her 20-year coaching position at EWU and her legal claim that she was retaliated against for pressing her accusations that her players were abused by other athletes at the university and other complaints. (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Former Eastern Washington University women’s basketball coach Wendy Schuller claims her coaching career has been “destroyed” after she was fired by the university earlier this year.

Schuller, 51, filed a tort claim last month with the state Department of Enterprise Services, alleging she was unlawfully terminated by Athletics Director Lynn Hickey and the university on the basis of her age, gender and for attempting to report allegations of domestic violence and threatening behavior involving university football players, pursuant to Title IX regulations.

State law dictates Schuller must wait at least 60 days after filing to commence a lawsuit. Another claim will be filed to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said attorney Alexandria Drake, Schuller’s legal representative.

EWU declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal matter.

The tort claim alleges Hickey prioritized men’s athletics over women’s through “unequal hiring practices, budgets, athletic care, training and safety resources.” The filing also accuses Hickey of downplaying claims involving threatening behavior exhibited by members of EWU’s football team in an attempt to protect the players.

The claim is seeking no less than $5 million in damages from the state, citing pay disparities, emotional distress and the loss of substantial benefits.

Schuller said she believes Hickey has helped cultivate a hostile and retaliatory work environment within the university’s athletics department that needs to be eliminated.

More importantly, Schuller said, she wants female students and athletes at EWU “to be safer.”

“I want them to feel like when they make a claim, that it’s going to be listened to and it’s not going to be pushed aside because more than anything, as a coach, I felt like a protector of these young women,” she said. “The fact that I reported things and they were really brushed aside as not a big deal just crushes me, and it hurts my heart thinking about what other cases are out there.”

Drake added, “The evidence we’ve seen so far certainly indicates that this is a systemic problem at Eastern and it was not confined to just Coach Schuller’s situation and the women’s basketball team.”

Schuller said she contacted the Dunn & Black law firm soon after her firing, which allegedly took place during a meeting with Hickey on March 31 that Schuller says was scheduled as a performance review.

Since then, Schuller has been unsuccessful in applying to jobs at other universities, according to the claim. She reiterated as much Friday, saying she’s applied to anywhere from 15 to 20 jobs across the country.

“I played college basketball, I coached for 29 years and my dad was my high school basketball coach. This is in my blood,” Schuller said. “It’s a hard thing to just walk away from, and to really just have it snatched away from you is difficult.

“My coaching career has been destroyed,” she added. “It’s been just absolutely destroyed.”

Schuller, hired to coach the Eagles in 2001, was fired with one year left on her contract – something “that sends a very damaging message to other employers in the country, and it has absolutely materially impacted her ability to find alternative employment,” Drake said.

“She did what you’re supposed to do as a coach: She protected the university’s students and athletes,” Drake said. “And in response, the university destroyed a nearly three-decades-long career.”

Schuller was replaced in May by former Seattle University associate head coach Joddie Gleason.

Prior to her time at EWU, Schuller was associate head coach of the women’s basketball team at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Over the course of her coaching career, Schuller typically would have spent this past week scouting prospects from across the country, she said.

“It hurts,” Schuller said Friday. “I’m getting texts from coaches at other schools. I’ve got a lot of great feedback from Pac-12 coaches, (West Coast Conference) coaches, Big Sky coaches who are all honestly in disbelief. They know how hard our situation was and they all thought we did a great job at Eastern.

“I should be in a gym right now.”

Schuller coached the Eagles to a 277-322 record over her 20 seasons, including a 166-169 record in Big Sky Conference play. The Eagles went 6-17 for the 2020-21 season amid disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as quarantines as well as canceled practices and games.

Schuller was looking forward to a bounce-back year, saying she was excited by the team’s recruited and returning talent. By April, after Schuller was fired, Eastern had at least eight players enter the transfer portal, including Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year Maisie Burnham.

“I think about just how much I’m going to miss all of it; just the day-to-day,” Schuller said. “It’s like there’s a black mark on me in the department. Administrators that I had 10-plus-year relationships with, the day I got fired, never spoke to me again. And I had good, good relationships.”

Schuller said she feels lucky to have a strong family and support system as her claim proceeds through the legal process.

She said she is considering other employment avenues – particularly real estate, something she described as a passionate interest. Meanwhile, Schuller said she plans to step up her service as a board member for Joya Child & Family Development, a nonprofit that provides developmental therapy for children up to age 3.

“While I figure out next steps, I didn’t want to just sit and mope. I’ve done some of that for sure,” she said. “Relationships and serving these kids was what made my job special, and I’m just trying to find out a way to fill that little bit of a void that I’ve got by just trying to help people in my community.”

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